Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Self-selection of emigrants by cultural traits: MENA evidence

What are the relationships between people’s cultural traits and their aspirations to emigrate? This column explores whether emigrants from countries in the Middle East and North Africa self-select on the basis of their religiosity and their attitudes towards women’s rights – two cultural traits that are correlated with economic outcomes and on which there are considerable contrasts within the MENA region.

In a nutshell

Individuals in MENA countries who intend to emigrate to high-income countries exhibit significantly lower levels of religiosity than the rest of the population.

Individuals who intend to emigrate to high-income countries share more gender-egalitarian views, although this effect holds only among the young (aged 15 to 30), among single women and in countries with a Sunni minority.

For countries most affected by the Arab Spring, the intensity of cultural selection of emigrants has decreased since 2011.

The Gallup World Poll (GWP) collects data on migration aspirations, cultural traits and other individual characteristics. In our research on the relationships between traits and aspirations, we focus on 17 MENA countries in which Gallup conducted at least one wave of its survey between 2007 and 2016. Our sample consists of Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Chad, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

The GWP includes several questions that capture respondents’ migration aspirations, preferred destination choices and whether they have concrete plans to migrate. As previous research has shown, we find that migration aspirations are correlated with actual migration flows. Hence, patterns of migration aspirations are likely to be similar to patterns of actual migration.

The average share of aspiring migrants in our sample is around 24%. Syria has the largest share of aspiring migrants with over 35%. Algeria and Jordan come next with a little under 30%. Azerbaijan, Chad and Niger have the smallest shares with around 20%.

There is large variation in destination choices. Due to cultural proximity and network effects, former colonial ties still affect the preferred destination of aspiring migrants. On average, 52% of aspiring migrants would like to migrate to an OECD country, rising to close to 90% in Algeria and Morocco; it is 10-13% in Niger and Yemen.

Development, religiosity and gender-egalitarian attitudes

Our preliminary explorations with the data indicate that the level of development is highly correlated with religiosity and gender-egalitarian attitudes, in line with previous evidence on culture and economic growth. The strong relationship between economic development and religiosity and gender-egalitarian attitudes is the main reason we focus on these two cultural traits.

Of the countries in our sample, Azerbaijan and Lebanon are the most progressive in terms of gender-egalitarian attitudes. This is probably due to the fact that Azerbaijan has a Soviet legacy and a high adult literacy rate, and that Lebanon has about 44% of Christians and is a pluri-confessional society.

Azerbaijan, Iran and Tunisia are the least religious countries in our sample. Sub-Saharan African countries – Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – have high levels of religiosity. And countries with a greater share of Shiites are less religious than Sunni countries.

Effects of cultural traits on migration aspirations

Our main aim is to analyse the determinants of migration aspirations and whether these aspirations are affected by cultural traits. In line with previous evidence, we find that aspirations are higher for young, single men, with higher education, with lower level of income per household member, and who have friends or relatives abroad.

The aspiring migrants in general, and those who have concrete migration plans to migrate in particular, are culturally selected. This self-selection on the basis of cultural traits depends on the type of preferred destination.

Intended migrants to high-income OECD countries exhibit lower level of religiosity. This result is robust across gender, age groups and education levels.

As far as attitudes toward women’s rights are concerned, aspiring migrants towards high-income OECD countries have more gender-egalitarian views when they are between 15 and 30 years old, when they are single women or when they originate from countries with a Sunni minority.

We also explore whether the link between religiosity and migration has been affected by the Arab Spring since 2011.The political instability and the rise of authoritarianism that characterise the post-Arab Spring period (sometimes referred to as the Arab Winter) may have affected the process of cultural selection of aspiring migrants.

We distinguish between the full sample of MENA countries, the countries that were strongly affected by the Arab Spring and the other countries. In all our specifications, selection by religiosity is always positive and significant.

But while the Arab Spring has not changed the intensity of cultural selection in the less affected countries, it has drastically reduced it in the countries strongly affected by the Arab Spring. In these countries, the Arab Spring has decreased the relative cultural selection of aspiring migrants.

Implications for origin and destination countries

Our results have implications for both origin (home) and destination (host) countries. From the viewpoint of destination countries, selection on religiosity and gender-egalitarian attitudes implies that cultural distance between migrants and host-country citizens is smaller than that between the countries’ overall populations.

On the one hand, existing empirical studies suggest that smaller cultural distance facilitates immigrants’ economic and socio-demographic outcomes at destination. As a result, it will influence opinions about immigration and migrants’ capacity to assimilate. As far as public opinion is concerned, selective migration from the MENA region to high-income countries should be less of a concern for the latter. Informing public opinion about this might influence attitudes toward immigration and discrimination.

On the other hand, a key finding of our analysis is that the aggregate effect of cultural selection should not be overestimated.

Another important finding is that the Arab Spring decreased the strength of cultural selection. This suggests that conflict and political turmoil in developing countries are likely to increase not only migration pressures to OECD countries but also the average cultural distance between immigrants and host-country citizens.

Migration peaks and cultural distance are two sources of tension and negative attitudes toward immigrants in OECD countries. Hence, we see cultural selection as another argument to justify coordinated interventions to bring peace, security and stability in countries at risk.

Finally, from the viewpoint of the home country, the selection patterns documented in our analysis might imply that the distribution of cultural traits in the population left behind skews toward more religiosity and less gender-egalitarian attitudes. More conservative societies could have adverse implications for development, speed of technological adoption and advancement, institutional innovations, modernisation and democracy.

On this basis, it could be argued that emigration to OECD countries in particular should be discouraged if home-country governments hope to achieve higher levels of economic development.

But our results do not support this view. Despite cultural selection on religious and gender-egalitarian attitudes of aspiring migrants, emigration from MENA countries is unlikely to have negative effects on modernisation, growth and democracy.

On the contrary, emigration toward OECD countries could even reverse the selection effect on average cultural traits if migrants abroad transfer more progressive norms and beliefs to their home countries. Such as effect could even reduce cultural distance between origin and destination countries.

Further reading

Docquier, Frédéric (2017) ‘Emigration and Culture in the MENA’, FEMISE MED Brief No. 2.

Docquier, Frédéric, Aysit Tansel and Riccardo Turati (2019) ‘Do Emigrants Self-Select along Cultural Traits? Evidence from the MENA Countries’, International Migration Review.

This column is based on research produced by FEMISE (FEM42-03) and which received financial assistance from the European Union in the context of the FEMISE-EU project.


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