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Post-pandemic paradigms: Covid-19 and the future of human migration

The following essay was originally compiled for the  Mixed Migration Review 2021 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership. 

The essay’s author Alan Gamlen is Associate Professor of Geography, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and a longstanding Research Associate at Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. Alan’s most recent book, “Human Geopolitics: States, Emigrants and the Rise of Diaspora Institutions” (OUP 2019), won the Distinguished Book Award for Best Book on Ethnicity, Nationalism and Migration from the International Studies Association. 

The essay’s author Bram Frouws is the Director of the Mixed Migration Centre. 

The extent to which the coronavirus pandemic influences mixed migration dynamics in the years to come will vary according to a range of factors, including the skills of those who might move, the growth of automation, and shifts in the dependency ratios and other development geometries in countries of departure and destination.

Introduction: the end of an age?

The past 70 years of world history have often been called an Age of Migration because of the growing geographical extent and complexity of population movements.1 In the past 30 years alone, migrant stocks have grown by 150 percent in absolute terms and by 40 percent in terms of their share of the total world population, to reach around 3.5 percent. International tourism grew 56-fold, from 25 million arrivals in 1950 to 1.4 billion arrivals in 2018. Apart from growing regular migration and mobility, mixed and irregular migration involving millions of refugees and migrants has also gained salience—its political and media prominence far exceeding its actual size in terms of numbers involved as a proportion of overall mobility. 

Could the coronavirus pandemic bring this age of migration to an end? By October 2021 almost 237 million people globally had been diagnosed with Covid-19, and almost five million had reportedly died from it. To slow the spread of the disease, almost all governments have periodically frozen almost all forms of both internal and international human mobility—from flying to visit another city, to commuting by car for work, to walking around the local shops. Since the World Health Organization declared the pandemic in March 2020, most human beings have lived with public transport closures, restrictions on internal movement, international travel controls, stay-at-home orders, and quarantines. 

Never before in history have so many humans stopped moving all at once or been caught up in unplanned reverse migration—returning to their places of origin. The nadir of the crisis came in the second quarter of 2020, when lockdowns began to bite. From India to the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Brazil—the world’s five largest countries for which Google collects mobility data—visits to places of retail and recreation, transit stations, and workplaces more than halved on average, and as of October 2021 such visits still remain 7-15 percent lower than 2019 levels (except in Pakistan). Two-thirds of the world’s commercial air transport fleet was grounded, and the airline industry closed half of all flight routes, halved flights on the remaining routes, shed over a million jobs, and booked over $126 billion in losses. International migration flows to OECD countries fell by 46 percent in the first half of 2020, and by the middle of the year, the number of international migrants globally was 27 percent lower than the United Nations had expected. Global refugee resettlements fell by almost 70 percent. 

New forces and frictions in migrant decision-making

Where data on post-pandemic migration and mobility patterns is not yet available, previous research can guide expectations about future trends. Generally, high-skilled professionals have more migration options, and migration policies are often developed to attract them. However, the pandemic has made it harder for these people to move, but simultaneously also easier for them to work remotely from anywhere. It seems likely that high-skilled migrants, who have the option to delay or abandon their migration plans, will do so until the pandemic falls behind the rear-view mirror. The pandemic has also accelerated the trend of an increasing disconnect between work and physical location, but this is only true for high-skilled jobs that can be done remotely. It is highly likely the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact, reducing the international mobility of highly skilled people and impacting their settlement patterns, with more people settling further away from urban centres where offices are located. 

At the same time, the pandemic showed the extent to which many economic sectors in traditional destination countries rely on migrant labour as essential workers. Many of these jobs are classified as low-skilled, and these are jobs in which remote work is not an option. It is, however, too soon to speculate how the pandemic will impact on low-skilled labour migration. On the one hand, it may speed up automation, reducing the need for labour migrants. On the other, destination countries may want to avoid any serious shortages in their labour force that might arise in the absence of migrant labour—a fear that prompted many states to regularise existing irregular migrant populations—and actually  invest  in the creation and expansion of regular labour migration channels. For example, one innovative way of expanding regular migration would be to create temporary labour migration schemes for health workers that enable a surge in hospital capacity during the traditional winter flu seasons in Europe and the US, when the number of Covid infections may seasonally rise. 

