Migration and the COVID-19 pandemic

Omar Grech

The current crisis has already caused significant shifts in the global flow of migrants from South to North - shifts that will be challenged as economic recovery increases enterprise demand for migrant labor, while local populations may resist restarting immigration even more strongly than in pre-COVID days. The author, an expert on human rights and migration in the Euro-Mediterranean region, describes that impact of this potentially fierce conflict on Northern economies and on the human rights of migrants. The essay concludes by offering insights as to how can the conflict be resolved without serious civil violence.


Migratory flows across the world have been an issue of debate and controversy well before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.1 International attention to the challenges posed by managing migration both sensibly and humanely have been the cause of tension within communities and also between states.2 In this context, many countries across the world have taken increasingly restrictive measures in terms of not allowing unauthorized migrants to enter their jurisdictions. Furthermore, social tensions and even episodes of physical violence within communities hosting higher concentrations of migrants have been evident in numerous destination countries.

The outbreak of the pandemic has already impacted the management of migration and also attitudes toward it in multiple ways. The two most evident, immediate impacts of COVID-19 relate to (i) the effects of the public health measures on the national and global economies and (ii) free movement within and across states. This chapter suggests that the economic repercussions of the pandemic may have serious consequences on migratory flows and the management of migration. Moreover, the suspension of various fundamental human rights and freedoms during the crisis may have longer-term consequences on the attitudes toward migrants in host countries.

It is also worth noting that, from a medical perspective, the pandemic has impacted most heavily on marginalized and impoverished communities, of which migrants (especially recent migrants) inevitably form a part. The fatalities among migrant groups are among the highest in most destination countries. Lack of access to health services as well as other social services and poorer living conditions, have, inter alia, caused migrants to suffer disproportionately from COVID-19.3 These conditions are risk factors which may well be aggravated further for migrant communities in the coming years.

This chapter, in summary, seeks to explore likely pandemic-generated scenarios with respect to migratory flows4 and the integration of migrants in host countries, including their human rights. In conclusion, it seeks to suggest ways in which the potential for conflict in the context of migration may be attenuated.

The impact of COVID-19 on countries of origin

All economic forecasts by international agencies anticipate that the aftermath of the pandemic will see an increase of economic deprivation with global recession impacting directly for at least the next 2/3 years, but with longer-term effects considered likely. The effects of the recession will impact countries of origin both directly and indirectly: directly through the internal economic slowdown which may also see lower levels of Overseas Development Assistance from developed countries, which will very well tighten their development assistance budgets; indirectly, countries of origin may lose a very valuable input in their economies through the probable loss of a portion of the income received from remittances of migrant workers. Migrant labor in the EU and USA for instance will probably be among the most severely affected communities in terms of the economic crisis. The likelihood of a reduction in remittances from migrant workers has already been highlighted by international agencies.5 The levels of Foreign Direct Investment in the countries of origin may also decrease, at least in the short term. All of these factors are, in turn, likely to increase the number of economic migrants toward areas such as the USA, EU, and Australia.

The other key driver of migration apart from economic factors is violent conflict. The extent to which forced migration resulting from conflict (i.e. refugees) will be impacted by COVID-19 is more difficult to assess. Early indications show that the pandemic caused a decrease in the number of conflict-related violence during the pandemic.6 The extent and duration of this conflict “slowdown” is too early to forecast. In this context, it would

Migration and the CO VID-19 pandemic 45 be useful for conflict resolution specialists to examine the conflict data in order to verify the extent of the slowdown in violence and also the exact drivers of this slowdown. If the decrease in violence is sustained, this may also lead to some decrease in the levels of conflict-related refugee flows. Conversely, if the levels of violent conflict return to pre-pandemic levels or even increase further, the flow of refugees will also necessarily increase. It is important to recall that these increased flows impact first and foremost the surrounding countries in the immediate vicinity of the conflict zones.7

This latter point merits emphasis as the migratory flows should not just be seen in the context of destination countries in the more economically developed areas such as Europe and North America. In examining postpandemic migratory flows, one must consider the fact that migration from countries of origin will quite likely increase in both volume and impact on other developing countries. In this context, the post-pandemic approach to the environment and climate change will also be of crucial importance in attenuating or exacerbating the issue of climate change refugees.

The impact of COVID-19 on destination countries

The pandemic has impacted the countries of destination in a number of ways with the economic downturn being the most obvious one. This is evident in two of the main areas of incoming migration: Europe and North America. The effects of the recession will likely have a long duration, not only just statistically but also at the level of perception.

The recession has already caused significant unemployment globally and the magnitude of this is likely to increase. The International Labour Organization is anticipating a loss of over 300 million jobs worldwide with Europe and the Americas being among the worst hit.8 In this context, young people are expected to suffer most severely from these job losses and those in operating in the informal economy are set to be significantly hit. With migrants being predominantly young9 and operating most intensely in the informal sectors, the likelihood of migrants being particularly hit by COVID-Unrelated unemployment is acute.

