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Migration post-COVID 19: Taking cues from the past to rebuild economies

Migrants are an irreplaceable part of even the essential workforce of developed countries and are on the frontline in the fight against the crisis, making an immeasurable contribution to saving the lives of ‘natives’ with voting rights.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 17-05-2020 04:42 IST | Created: 17-05-2020 04:42 IST
Migration post-COVID 19: Taking cues from the past to rebuild economies
Migrant workers become taxpayers and make significant economic as well as cultural contributions to their host countries. Image Credit: Pexels

Thousands of kilometers away from their homes and families, millions of international migrants face an uncertain future as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates their vulnerabilities. The highly-contagious disease has spread across all but a handful of countries and the draconian measures taken to stop its spread have essentially halted many non-essential industries, racking up unemployment levels to historic highs and challenging migrants on multiple fronts.

Migrant workers are at higher risk as they tend to work in sectors and positions that are particularly vulnerable to an economic slowdown and often have lesser access to social protection benefits.

The majority of international migrants are driven to foreign countries by reasons related to work, family, and study. These people move to the host countries after going through due migration processes that can stretch up to a few years. Whereas, the remaining migrant population seeks refuge in other countries due to a range of compelling and often life-threatening reasons, such as conflict, persecution, and disaster. Refugees often risk their life and thousands even die every year while traveling to other countries in search of safer living conditions. Although these represent a small percentage of the total migrant population, they are often the most in need of assistance and support during any crisis.

Migrants living in camps at the borders of European countries or the US face the threat of an uncontrollable spread of COVID-19 given their proximity to highly affected countries and their often cramped living conditions. An outbreak in these communities would be particularly devastating because they lack proper access to healthcare services.

Social distancing is not an option in these camps and healthcare infrastructure is often inadequate. Human rights advocates have expressed concerns over living conditions and the vulnerability of migrants living between Turkey and Greece. Similar concerns have been raised over a makeshift migrant camp at the US-Mexico border that is particularly vulnerable.

Migrants in essential workforce

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was infected with the COVID-19 disease and admitted to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as his health deteriorated. Popular for his anti-migration stance, it was arguably a historic moment when Johnson expressed his "debt" to two foreign-born nurses who helped him recover.

The Prime Minister's comments made headlines but the case in favor of migrants is prevalent across the United Kingdom and its National Health Service (NHS), which is on the frontline in the fight against this pandemic and helping thousands of British in need by endangering their own lives. More than 13% of NHS staff that serve in hospitals and community services across England are of non-British nationality. The proportion of foreign-born doctors in the NHS is significantly higher at 28.4%.

A pre-pandemic estimate of staffing shortages in the NHS stood at around 100,000, a gap that analysts say can't be filled by natives.

Another lucrative destination for migrants is the United States. According to the Center of Migration Studies (CMS), migrants comprise 16% of US health care workers and the proportion goes above 30% in New York State, California, and New Jersey. Over 21% of doctors practicing in the US are migrants and the percentage again goes above 30% in those 3 states.

Migrants also comprise of 25% workforce in pharmaceutical manufacturing and over 31% of agricultural employees in the US. These workers, especially refugees, tend to take low-paying jobs that the natives are less willing to do like janitors and maintenance workers, agricultural workers, and truck drivers.

Australian policies have been much more welcoming to migrants over the last few decades and as a result, more than 7 million people out of Australia's population of almost 25 million are foreign-born. Migrants have greatly contributed to the Australian economy, which has been growing from the last 28 years without a recession, and economists argue that the record-breaking feat couldn't have been achieved without the contribution of foreign-born workers.

From the numbers it's clear that migrants are an irreplaceable part of even the essential workforce of developed countries and are on the frontline in the fight against the crisis, making an immeasurable contribution to save the lives of 'natives' with voting rights. But as the sentiments of protectionism increase due to an economic downturn, will their contribution be the ground for change?

Lessons from the Second World War

The challenges faced by the general population due to this pandemic have been compared to the second world war by the likes of United Nations chief Antonio Gutters and Bill Gates. Intergovernmental organizations like World Health Organization (WHO) are catalyzing multinational response to fight against the COVID-19, just like the war effort by rich countries.

Britain called in millions of people from its colonies and allies during the second world war as it needed the manpower to keep the essential industries going and to sustain on the battleground. Those people served alongside the army, nursed the sick, and helped agricultural activities to ensure the country doesn't run out of food supplies.

After the war, thousands of people were sent back to their home countries and the repatriations were mired in controversies and protests. But soon enough many countries realized the need for migrant workers to rebuild economies. The UK opened its doors to migrants with laws like the British Nationality Act of 1948, which gave all Commonwealth citizens free entry into the country.

Australia also started opening up doors for migrant workers and some 4.2 million immigrants arrived between 1945 and 1985, about 40 percent of whom came from Britain and Ireland.

To bolster the much-depleted domestic labor forces, both France and Germany encouraged their colonial subjects in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to move to Europe.

