Background and Scope of the Project


Millions of people across the globe each year leave their homes and travel to distant countries for employment purposes. The number of migrants crossing borders in search of financial opportunity and human security is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decades. The world community needs to develop the skills, resources, and policies for better managing labor migration, so that it can contribute positively to the growth and development of both home and host societies, as well as ensure the well-being of the migrants themselves.

In order to better facilitate this process, it is imperative that relevant scholarship is encouraged and supported.

Academic research on migrant labor has largely focused on understanding the structure and drivers of migration, but has not always been particularly policy relevant. Due to the unprecedented increase in the mobility of people over the last decade however, this is changing, and the development of a sound migration policy and establishing the tools and structure for managing migrant labor is now a major focus in many countries. This is particularly relevant to the Gulf region which has had an unprecedented influx of foreign labor over the past few decades.

Fixed-term non-permanent migration from under-developed regions to regions going through a development boom, can offer people the chance to sell their labor at a significantly higher rate than what is obtainable in their home countries, acquire new skills and experience in the process, and, hopefully, exit from poverty as a result. Current policy and institutional structures however, allow neither the sending country nor the receiving one to maximize the benefits from transnational labor migration. In addition, the mechanisms to protect the quality of life, comfort, and security of the individuals who migrate for employment are often absent or ineffective.

Governments from both countries of origin and destination are increasing their regulatory capacities for governance of labor mobility to the mutual benefit of society, migrants, and the state. Many are increasingly turning to international and regional organizations for expert support in formulating effective labor migration policies.

Through the Migrant Labor in the Gulf initiative, CIRS seeks to contribute to the ongoing dialogue and to address the existing gaps in scholarship and policy formulation. The main objective of the initiative is to add to the existing discourse new and original, previously unstudied aspects of migrant labor in the Gulf region.

There seems to be a general consensus in recognizing the mutual benefits of legal migration. Those who sell their labor overseas may escape poverty and unemployment at home, and those in rapidly developing societies that lack adequate numbers amongst their indigenous populations may meet the growing labor demands. Those who are engaged in policy deliberations on the issue of migrant labor in the GCC are looking at developing effective labor migration policies in sending and receiving countries; reducing irregular migration and human trafficking; improving the management mechanisms at different stages of the contractual labor period from pre-deployment to repatriation; and promoting fair and humane treatment of migrants through the exchange of good practices and innovative approaches. What has so far remained out of the mainstream dialogue is whether the practice of temporary migration from the South to the North, or from the poor South to the rich South is a natural and positive part of globalization or merely a necessary evil. There has been a contention amongst those studying the sociological and anthropological impact of migrant labor, that the migration of labor is a disturbance of the natural balance which will have long-term, unforeseen and, potentially, harmful consequences on both the host and sending nations. The research initiative being supported by CIRS aims to explore some of the issues around this debate. 

Areas which need to be addressed through this research initiative

  1. Strengthening the statistical knowledge pool on migration in this region by encouraging greater research into the topic, specifically for the GCC region where research has to date been limited, and insisting on primary data collection as part of the research proposals
  2. Stimulating stakeholder dialogue on the subject of migration, poverty and development through multi and cross-sectoral approaches
  3. Considering potential strategies for integrating academic findings into instruments of policy development and institutional change in both host and sending countries, to ensure social protection measures for poor and vulnerable migrants especially women, girls, children and ethnic minorities
  4. Further contributing study to the development of efficient remittance mechanisms and also productive uses for remittances through the establishment of ‘remittances for development’ community based entities.  

Emerging themes to consider

  • Economic and environmental reasons for migration both in countries sending migrant labor and those receiving/requiring it: push and pull factors
  • Sustainability issues: how effective a tool is migrant labor in terms of development goals, poverty reduction and fiscal planning for those countries actively assisting and promoting the migration of their nationals.
  • Legitimate or illegitimate concerns of the GCC host countries: fears and vulnerabilities of hosting such high percentages of nonresident workers; concerns that increased workers’ rights will lead to mobilization of trade unions which may start becoming active in local civic society and creating disturbing social consequences for the host countries; concern that workers who stay for extended periods of time may be trying to become eligible for citizenship rights.
  • International legal framework for the protection of migrant workers is nonbinding, and in GCC modalities for applying it must be developed
  • Migration policies in countries of origin also need to be looked at to see how effectively they are protecting migrant laborers, regulating labor and ensuring a positive development outcome through the export of their people
  • Labor migration policies in destination countries; regulating labor migration, protecting migrant workers and ensuring social cohesion
  • Gender sensitive labor migration policies; one of the most marginalized groups are female domestic workers and require special focus and attention
  • International co-operation to promote legal labor migration and reduce irregular migration
  • Labor migration, employment and development intersections  

Purposes of the CIRS Working Group on Migrant Labor in the Gulf 

  1. Create a closed forum to present the various avenues of research that awardees are undertaking;
  2. Review the main themes in migrant labor and how they impact on this region of the world;
  3. Facilitate sharing of participants concerns and experiences;
  4. Encourage dialogue and co-operative networking among practitioners, academics and activists;
  5. Provide avenues for the publication and dissemination of main conclusions arising out of the research and focused discussion sessions;
  6. share the findings with policymakers, practitioners, government organizations, NGOs and international bodies.  


Participants in the CIRS initiative will include the grant awardees, many of whom are recognized experts in the field of migrant labor. The awardees will be asked to discuss their primary areas of research and put forward their findings to the group. In addition, relevant specialists from international organizations, NGOs, and academic research institutes will be invited act as discussants.


Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Mobility, Displacement, and Forced Migration in the Middle East.”


Article by Zahra Babar, CIRS Project Manager