This increase in unemployment rates is also set to have a severe impact on the public coffers with more requests for unemployment benefit and other social support. During the early stages of the pandemic, some countries witnessed a decrease of foreign workers with some returning to their countries of origin. These movements, however, are more related to returns to middle-income countries.

The economic downturn will naturally have repercussions on both migrants and locals. For migrants whose status is not regularized and who have no access to social services, the impact may be devastating. Migrant communities have already suffered more heavily from the health aspects of the pandemic and from the measures taken by host countries to deal with the pandemic.10 If this is coupled with an over-impact of the economic crisis, the levels of frustration and desperation may well lead to some forms of violence.

For local communities, increases in levels of unemployment and decreases in levels of disposable income may likewise cause social discontent. The tendency to perceive migrants as being too numerous and that they cannot be integrated socially and economically may also increase in a post-CO VID world of economic decline and booming unemployment.11

In an environment where feelings of insecurity are growing, the "migrants steal our jobs” mentality may only be exacerbated irrespective of its factual basis. In Europe and the USA, leaders from the so-called populist right had already resorted to stoking these feelings prior to the pandemic. The anti-immigration rhetoric adopted by the Trump Campaign in 2016 with the promise to build "The Wall” (reiterated during his administration),12 or the language of "Prima gli italiani” (Italians First) adopted by the League in Italy13 or the promise to fight the "invasion of foreigners” expressed by Alternative fur Deutschland.14 in Germany, are likely to be exploited even more markedly in the coming years. With the economic downturn and its attendant hardships, the number of people attracted by this rhetoric could increase exponentially. Within such a context, the potential of social tensions spilling into violence, including violence against migrants, becomes more acute.15

COVID-19 has also modified attitudes toward borders and human movement in general. The closure of airports and ports, coupled with the drastic reduction in opportunities for travel, may impact the perceptions of some toward human movement. In particular, the idea that dangers come from outside national frontiers (which was already discernible in some sectors of the local populations) may have extended to many more as a result of the restrictive measures taken in the context of the pandemic. Even more directly, several governments used the COVID-19-related emergency powers to block the entry of migrants, including asylum seekers, into their territories16 in breach of international legal rules. The risks of such powers and practices being retained are real, especially if a vaccine is not developed. This would allow states to continue citing the virus as an excuse for such practices on public health grounds.

In this context, a broad reflection on how the pandemic has impacted our attitudes toward fundamental human rights is warranted. The public health emergency led to the suspension of various fundamental human rights such as freedom of association and freedom of movement. What impact have these suspensions had on our commitment to human rights both individually and collectively? Has the pandemic left a legacy of disregard for the

Migration and the CO VID-19 pandemic 47 fundamental rights of migrants in the name of public health considerations or more general national exigencies? Moreover, will these public health-related suspensions tempt governments to abuse more frequently fundamental rights, especially with reference to migrants and asylum seekers? These are risks which need to be considered and addressed. In this respect, human rights NGOs and international human rights agencies should monitor closely the extent to which states are abiding by their national laws and their international obligations in this regard.

Implications for action

In the scenarios described earlier, what are the possible actions that can reduce the possibility of social tension and violence? From a structural perspective, the pandemic will provide an opportunity to reassess the way we manage our economies nationally and globally. In the post-pandemic phase, principles of social justice and fairness are more relevant than ever. The pandemic has clearly hit some sections of our communities much more severely than others both health-wise and economically. If in the postpandemic phase these inequalities are not addressed or are even exacerbated, the risks of a "war between the poor” in the form of conflict between the worst-hit locals and the migrant communities, will become more likely. Post-pandemic the current dominant model of economic growth at all costs will only increase tension and possible conflict if expected inequalities arise.

A sense of public commitment to practical solidarity toward those who have suffered most during the pandemic should help in addressing the sentiments of frustration and despair felt by those communities who have seen their lives and their livelihoods most imperiled. One of the key divides in most destination countries is that between locals who have benefited from globalization (in all its facets) and those who have not. The success of populist politics hinges on this divide to a substantial extent. This divide has been expressed in various ways in the different countries, but always broadly categorizing the local people who educationally, socially, and economically have done well as against those who have not. Those who have not, feel aggrieved that their concerns and interests have been side-lined.

This sense of grievance will be exacerbated if they perceive that the pandemic has left them further behind. In a post-pandemic world, those who feel ignored or left behind must be put center stage of the socio-economic recovery. For instance, fears held by sections of these communities around the negative impact of migrants on their employment prospects should be addressed. The impact of migrants on the employment and wage prospects of native-born workers will be different in different regions. However, there is some evidence that while migrant workers generally do not impact employment prospects, this may happen in certain regions during periods of economic recession and that migrant workers may push down wages for the less skilled workforce.17 Wherever such possibilities arise governments must resort to remedial policies in cooperation with local trade unions. Such measures could include adequately monitored minimum wage requirements that avoid wage undercutting. Where there are no such impacts, governments, and civil society need to be proactive in demonstrating this.