The pandemic is also amplifying the economic and political drivers of migration. The public health crisis itself has hit worst in countries without developed health systems. The economic fallout also affects them most: developed countries have sophisticated insurance and credit markets to cushion shocks, but many developing countries do not. In short, with economies in many countries hard-hit by Covid-19, prospective migrants’ aspirations or needs to migrate may increase. However, their capability to do so might be severely curtailed, due both to restrictions on mobility imposed to contain the spread of the pandemic and to a lack of requisite resources resulting from income losses incurred by pandemic-related recession. This combination of how the pandemic affects aspirations and capability plays out differently in different contexts and regions and is already leading to changes in migration trends and dynamics, with increased  movements along certain mixed migration corridors and decreased movements along others. For example, the movements between Tunisia and Italy across the Mediterranean Sea increased substantially, while those of Ethiopians (and to a lesser extent Somalis) between the Horn of Africa and Yemen—once the world’s busiest maritime mixed migration route—decreased massively. 

New patterns of supply and demand for migrant labour 

Migration is driven not just by migrant aspirations but also by employer demand in destination countries, which itself reflects local unemployment levels. The pandemic has major implications for employer demand because it has led to historic rises in unemployment. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2020 the pandemic drove a nine percent decline in global working hours compared to the last quarter of 2019, equal to the loss of 255 million jobs—four times more than occurred during the global financial crisis. Worker income fell by more than eight percent, or US$3.7 trillion, equal to 4.4 percent of global GDP. Even after a rebound during 2021, there are now 144 million fewer full-time jobs than there would have been without the pandemic. The pain is not over: in early 2021, 93 percent of workers worldwide were living in countries with workplace closures, which affected 77 percent of workers, down from a peak of 85 percent in mid-2020. As ILO notes, the International Monetary Fund has projected an ongoing loss of between 36 million and 130 million jobs in 2021, compared to the end of 2019. As the ILO further points out, job losses are concentrated in sectors such as hospitality, tourism, arts and culture, construction, and retail, while employment has actually grown in sectors such as information technology and finance. Developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southern Europe, and Southern Asia have been particularly hard hit. The broad trend is clear: the economic fallout of the pandemic dwarfs that of the global financial crisis, which had already dented global demand for immigrant labour. 

Automation and AI 

High unemployment is known to decrease employer demand for migrant labour while increasing political pressures  on  employers  to  give  preference   to native workers over immigrant counterparts. High unemployment creates a larger local recruitment pool, increasing firms’ hiring power, prompting unions to demand that employers hire locally, and leading to labour- market testing regulations that make it hard to recruit immigrant workers. As mentioned above, the inability to recruit international migrants during the pandemic has also led to an acceleration of automation that was already happening in many areas of employment. This too might reduce overall demand for immigrant labour. Many of the unskilled jobs being automated—such as those in healthcare, with the introduction of precision diagnostics—have long been performed by migrants. Automation has expanded into skilled labour, for example through the introduction of artificial intelligence in areas like accountancy and paralegal work. During the pandemic, firms faced with higher labour  costs have  had  to  innovate  and  invest  in  technologies that will permanently  replace  some  pre-pandemic jobs. Short-term demand for immigrant labour may, however, surge as lockdowns ease—especially with the realisation in many countries of the extent to which they depend on migrant labour in crucial sectors struggling to fill vacancies now that economies are recovering. But for many countries, the mid- to long-term net result of a shrinking pool of more highly automated employers will be an economy less dependent on importing foreign labour. However, this does not necessarily need to work out badly for prospective migrants. More automation could also mean that, increasingly, work travels to the people instead of the other way around, with the result that opportunities for income-generating  activities reach prospective migrants without them needing to physically migrate. 