These workers went on to become taxpayers and made significant economic and cultural contributions to their host countries but they are still neglected in national histories. Even during the aftermath of the war, governments recognized the importance of migrant workers but on the ground, they were paid poorly and faced discrimination by employers as well as natives.

The actual impact of migration

Contrary to the popular belief, international migrants make up only 3.5 percent of the world's population and contribute greatly to their host country as well as their home country when they send remittances, which reached a record USD 554 billion in 2019 and surpassed FDI in low and middle-income countries. Research has also shown that migration only has a small impact on the unemployment rate among native citizens.

Dustmann et al. (2005) concluded that although migration had no effect on the overall employment outcomes of UK-born workers, it adversely impacted the employment of workers with intermediate education but positively impacting those with A-levels or university degrees. Lemos and Portes (2008) analyzed the impact of labor migration of EU-8 workers on claimant unemployment but found little evidence of a negative effect. Another study focusing on the impact of migration on London, the region with the highest levels of migration over the past few decades, also found no adverse effects (Fingleton et al, 2019).

A similar effect has been seen in the average wages of native workers. UK's Migration Advisory Council in 2018 estimated that an increase in the number of EU migrants corresponding to 1% of the UK-born working-age population resulted in a 0.8% decrease in wages for native workers at the 5th and 10th percentiles (i.e. workers in the bottom 5-10% of earners or those working in low-income jobs), and a 0.6% increase at the 90th percentile (i.e. high earners). In practice, this means that between 1993 and 2017, EU migration led to a 4.9% reduction in the wages of UK-born workers at the 10th earnings percentile but it also translated into a 4.4% increase at the 90th percentile.

Evidence also suggests that when migrants take low-paying and entry-level jobs, native workers, who often have a better quality education, can elevate to higher positions.

But as the data above shows, the concerns against migration are also not unfound and average workers might get negatively impacted by a large inflow of migrants. It depends on various factors like the inflow of migrants and whether they want jobs that complement or substitute existing workers.

And this is where regulations come in play to ensure the welfare of native residents because a huge, unregulated inflow of only high-skilled migrants would mean more competition for natives in high-skilled jobs and lower average wages. Whereas, a large inflow of only low-skilled workers will force native workers to retool their skills to remain relevant.

An unregulated inflow of migrants in developed countries would also undermine institutions that make a country 'developed' in the first place.

Factors impacting the future of migration


The issue of migration has been politicized for decades. Millions of migrants who help unleash the full potential of developed economies often find themselves stuck in the middle of politics of fear and loathing.

US President Donald Trump has already partially suspended migration and will most likely stick to his anti-migrant stance as he goes into the fight for re-election. The current immigration suspension is limited in scope, applying to only 32 percent of green card applicants, but has clear mechanisms to renew or expand the suspension in the future.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had also announced in 2019 that he would be capping permanent migration numbers at 160,000 per year, down from 190,000. His stance remains the same in the face of the COVID-19 crisis and the government has excluded temporary visa holders, including international students, asylum seekers, and working visa holders, from federal assistance.

Changing attitude

The COVID-19 pandemic is also leading to a changing attitude towards migrants in some countries. In the UK, few campaigns have been started to thank migrants for putting their lives at risk in the fight against coronavirus. Public sentiment towards migration is changing as British 'clap' for essential workers which include migrants who work as doctors, nurses, and caregivers among other essential jobs. But it remains to be seen if this newfound appreciation translates to change when the streets are no longer quite.

Australian PM Morrison asked temporary visa holders to return home if they aren't able to support themselves in Australia but he also stated international visitors who have critical skills could be the exception.

His stance for foreign nationals with critical skills that "can really help during this crisis" gave more weight to the argument of pro-migration analysts that say that relaxed migration rules would be needed to rebuild the economies and broaden the taxpayer base.


"In my experience as a politician, I'd say that when things go wrong in a country, there are two potential targets: one is the government, the other is the foreigners," said the then-UNHCR chief and current UN chief Antonio Gutters after the 2008 financial crisis.

Several instances of attacks on migrants were reported from developed countries after the 2008 crisis, which led to the tightening of migration policies. Rising unemployment levels and increasing public pressure made politicians implement measures that made it difficult for migrants to enter the country.

The COVID-19 crisis could also spark a similar wave of xenophobia in several countries and force governments to tighten controls on migration. Such measures could leave a long-term impact on the demographics of a country as political factors make it harder to loosen controls over migration even during economic prosperity. As a result, sectors with genuine shortages of workers could suffer.


The World Bank has projected that global remittances will decline by about 20 percent in 2020 due to the economic crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The projected fall would be the sharpest decline in recent history as migrants face an uncertain future due to falling wages and rising unemployment levels.

Remittances are an important source of external financing for several developing countries and can range more than 30% of the total GDP of countries like Kyrgyzstan and Haiti. These transfers help alleviate poverty in lower- and middle-income countries, improve nutritional outcomes, are associated with higher spending on education, and reduce child labor in marginalized households.

Remittances to lower and middle-income countries reached a record of USD 554 billion in 2019, indicating the impact these transfers can have on developing countries.

Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) is an initiative of VisionRI and aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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