COVID-19 and migration: Current impacts and future trends

By Evelyn Rupert

While migrants are among the vulnerable populations that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, the pandemic has also underscored their resilience and untapped potential for long-term development activities, experts said.

During a virtual panel discussion called “Remittances, Migration and COVID-19: Understanding Patterns in 2020,” Creative COO and panel moderator Pablo Maldonado highlighted that the pandemic has had the largest impact on already marginalized people – including the poor, underserved and youth, who are the first to have lost jobs.

The pandemic doesn’t have a uniform effect on these vulnerable groups. Marina Manke, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Labour Mobility and Human Development Division, noted during the Oct. 8 virtual panel that the pandemic has unique impacts on different subsets of mobile populations, including documented and undocumented immigrants, migrant workers with temporary status, those who are trying but unable to return to their home countries, returnees and families reliant on support from relatives abroad.

Common for many migrants, however, are lower levels of access to health services and financial assistance and a disproportionate representation in economic sectors devastated by COVID-19 — all factors that exacerbate the economic impacts of the pandemic.

“The pandemic exposed the existing inequalities and vulnerabilities of those specific population groups, depending on how well they integrated into societies, the existence of safety nets, level of income, ability to retain jobs depending on the industry,” Manke said.

“Remittances, Migration and COVID-19: Understanding Patterns in 2020” was an inaugural event for Creative’s Center for Migration and Economic Stabilization. To learn more about the Center, click here.

Remittances and resilience

As COVID-19 and its economic consequences impact global migration flows, experts are looking at remittances as a bellwether. Despite the shocks and uncertainty, remittances suggest that migrants are withstanding the crisis much better than expected and are continuing to support family members in their home countries.

While remittances are still expected to decline this year by about 5 percent globally — representing $3 billion across 2 million households — it’s a far less drastic drop than initial predictions of 20 percent.

Manuel Orozco, Director of Creative’s Center for Migration Economic Stabilization, has been studying remittance trends for more than 20 years and said comparisons with the economic crisis of 2008-2009 suggest that migrants “tried to improve savings capabilities, learning from the lessons of the 2009 recession,” and were better positioned to weather the present economic downturn.

Matt Oppenheimer, CEO of money transfer company Remitly, noted that remittances are a “lifeline” for millions of people around the globe. In more than 50 countries around the world, remittances are more than 5 percent of gross domestic product, and in countries like Haiti, Tajikistan and Moldova, over 20 percent. For many, remittances represent more than half of their total household income.

Immigrants “made commitments to their families during these uncertain times,” Oppenheimer said during the one-hour session. “They continue to work and find ways to honor those commitments and are sending money home to support family members who also potentially lost employment or are impacted by what is obviously a global pandemic.”

An important trend with significant implications for development is the pace at which remittance senders are switching to digital platforms like Remitly. While more than 60 percent of remittances are still sent with cash at a physical location, Oppenheimer said the shift to digital, which had been occurring slowly during the past several years, is now accelerating.

This change speaks to the larger issue of digital finance, one piece of the landscape of post-COVID economies. Orozco remarked that the weakened economies in migrants’ home countries, their increased vulnerability in host countries and major shifts in the global economy “will require an accelerated economic approach to the changes that are taking place.” Leaning into digital finance tools may be part of the solution.

“Remittances and migration play an important role,” he said. “One perhaps is the issue of financial inclusion, digital finance and how to leverage these issues, particularly paying attention to key sectors of the economies that have been less productive.”

“Migrant inclusion matters”

In addition to increasing financial inclusion, Felipe Muñoz, Migration Unit Chief at the Inter-American Development Bank, emphasized that there is much the international community and governments can do to build inclusion and leverage the skills and assets that migrants and returnees bring.

“We need to do a lot more with the governments to have this regulatory framework to take advantage of the ‘brain gain,’” he said. “Maybe we need to turn the coin and be thinking about how we can include migrants in post-COVID recovery programs, and of course migrant skills and qualifications are key issues.”

Developing policies to acknowledge and accept diplomas from other countries, increasing knowledge about sectors that could benefit from migrant work, and better absorbing returnees bringing home new skills and knowledge into the economy are all ways inclusion can be increased.

In short, Orozco remarked: “Migrant inclusion matters.”

Migration is not just a development challenge, but also a resource that can be part of development solutions. Panelists highlighted, for example, the power of the diaspora community and investment as a tool for development when the right enabling conditions are present.

“Migration is definitely a reality that is at the intersection between the industrialized world and the developed world, and it captures all of the imperfections of these worlds,” Orozco said. “Therefore, it’s important to look with a closer look with a magnifying glass the realities of migration as a way to solve many of the world’s problems.”

Looking forward post-COVID

In the short term, the pandemic, border closures and travel restrictions have caused a significant decline in migration. However, shocks to people’s livelihoods and other factors will continue to reverberate and affect their decisions to migrate, as well as return to their home countries, moving forward.

“Truthfully, many governments are really incapable of projecting a sense of hope and optimism, and we know from research that this is an important consideration in making the actual decision to migrate,” Maldonado said. “So, it seems like at the moment with COVID, we have the convergence of three dimensions: the risk factors, unemployment and downturn in the economy.”

Orozco predicted that we will see the true impact of the pandemic in the coming few years.

“The wave of migration occurs pretty much two to three years after the major event shakes people, and that’s because of the time that it takes to garner resources and make a decision whether to risk it staying here or risk it and leave,” he said.

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