New geometries of global development

It is important to recognise that the mobility and migration changes connected with the Covid-19 pandemic are taking place against a backdrop of a major long-term shift in global power from West to East, involving a wide range of disruptive social transformations. In line with August Comte’s dictum that “demography is destiny”, a fundamental element of this shift is the contrast between a wealthy and ageing Western world and a young and emerging Eastern one. While most Western countries face a growing share of dependent elderly people relative to their working populations, many developing countries are entering the phase of a “demographic dividend”, where lower birth rates shrink the ratio of the dependent elderly population to the youth population, allowing an outsized actively working population to make rapid economic gains. 

Such a demographic dynamic helps explain China’s phenomenal economic rise, sustained by  average annual GDP growth of almost 10 percent between 1979 and 2018. The early stages of this growth involved a phenomenal rise of internal labour migration from lower-income rural areas in China’s western and interior provinces towards its higher-income and more urbanised provinces along the country’s eastern coast—a shift that, in terms of numbers, dwarfs the 19th century transformation of Europe through what the geographer Wilbur Zelinsky once called a “great shaking loose of population” from the rural countryside. The next phase of China’s rise—beginning around the turn of the 21st century—involved a massive surge of emigration around the world. Moreover, China is not the only power on the rise. India is just now entering its demographic dividend and will soon overtake China to become the world’s most populous country by the end of the current decade. Africa’s population is still expanding fast, so its turn will come later—but it too will experience a spurt of economic growth after fertility rates fall. 

Such long-term shifts in global development geometry have substantial implications for post-pandemic human migration. For example, high-income countries, used to reliably large inflows of immigrants from what has until now been thought of as the “developing” world—often to fill labour shortages and skill gaps—might no longer be able to rely on these movements. Once the pandemic recedes, many of the “sending” countries may no longer be at the same point in their own migration transitions. For example, China is likely almost over its migration hump—the period in which its rapid socio-economic development drives high rates  of  emigration—as people acquire the means to escape their predicament domestically. As China’s economic and political rise continues, the incentives to emigrate will lessen for many people, and it will likely next become—like other major global economic centres—a major destination for inward international migrants. 

Most wealthy immigrant destination  countries  went into the Covid-19 pandemic with immigration systems geared towards receiving large net inflows from Asia. By the time Covid-19 is behind us, they may find these net inflows have dried up, forcing them to look elsewhere to fill their skill and labour shortages, most likely to the African continent where economic and job growth is in the short term unlikely to keep up with the increasing numbers of young people entering the labour force. 

The evolution of migration governance

In the face of the significant changes to global migration patterns that have prevailed for more than half a century, questions about the future of migration governance loom large. It has long been the case that decisions regarding exit and entry are made by nation states while those about settlement and service-provision are made by cities. However, in the past 20 years a global regime of migration governance has begun to take shape, propelled by events such as the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994, the UN Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants in 2016, and the landmark adoption in 2018 of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). 

As populists increasingly take the helm of national governments and assert stricter migration controls, what will happen to this emerging global migration regime? Will the shock of the Covid-19 crisis be met with more international cooperation over migration, or less? In the past, shocks and crises have been a major driver for the creation of new global migration governance structures. The most recent example is the 2015/16 so-called migration and refugee crisis, which saw large mixed migration flows of refugees and migrants arriving irregularly in Europe, often assisted by smugglers. This fuelled the organisation of the 2016 New York summit, the starting point for the development of the two global compacts. 

New shock, new context 

Will the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic be different? So far, Covid is not like previous shocks. Past shocks have occurred against a background of growing globalisation and the softening of national sovereignties, expressed for example in a proliferation of regional integration schemes modelled on the European Union. Covid-19 has spread in a very different global climate, in the wake of a global financial crisis which had already shattered the neoliberal consensus and led to growing go-it-alone national strategies, epitomised in the slogans of the UK’s Brexiteers and the followers of Donald Trump in the US: “Take Back Control”, and “Build the Wall”. 

The pandemic and related health, economic, and protection crises have underscored the  need  for and  relevance  of  the  GCM.  While  not  always directly referencing the compact, many states have undertaken actions that are included in the GCM, such as regularisation, releasing migrants from detention, and providing access to services and healthcare for migrants, proving the GCM’s relevance in times of crisis. 

