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Despair among Arab youth poses a major challenge for governments

Many youths are choosing legal immigration as a means to pursue higher education abroad and secure better job opportunities. (AFP)
Many youths are choosing legal immigration as a means to pursue higher education abroad and secure better job opportunities. (AFP)
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16 Aug 2023 01:08:34 GMT9
16 Aug 2023 01:08:34 GMT9

Arab youth in the Levant and North Africa are in a state of despair, a potentially dangerous phenomenon that could result in the most pressing challenge their home nations face in the near future.

According to a recent Arab Youth Survey conducted by the communications agency ASDA’A BCW, over half of Arab youth in the two regions say they are actively trying to leave, or are considering leaving, their country in search of better opportunities. The desire to emigrate is strongest among young men and women in the Levant at 53 percent, followed by North Africa at 48 percent.

This is not the first survey carried out in the past six years or more to have yielded such grim results. A poll by the same organization in 2020 found that almost half of young Arabs had thought about leaving, rising to 63 percent in the Levant. A 2019 survey by BBC Arabic found that more than half of young people in much of the Arab world would like to leave their home countries. This is in contrast to responses by youth in GCC countries, where just over a quarter said they had considered migrating, while most said they would “never leave their country.”

With an average unemployment rate among youth in the MENA region hovering at around 25 percent, one of the highest in the world, it is important to note that men and women under the age of 25 make up about 60 percent of the population. The primary motivation for emigrating is to seek jobs, but there are other reasons, such as political turmoil as a result of conflict, high cost of living, and economic stagnation.

The MENA region has been rocked by a series of challenges, starting with the political, social and economic tumults brought about by the Arab Spring, the ravages of Daesh later on, and the economic reverberations of the COVID-19 lockdowns. Most countries have yet to recover economically and the goal remains elusive, held back by poor leadership, rampant corruption and widespread economic failure, as well as external conditions such as climate change. These are definite push factors.

According to the Arab Youth Survey, 77 percent of all Arab youth said there was corruption in their country, while 72 percent said they felt it was more difficult to find a job. The highest numbers of young people saying it was hard to find employment were in Lebanon (91 percent) and Jordan (90 percent).

Many youths from the Levant and North Africa choose legal immigration as a means to pursue higher education abroad or secure better job opportunities

Osama Al-Sharif

It is no wonder that countries in the Levant and North Africa are seeing a surge in illegal and legal emigration rates, with the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and New Zealand being the most favored for legal migration. And while North African states traditionally have been transit countries for illegal migrants, mainly from West and sub-Saharan Africa, looking to head to Europe, an increasing number of North Africans are now willing to attempt the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

These young Arabs now face risks, including human trafficking, exploitation, dangerous sea crossings, and arrest or deportation when caught by authorities. Meanwhile, many youths from the Levant and North Africa choose legal immigration as a means to pursue higher education abroad or secure better job opportunities. Italy and Germany, facing declining populations and workforce shortages, now issue thousands of work visas annually to young and skilled Arabs from the MENA region.

While some experts see an economic value in emigration, such as a rise in the inflow of remittances, the trend can have a negative effect on countries of origin, resulting in “brain drain” and loss of skilled workforce, which can hinder economic growth and development.

More important, perhaps, is the fact that those wishing to emigrate but unable to can become increasingly frustrated and angry, fueling mass protests in their countries. Youth unemployment is the most serious challenge any political leader can face and one should never forget the lessons of the Arab Spring.

The real and sustainable value of youth emigration can be realized only if these young emigrants are lured back to their own countries after having been exposed to different economies, cultures, ideas and opportunities. Experiences and skills gained during migration can positively influence local economies through the creation of new ventures, job opportunities and knowledge transfer. So far, no country in North Africa and the Levant has managed to create enough incentives to encourage its native sons and daughters to return — not while high unemployment and perceived corruption remain.

Things may be getting worse for some countries. The International Organization for Migration counted almost 22,000 Egyptian migrants arriving in Europe last year, mostly by sea, a notable increase from previous years when Egyptians were not among the top nationalities seeking asylum in EU countries.

Last year’s figure pushed Egypt to the top, overtaking illegal migration from every other nation, including Afghanistan and war-torn Syria. While the causes that push young Arabs to migrate are known, solutions must be found to stop the hemorrhage that is costing lives and draining economies.

Unfortunately, there is no magic solution at hand. But a path to recovery is suggested by the same sample of Arab youth surveyed, with more than eight in 10 (85 percent) saying that Arab countries must uphold universal values, such as freedom, equality and respect for human rights. That sentiment was shared by most young Arabs in all the three regions covered — 91 percent in North Africa, and 81 percent each in the GCC and Levant.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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