Four Reasons to Keep Developing Legal Migration Pathways During COVID-19

In that seemingly brief window between the 2015 refugee crisis and the outbreak of COVID-19, much progress was being made in the field of legal migration pathways.

Destination countries were analyzing skill shortages in key sectors, such as healthcare, tourism, construction, IT, and agriculture, and scoping new agreements to fill them. Origin countries were improving their migration governance systems and capacities, adapting training institutions to improve skill levels for those at home and those who move abroad.

Governments had set up new funding arrangements, like the European Union’s Mobility Partnerships Facility, to finance pilot projects. And the migration community was slowly coalescing around the need to implement Objective 5 of the Global Compact for Migration for the benefit of all.

It is tempting to believe the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, both now and in the future, will undermine these efforts. Political attention in both origin countries and destination countries is understandably elsewhere, and political will to put money and capacity into legal migration pathways has lessened in many countries.

There are four main reasons why this is actually a good time to develop new agreements.

But there are four main reasons why this is actually a good time to develop new agreements. The pandemic will raise economic demand in destination countries for migrant workers in many sectors, and the public both understands and supports this. At the same time, the impacts of the pandemic in origin countries may push more people to move, while giving these countries more bargaining power to push for better agreements.

1. Migrants will be needed for “key” industries more than ever

Today, roughly 20 percent of healthcare workers, 15 percent of tourism workers, and 50 percent of agricultural workers in high-income countries are migrants. These sectors rely on migrants for a number of reasons, including the need for working hour flexibility, low pay, remote location, and diverse skills; reasons which are unlikely to diminish.

If anything, demand for migrant workers in some industries will increase. Take healthcare for example. Before COVID-19, high-income countries were already suffering from severe health worker shortages; in the next decade, the UK will need 100,000 new nurses, and the US will need a million. After COVID-19, these shortages will become increasingly impactful. Demographic shifts in aging societies, coupled with the increased frequency of pandemics, will put more pressure on high-income country health systems and demand an increase in the absolute number of workers.

There are many ways in which high-income countries can attract and retain these workers. Recently, UK government advisor and former civil servant Jonathan Portes  called for the UK government to reduce fees for visa extensions and renewals; end the “double taxation” of migrants (through the National Health Service (NHS) immigration surcharge); and loosen rules regarding settlement. And in the US, calls have focused on fast-tracking immigration benefits, expanding the number of visas available, and emulating progressive states.

These steps will undoubtedly ensure migrants can contribute to the economic recovery of high-income countries, but it won’t address the need for more workers in a number of key sectors. To do so, we need to explore developing new legal migration pathways, perhaps initially regionally with additional robust health safeguards, to promote new migration for the benefit of all.

2. Support for immigration may increase

In recent years, polling has consistently shown that attitudes towards immigration are becoming more positive in many traditional destination countries. Before COVID-19, polling in the United States found that a majority see immigrants as hardworking, with strong family values, improving America both economically and socially. In the United Kingdom, the majority think immigrants have had a positive effect on the country, supporting even those who are seen as “low-skilled”.

It is hard to know which way public opinion will swing after COVID-19. Certainly, historical evidence shows us that economic recessions tend to lessen support for immigration, as locals prioritize their own access to jobs and social services. This perspective can be seen in the policy decisions of the Trump administration. In early April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it was suspending an increase in H-2B guest worker visas, ostensibly to provide roles for the millions of new unemployed Americans.

Some governments, including the Trump administration, are using COVID-19 as an excuse to maintain or extend border closures, linking human mobility with the spread of disease. These moves are being made contrary to available evidence: history (and recent experience) shows that immigration has no impact on local unemployment, that  locals are unlikely to take up roles usually conducted by migrants, and that there is little support for the view that mobility spreads disease.

Luckily, some countries are seeing a renewed appreciation for the role migrants play throughout our societies. This is particularly evident within the healthcare and agricultural sectors, where migrants are designated as “key workers,” on the frontline of the COVID-19 response. The majority in the UK now support granting permanent residency to frontline health workers and granting free medical care to all irregular migrants.

