Baby boom pushes Egyptians to migrate

Baby boom pushes Egyptians to migrate
With rampant population growth and a population of 95 million, many Egyptians are leaving in search of opportunities, writes Jo Schietti.
6 min read
22 January, 2018
At least 20 million people live in Cairo's metropolitan area [Getty]
​At the beginning of October, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the rapid growth of Egypt's population would become the major challenge confronting the country.

Ismail was speaking just days after the latest demographics were released by Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). Based on the census, Egypt's population hit 104.2 million, 94.98 million of whom reside within the country while 9.4 million live abroad.

The population is projected to reach 128 million by 2030.

With a total fertility rate of 3.5 children per woman -significantly higher than the world average - and untenable growth rates recorded for decades, overpopulation in Egypt poses a serious threat to the country's development. Its economy is growing at less than 4 percent a year which is not enough to keep up with the booming population.

"The main cause of the problems connected with overpopulation in Egypt is the inconsistency between economic growth and population growth," said Amal Fouad, head of the central administration of population and social research studies at CAPMAS. 

"The economy should grow at a rate that at least triples that of the population [growth]."

Fouad pointed to extremely uneven distribution, and low living standards as the underlying dimensions that fuel Egypt's population problem.

Egypt's human development index ranks at 112 - where one is the highest and 188 is the lowest - according to UNDP data from 2015. About 14.3 million Egyptians, or 20.1 percent of the population, are illiterate - 14.4 ercent of all males and 26 percent of all females cannot read or write.

In rural areas, illiteracy rates reach 17.7 percent for males and 32.9 percent for females.

Around 30 percent of the population falls below the poverty line, with southern Egypt experiencing poverty at a far higher level than that of northern Egypt. Many families, especially in poorer households, tend to have a large number of children to care for. A significant number of poor Egyptians live in informal, overcrowded housing, with limited food supplies, and inadequate access to clean water, quality health care or education.

Add to that the high unemployment levels - standing at nearly 12 percent of the total workforce of around 29.5 million, with approximately 3.5 million jobless people - 79.5 percent of them are youths - witnessing only a "limited decrease" in the third quarter of 2017.

The CAPMAS statistics agency also stated that unemployment among men reached 8.2 percent versus 24.4 percent among women. A large proportion of people are employed in the informal sector, working without contracts, or social insurance, and under poor terms.

In less than 15 years Egypt's population will probably exceed 130 million the job market does not meet the work demand

The accelerating population has a critical impact on the state's resources, hindering the government's capability to satisfy the needs of the populace. The issue is aggravated by the fact that the Egyptian state already struggles with delivering basic public services such as quality education, healthcare and housing.

With population figures rising swiftly, no sign of economic recovery and little work prospects in their homeland, huge numbers of Egyptians are forced to migrate, to find jobs or to improve their living conditions.

"In less than 15 years, Egypt's population will probably exceed 130 million," noted Zeinab Sabet, National Programme Officer at the IOM's Egypt office. "The job market does not meet the work demand. In the coming years, the meagre economic growth will not make enough jobs available, or accommodate the internal labour force."

Tara Brian, research officer at IOM's regional office for the Middle East and North Africa, acknowledged there was a correlation between population growth and migration.

"Egypt's labour market cannot provide employment for the large young population; the growing demography is putting pressure on Egyptians, as such many are driven to leave the country to find livelihood solutions," the researcher said.

The Egypt Household International Migration Survey (EGYPT-HIMS) of 2013 conducted by CAPMAS together with IOM and other agencies suggested that larger household size increases the probability that a household member emigrates and remains abroad. It is more likely, it would seem, that someone from a large family has the desire to migrate. It may also point to the fact that migration is a decision made by households to diversify their income sources and potentially increase household well-being.

Findings in the 2016 EGYPT-HIMS showed that about 87 percent of Egyptian migrants leave for economic reasons. Around 40 percent of Egyptian migrant labour is based in Saudi Arabia, which stands out as the leading destination, followed by Libya (21.2 percent), Kuwait (13.5 percent) and other Gulf states.

Europe and North America account for much smaller percentages. Top European destinations include Italy, France and Germany. The study also revealed that two thirds of Egyptian migrants, of whom 98 percent are male, are aged between 25 and 44.

"There's been a shift in the migration trend of Egyptian nationals since the 2011 revolution," observed Dr Heba El Laithy, professor of statistics at Cairo University. "Today, workers, not just educated people, go abroad. A lot of them live outside Egypt for long periods, or for good."

In some cases, Egyptians choose a destination such as Libya to look for work in spite of the danger. Some decide to stay there, others return home because of the security situa­tion, and a number among the returnees go back again to Libya after searching in vain for a job in Egypt.

Although the Egyptian foreign ministry has repeatedly warned Egyptians not to travel to Libya, and Egypt has increased surveillance along the border to pre­vent nationals from crossing into Libya, desperate Egyptians continue to cross the border.

That said, there were around three million Egyptians in Libya before the 2011 uprising ousted Muammar Gaddafi, and just one million Egyptians working there now, according to the Egyptian labour ministry.

"It's very unfortunate that many are ready to risk their lives for a work opportunity in Libya because there are no prospects making them stay," commented Dr El Laithy, who is also working as a consultant on poverty analysis for CAPMAS.

Increasing job opportunities in Egypt is more important than strong travel warnings or tougher measures from border guards to prevent people from crossing into Libya, according to economists in Cairo.

Facilitating labour mobility of Egyptians can help them find work here or in other countries

Enabling access to economic opportunities inside and outside Egypt is one possible way to encourage citizens to either stay in the country or move abroad through legal channels. 

"Facilitating labour mobility of Egyptians can help them find work here or in other countries," argued Sabet, who works at IOM Egypt's labour mobility and human development division. "That can also prevent irregular migration."

El Laithy argued for increasing employability, through micro-finance, for example, saying that stopping people from migrating or sending them back home was not a sustainable solution.

"We need economic growth that generates employment, and we need to target labour-intensive sectors to create jobs. It will result in slow growth in the short run, but it will be beneficial in the medium-term," she said.

Improving the quality of education, in her view, should become the first priority expenditure on the public budget with a view to reduce the high fertility rate and contain the rising population.  

The statistician added that accessibility to information on available jobs was another issue the government was expected to address, as unskilled workers generally rely on limited information, mainly through informal networks, especially in villages and within small communities.

While the Egyptian government recognises the population boom is a pressing problem, the ongoing stagnation of the economy and the bleakness of prospects are pushing many Egyptians away from home in search for a better future as the demographic growth hits unsustainable levels.

Although the government has launched development and infra­structure projects that aim to in­crease employment opportunities, more efforts are needed to retain citizens in their country.

Unless deep-seated unemployment and economic deterioration are solidly resolved, more people will be looking to migrate or even take unsafe journeys. Egypt's ability to balance its spiralling population increase along with providing jobs and the necessary public services is remain the critical question. 

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