Labors of Need: Lives of African and Asian Workers in the Middle East


Recent years have witnessed growing interest in trans-regional migration from South Asia, South-East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and North Africa. This is warranted both by the heavy reliance of economies from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates on low-wage labour migrants from countries such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and by the Middle East’s continuing importance as one of the nodes of global migration. It is no exaggeration to say that the Middle East’s oil and gas fields, its construction sites, shopping malls and, in many cases, its clerical offices and homes would simply cease to function without the precarious labours of migrant workers. Meanwhile, remittances - a large share of which stem from the Middle East and North Africa - make up just under 10% of the Philippines’ GDP, and over 30% of that of the Indian state of Kerala. 

Journalists and commentators tend to focus only on the most well-known or controversial of these movements, highlighting, for instance, the employment conditions of the South Asian construction workers building the air-conditioned stadiums of Qatar in readiness for the 2022 World Cup, or the role of the Sudanese men fighting on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. These headlines, however, hide many stories of struggle and mobilisation, of precarious lives and precious creativity. Many of these workers, from Lebanon to Qatar, have striven to organise against the legal restrictions and racial discourse they must face, assisted in certain places by local activists and campaigners.

Scholars, for their part, have begun to reconstruct the lifeworlds and everyday lives of migrant workers, their religious and affective dispositions, their place within the political economy of the contemporary Middle East, and the longer histories of movement, connection, and disconnection that have bound together parts of South Asia, South-East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa to the region. In recent years, a number of exciting, path-breaking, interventions have appeared, building on the scattered work of the 1990s and early 2000s. These recent interventions have helped to set an agenda and constitute a field. Much, however, remains to be done.

It is in this spirit that Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East and North African Migration Studies invites contributions to a special issue focusing on migration from South Asia, South-East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and North Africa. Article-length contributions are invited from scholars working in the fields of history, area studies, anthropology, sociology, geography, political economy, political science, religious studies, cultural studies, and other cognate fields. These can consider, but are not limited to, the following questions:

  • Employment, sponsorship, and the legal regimes governing migration
  • The migration process: brokerage, smuggling, sponsorship, and travel
  • Migrants’ working lives in various sectors, from cleaning and domestic work to construction, waste management, and sex work
  • Gender and migration
  • Migrants’ lifeworlds, everyday lives, and leisure
  • Race, representation, and migration
  • Language and migration
  • Regional, religious, and social distinctions among migrants
  • Migrant activism, labour militancy, and interactions with local civil society and organised labour
  • Displacement, remittance, and migrants’ relations with their home regions
  • Longer trajectories of movement between South Asia, South-East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa

Articles of between 7-10,000 words inclusive of endnotes, should be sent in ms word format to by January 6, 2020

Full submission guidelines can be found on our website: