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Social and cultural anthropologist, Samuli Schielke delves deep into the lives of migrant workers in Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States (AUC Press, 2020). Schielke works as a senior researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin.

You say that “working in the Gulf for money is a moral, spiritual condition, and imagination is a scarce resource.”

This book is all about the moral projects people need money for, and about dreams that are not free. I think that the economy, morality, and our hopes and dreams are not autonomous realms.

They often reproduce each other, and when that happens, it becomes a very powerful and compelling process, where people both want to, and have to, participate.

 

What is the biggest hardship migrant workers in the Gulf face? Monotonous job, meager salary, poor accommodation, sponsorship policy, lack of legal recourse, unpaid salaries, racism . . . ?

I wouldn’t know how to separate these hardships. They add up together to a powerful system of exploitation in which people are compelled to continue working for profits that are meager but nevertheless better than packing up and going home.

A more paradoxical hardship is that, especially when people do manage to make some profit out of their work, it becomes more difficult to return home, and they end up staying for one more year, and then another and another.

You state that “Egypt is a migrant nation.” What is the long-term effect of migration on Egyptian society?

I don’t know yet what the long-term effect of this will be. But already now we can see that migration has created families and communities that exist across distances, between villages and cities, and between Egypt and countries abroad, and long-term absences and a degree of estrangement have become prevalent features of people’s lives.

Overall, it has given conservative and identitarian movements new strength while at the same time distancing people from traditional ways of life. Egypt, after the first forty years of international mass migration, has become a society that is overall very conservative but no longer traditional.

Migrant workers by law are not allowed to settle permanently in the Gulf. If they were though, would that change anything with regards to their financial security and social mobility?

It would be a major improvement. Then many people would settle permanently in the Gulf and make it their home — at least those with higher incomes who could afford to rent apartments and pay for schooling.

And they would make political claims and want to be recognized as citizens with equal rights and obligations, as do migrants and their descendants in Europe and North America. Which is why the Gulf monarchies do not want to allow it.

If there were more economic opportunities for young Egyptians here in Egypt would fewer workers migrate to the Gulf?

As long as there is a large income gap between Egypt and the Gulf, there will be large-scale migration. Egypt also has a very high rate of population growth, and it is difficult to create jobs for so many more people coming of age every year.

However, more opportunities in Egypt would definitely mean that the pressure to migrate would be less strong than it is today.

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