Restrictions, smugglers, and risks 

However, at the same time, a global health crisis with a virus travelling across borders understandably leads to far more restrictive approaches. Governments are seizing back control of migration through lockdown measures and opening up largely through bilateral and regional negotiations outside of UN-led multilateral forums. The way global mobility came to a sudden standstill at the height of the pandemic may have shown some that in fact mobility can be halted and that borders can be closed. This may have created an appetite among those in favour of less migration and more restrictive approaches to keep at least some of the measures in place, so as to keep suppressing unwanted global mobility in the longer term. This could potentially lead to more irregular migration, because demand for migrant labour and aspirations to migrate will not disappear; they will only become more difficult to satisfy, forcing more people to take irregular routes. 

This in turn is likely to have an impact on human smuggling. For example, data collected directly from thousands of refugees and migrants during 2020 by MMC’s 4Mi programme showed that, generally speaking, there was more demand for, yet less access to, people smugglers, whose fees tended to rise accordingly. This increased dependency subsequently increases risks and vulnerability to protection incidents. Similarly, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime also concluded that the Covid-19 crisis will make refugees and migrants more dependent on smugglers and that smugglers will opt for more dangerous routes and modes of transport, which will make journeys more risky and more expensive. 

Public opinion 

The pandemic is also likely to affect public attitudes towards refugees and migrants, and foreigners in general, which in turn might affect future migration policies, although the impact is not yet clear. On the one hand, a global pandemic could exacerbate people’s fear of outsiders or the fear that migration contributes to the spread of the disease. On the other, as mentioned above, the pandemic has also highlighted the disproportional importance of migrant workers, which could lead to more favourable attitudes. Research findings so far indicate that there has been little systematic change in the longer trend of relatively stable immigration preferences in Europe and the United States, and no country-level correlation between observed changes and the severity of the outbreak. Instead, the perceived importance of immigration among the general public has consistently and significantly decreased since the start of the pandemic. It has been argued that this can lead to a period of quieter immigration politics, creating space for innovations. 

However, there have been many reports about widespread racist and xenophobic incidents against  foreigners linked to the pandemic, such as verbal and physical assaults, social exclusion, denial of access to goods and services, boycotting of businesses, discriminatory movement restrictions and quarantine policies, as well as xenophobic rhetoric from politicians, other public figures, and the media. The UN Secretary General even referred to a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia.” Moreover, whether as a reflection of the general public’s attitudes or not, politicians may use a fear of foreigners linked to the pandemic for political gain and to argue for more restrictive approaches to migration. It is too soon to say how the pandemic will affect acceptance of foreigners, their integration processes and, by extension, migration policies, but it is clear that such a world-changing event as a global pandemic will have a longer lasting impact, but it is likely to differ from one country, community, or context to another. 

Vaccine inequality 

Another way in which the pandemic may have a lasting impact on mobility, at least for the next few years, is through vaccine access. Access to international migration options was already unequally divided among the world’s population, where people from the developed world can more or less legally access any country in the world, while those in the rest of the world cannot. The starkly  unequal  access  to  Covid-19  vaccination—as of October 2021, 62 percent of the population in high income countries has been vaccinated, against under 4  percent  in  low-income  countries—and  the  need to have proof of vaccination in order to travel, might become a measure of de facto immigration control, used by destination countries to keep populations from lower income countries out. This again could increase the need to migrate through irregular means. 

Vaccine inequality will not only limit people’s ability to travel and migrate; it will also act as a driver of migration. Vaccine inequality will, according to the UN, also have a lasting impact on socio-economic recovery in low- and low-to-middle-income countries and set back progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. It will deepen the socio-economic divide between countries and slow the economic recovery of many countries with less access to vaccines. Inequality is a major driver of migration, with millions of workers and their families moving each year across borders and continents seeking to reduce what they see as the gap between their own position and that of people in other, wealthier, places. 