The populist narrative of "our citizens first” can be countered with a counternarrative focusing on shared humanity and attendant human solidarity. The chances of success of such a counternarrative, however, will be higher in societies where a sense of fairness and justice is flourishing. Societies, which are broadly seen to safeguard the interests of the unfortunate as well as the fortunate, will have a better opportunity to promote narratives of solidarity with those who are coming from across borders. Efforts to contend with the anti-migrant narratives should also engage with anti-hate speech movement, which has acquired greater salience in recent years. This momentum needs to be maintained and even invigorated using political campaigns, legal instruments, and heightened citizen engagement.

In all of these efforts, conflict resolution practitioners have a role to play. This role is multifaceted. The interaction between human rights and conflict resolution, the relationship between social justice and peacebuilding as well as the use of conflict resolution techniques in bringing together migrant communities and host communities are all areas of expertise that can be utilized constructively in this context.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the positive contribution that a return to “normality” may have in some of these migration-related challenges. In this context, the development of a vaccine would play a fundamental role in a return to daily lives. The discovery of a vaccine would probably encourage a swifter economic recovery, with related benefits to employment rates and livelihoods. A return to normality would also see a return to a daily life where travel is again a normal and desirable reality, where governments have no public health grounds to limit anyone's human rights and where human interaction returns to pre-pandemic models. In such an eventuality, the novel concept of social distancing should give way to the ancient concept of human embrace. This can only have a positive impact on how we look at each other and particularly at those who come from afar.


1 The challenges posed by migratory flows both internationally and nationally led the UN to promote the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration.

See the Resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 19 December 2018.

See for example the USA-Mexico diatribe around migrants passing through the Mexico-USA border or the tensions between Spain, France, Italy and Malta about the responsibility for saving and then taking responsibility for migrants crossing the Mediterranean on vessels.

For example, see accessed June 23, 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/ may/18/coronavirus-crisis-increases-suftering-of-most-vulnerable-refugees.

In terms of both countries of origin and destination countries.

The World Bank, “World Bank Predicts Sharpest Decline of Remittances in Recent History,’’ April 22, 2020, accessed June 14, 2020, www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/04/22/world-bank-predicts-sharpest-decline-of-remittances-in-recent-history.

This decrease is reported in the ACLED database, accessed June 17, 2020, https://acleddata.eom/#/dashboard.

For example, the UNHCR estimates that the conflict in South Sudan has created “over two million South Sudanese refugees, mainly in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda”. See accessed June 17, 2020, www.unlicr.org'south-sudan-emer gencyhtml#:~:text=Inside%20South%20Sudan%2C%20nearly%20two,or%20 struggle%20with%20food%20insecurity.

International Labour Organization, “ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the World of Work,” April 29, 2020, accessed June 17, 2020, www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/ public/-dgreports/-dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_743146.pdf.

For example, half of the immigrants moving into the EU in 2018 were under 29 years of age, accessed June 9, 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Migration_and_migrantjpopulation_statistics.

Forexample,inGreeceriotseruptedinMay2020atamigrantprocessingcentredueto delaysinprocessingasylumclaims,accessed June 14,2020, www.dailysabah.com/ politics/violent-protest-erupts-at-greece-migrant-center-near-turkey-border/ news.

The sentiment that immigration should not increase was already wiely felt before the pandemic emerged. A 2018 Pew Research survey showed more opposed increased migration than thought the same levels of migration should be maintained or increased. See accessed June 14, 2020, www.pewresearch. org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/many-worldwide-oppose-more-migration-both-into-and-out-of-their-countries/.

The Guardian, Donald Trump’s border wall speech - in full, January 9, 2019, accessed June 14, 2020, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jan/09/ donald-trumps-border-wall-speech-in-full.

Il Messaggero, “Migrant!, Salvini, Prima gli italiani, chi la pensa in maniera diversa voti M5S,” April 25, 2019, accessed June 14, 2020, www.ihnessaggero. it/politica/di_maio_salvini_migranti-4451555.html.

BBC, “Germany’s AfD: How Right-Wing Is Nationalist Alternative for Germany?,” January 20, 2020, accessed June 14, 2020, www.bbc.com/news/ world-europe-37274201.

Pre-COVID protests against immigration have already witnessed episodes of violence, see BBC, “Brussels Protest Over UN Migration Pact Turns Violent,” December 16, 2018, accessed June 14, 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46585237.

  • 16 For example Malta and Italy within the EU declared their ports unsafe in the context of the pandemic and refused entry to migrants even when the latter were claiming to be asylum seekers. See EU Observer, "EU Unable to Comment on Italy and Malta Port Closures,” April 15, 2020, accessed June 14, 2020, https:// euobserver.com/migration/148058.
  • 17 BBC, "Reality Check: Do Foreign Workers Take Jobs and Cut Wages?,” October 6, 2016, accessed June 20, 2020, www.bbc.com/news/business-37577620.
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