The crisis has exposed the difficulties migrants face—finding legal pathways to enter high-income countries, getting their qualifications recognized, and suffering sub-standard working conditions to name just a few.

This interest and general public support could be exploited. We should use this opportunity to push for new and expanded legal pathways with additional migrant safeguards. This support could help ensure that migrants are able to contribute to the health and economic recovery of high-income societies.

3. Emigration pressure will remain, and potentially increase

To combat the spread of COVID-19, governments around the world closed both borders and businesses. Border closures have, in many cases, inhibited the ability of migrants to either return home or move to high-income countries. And business closures have, in many cases, removed the ability of migrants to earn a livelihood, and send home remittances.

While the immediate health effects of COVID-19 in many high-income countries are slowly lessening, the economic effects are emerging. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is projecting a 3 percent downturn in 2020 (by contrast, the 2008 recession saw a 0.1 percent downturn).

It is still too early to predict what these health and economic shocks will mean for migration movements in the short- and long-term. One thing that is already clear is that the lack of economic opportunity in high-income countries has already led to mass internal movement and may lead to increased international returns once borders re-open.

But the lack of existing economic opportunity in origin countries, coupled with the fact that they are beginning to suffer both the health and economic effects of COVID-19, is likely to reduce this potential movement. Research from the 2008/09 recession seems to suggest that workers were likely to stay in their destination countries, even if made unemployed.

In addition, we may see an increase in emigration pressure from origin countries. Evidence suggests that negative income shocks are associated with an increase in emigration pressure (here, and here), most notably seen in the Venezuelan outflow today.

Even beyond the shock of COVID-19, emigration pressure will continue. Research shows that countries exhibit an emigration life-cycle, in which emigration rises at early stages of development, peaks at roughly PPP$5,000-$10,000 GDP per capita, and then declines. Today, many countries we would associate with high emigration rates (such as Mexico, Nigeria, and Morocco) are at the peak of this curve. Many other countries, particularly most of sub-Saharan Africa, are on the left-hand side of it.

Therefore, due to a combination of new economic shocks, and existing demographic and economic pressure, we’re likely to see emigration rates increase in the near-term.

4. Origin countries will have more bargaining power

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic may finally put the “power of migration” in the hands of origin countries. Historically, many legal migration pathways have been exploitative and extractive, encouraging the best talent to move to destination countries, contributing to ‘brain drain’ in origin countries and concerns about future movement. These pathways serve the economic interest of the destination country, the migrant themselves, and often their family and origin country through remittance transfers.

But they could go further by improving skills development, physical infrastructure, working conditions, and the physical number of qualified workers in origin countries. These agreements, known as “Triple Win” projects (of which our Global Skill Partnership model is an example), are being trialed around the world but in far few a number.

Now, origin countries are in an excellent position to push for these types of agreements. Already traditional origin countries, such as the Philippines, are restricting future migration flows with a view to safeguarding their own limited human resources. This position is unlikely to soften, as origin countries try to retain workers (particularly in healthcare) to contribute to the health and economic recovery of their own economies.

This position is entirely justified, but it also gives these countries leverage in future migration agreements. Origin countries should argue for more truly mutually beneficial agreements, supplying workers in exchange for investments in both personnel and physical infrastructure. And international organizations and civil society should support them to develop and deploy that bargaining power.

The underlying need for systems to better regulate migration is greater than ever. The health and economic impacts of COVID-19 are causing, and will cause more, major shifts among many key industries. But the need to manage demographic pressures in both origin and destination countries, the need for strong and flexible workforces in critical sectors, and the need to create meaningful and mutually beneficial partnerships with origin countries all remain.

Migrants will be key to the economic recovery of all high-income countries, and they must be allowed to do so. Key stakeholders must continue to scope, implement, and scale legal migration pathways. If we wait until COVID-19 is over, it will be too late.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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