The pandemic will continue to affect the situation of forcibly displaced people around the world. While the number of Covid infections among refugees has been lower than initially feared—with many living in cramped conditions—as already mentioned above, access to resettlement pathways has been severely reduced. 

Drivers and funding 

The impact of the crisis is exacerbating the drivers of mass displacement and eroding the capacity of refugee- hosting countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. First, in countries of origin, a global recession will lead to increases in conflict, authoritarianism, and state fragility, all key drivers of forced displacement. Second, a recession stretches the capacity of states hosting the majority of the refugees in the world. Third, the pandemic undermines the survival strategies that refugees rely on in camps and cities around the world, undercutting aid, remittances, and informal sector jobs. Many who relied on informal labour for their incomes lost their jobs. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated that three quarters of displaced and conflict-affected people lost income since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, increasing numbers of refugees might be stuck in refugee camps and urban centres, without access to any solutions, which may increase the likelihood of onward movements. 

Furthermore, in the longer term, humanitarian funding and foreign aid, including for refugee situations, might decrease—although in 2020 foreign aid from official donors actually reached an all-time high, up 3.5 percent compared to 2019, boosted  by  additional  spending to help developing counties respond to the Covid-19 crisis. However, to put things in perspective, the world’s total overseas development assistance amounted to around just one percent of the 16 trillion dollars spent by governments on domestic Covid stimulus measures. These massive recovery investments will have to be recouped at some point, and it is likely that an increasing number of major donor countries will cut foreign aid in the near future. Some have already done so: in 2021, it was reported that bilateral donors already made cuts  to humanitarian sectors. Further cuts in humanitarian funding could worsen the situation of refugees in urban  centres and in camps, leading to either an increase in onward movement (for those who can afford it) or more involuntary immobility. 

Conclusion: will Covid-19 be a game-changer?

Much may change after the current pandemic, but not everything: there is an inertia in infrastructure and in institutions which mitigates against major long-term changes spurred by temporary shocks. A major question going forward is whether Covid-19 will result in lasting changes to prevailing patterns of human migration and of the institutions governing them. 

Migration itself may shift significantly, in the many ways discussed above. It seems very likely that higher levels of unemployment will reduce overall demand for migrant labour, and that the risky international environment will depress migration aspirations. It is also all but certain that the travel industry will emerge from this crisis with less passenger capacity, higher regulatory standards surrounding emissions, and lower demand for business travel as a result of accelerated remote working trends. Meanwhile, the  pandemic  has  fuelled  a  resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment  in  mainstream  political life around the world and strengthened the hands of autocrats, enabling them to crack down harshly on migration. The pandemic may thus lead to a sustained period of more stringent restrictions on human mobility, even after travel restrictions and quarantines subside. 

Different and rapidly changing dynamics make it difficult to predict the longer lasting impact of the pandemic on mixed migration. With some of the drivers of migration—especially economic ones—set to intensify over the coming months or possibly even years, but with more people likely to lack the resources to afford often expensive irregular migration journeys, prospective migrants may look closer to home. This could lead to even larger migration movements within regions and towards cities, not least as anthropogenic climate change and other environmental stressors deepen their impact and make certain locations unliveable. Or people may become stuck, either at home or in transit—with their migration aspirations unfulfilled—or in destination states, unable or unwilling to return home. Others may undertake riskier journeys as alternatives are blocked, which is likely to have an impact on smuggling dynamics and on the numbers that join mixed migratory flows in response to the rapid- and slow-onset crises that prompt them to move. A continuing absence of sufficient regular channels and the potential impact of Covid and other factors mentioned above on future access to regular channels will continue to drive irregular migration along many well-known and lesser known mixed migration routes. 

The future of migration governance at the global level is a more open question. A global migration regime has been evolving over the past few decades, but rather than being a smooth, linear process, this has lurched forward amid a series of shocks, each of which has forced policymakers to institutionalise liberal approaches to migration. However, as major cracks appear in the liberal world order of the post-World War II period, the future of cooperation over migration—along with that in other areas of globalisation such as trade and finance—seems less certain.