Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Undocumented migration: Egyptian evidence of a long-term wage penalty

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Does the legal status of temporary migrants have an impact on their earnings potential when they return to their home countries? This column reports research on Egyptians who have worked as undocumented labourers, often in Gulf countries. The results indicate that undocumented migrants experience a wage penalty compared with documented migrants on returning to Egypt.

In a nutshell

Ignoring the legal status of temporary migrant workers and its impact on their accumulation of human capital and future earnings potential is likely to lead to erroneous policies.

Evidence from Egypt indicates that undocumented migrants have lower-ranked occupations, lower earnings and lower savings while they are overseas.

Undocumented migration has a long-term negative impact on migrants even after they return to their countries of origin.

The rise in unauthorised migration in recent years has reignited public interest in immigration and its effects. It has also brought debate on the relationship between migration and economic development to the forefront. In a study co-authored with Jackline Wahba, we examine the long-term penalty of undocumented Egyptian migration.

Egypt has been a significant labour sending country since the 1970s. Although the largest boost to migration flows occurred after the 1973 war, when oil revenues quadrupled and Gulf countries started implementing major development programmes, Egypt has continued to experience regular outflows of its workers. To a large extent this has been triggered by labour shortages in the oil-producing countries of the Gulf and the increased demand for temporary foreign labour.

The majority of Egyptian migrants have gone to neighbouring countries: both to oil-exporting Arab countries (the Gulf states, Iraq and Libya) and to non-oil-exporting Arab countries (Jordan and Lebanon) to replace nationals of those countries who migrated to the Gulf. A small proportion of Egyptian migration is permanent in nature and destined for Australia and North America.

More recently, irregular sojourn and labour have become increasingly frequent among Egyptian migrants. Irregular Egyptian migrant flows to Europe, especially to Italy and France, have increased considerably in recent years, in the context of the post-revolutionary economic downturn. In addition, many Egyptians work as undocumented labourers in Gulf countries, which constitute a major destination for Egyptian migrants.

Research on the determinants and effects of migration on the countries of origin is not new. But these studies typically ignore one important dimension of migration: the legal status of migrants.

Although there is a substantial body of work on undocumented migration, the focus has always been on the impact of illegality on migrants relative to natives in the host country. But there have been few studies examining the impact on the origin country, which can be particularly important since many illegal migrants return, either because they are deported or because they planned on temporary migration all along.

Our research examines the long-term impact of the legal status of overseas temporary migrants. It studies the impact of return migration on the wage premium in Egypt, by disentangling the effects of legal versus illegal status of migrants.

We ask whether undocumented temporary migration has any impact on migrants’ human capital accumulation that persists after return. Temporary migrants might acquire skills due to their work experience abroad and hence earn higher wages compared with stayers on return. But whether all migrants, documented and undocumented, benefit from their migration experiences on return, is not straightforward.

On the one hand, if illegal status hinders the accumulation of human capital of undocumented migrants, the well-evidenced wage premium experienced by migrants on return might be contested, and we might expect that only documented migrants would benefit from their migration experiences.

On the other hand, the origin country’s labour market might remunerate the migration experience disregarding the documented or undocumented nature of migration. In other words, if the latter scenario applies, through a signalling mechanism, all migrants would benefit from their experience overseas, unconditional on the nature of migration and/or on the human capital accumulated abroad.

Analysing data from the Egypt Labour Market Panel Survey in 2012 and accounting for the selection into temporary migration and into the legal status of migrants, we estimate the effect of overseas illegal status on wages after return. We find that undocumented migrants experience a wage penalty compared with documented migrants on return.

Our results also suggest that there is neither a wage penalty nor a wage premium for undocumented migrants compared to stayers. We also find suggestive evidence that undocumented migrants have lower-ranked occupations, lower earnings and lower savings while they are overseas.

Our results contest the positive wage premium found in previous research, suggesting that it is conditional on the type of migration undertaken. More importantly, our findings are the first to show the long-term negative impact of undocumented migration on migrants even after returning to their countries of origin.

This research has important implications. Understanding the impacts of undocumented migration on the migrant and the origin country is paramount. Indeed, it is important to examine the potential costs and penalties of unauthorised overseas work and migration.

Furthermore, our study shows that the impact of temporary migration might depend on the legal status of migrants. Hence, ignoring the legal status of migration and its impact is likely to lead to erroneous policies.

Further reading

El-Mallakh, Nelly, and Jackline Wahba (2017) ‘Return Migrants and the Wage Premium: Does the Legal Status of Migrants Matter?’ by ERF Working Paper No. 1133.

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