The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the essential role of migration in a globalised economy. The recovery must not be jeopardised by self-harming xenophobia.
With borders closed and migration and mobility halted, these days look very much like an ‘alt-right’ dream coming true. But the emerging reality is only confirming that their misleading policies lead the world straight to an economic nightmare.
With international travel suspended, enterprises around the world have experienced severe shortages of workers. Crops have started to rot in the farms due to a lack of seasonal workers who would normally pick them, leading the UK to allow charter flights to bring in workers and prevent food supplies seizing up. Health systems are overwhelmed, so several regional authorities in Italy, Germany and Canada have adopted emergency decrees to allow migrants and refugees to provide their expertise, simplifying the normally overwhelming processes to recognise their qualifications.
Universities around the world are already forecasting severe losses as they struggle to sustain admissions of international students and to attract researchers they desperately need. With the reopening of national economies beginning, more and more sectors will be affected by a mobility constraint which risks compounding and deepening the anticipated global recession.
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Beyond industrialised countries, the hard stop to migration and mobility is affecting the fragile economies of entire regions, from Latin America to south-east Asia. International migration constitutes an essential element of the business model of several countries, as they export their surplus workforce and import hard currency in the form of remittances. In 2018 over half a billion dollars were sent from industrialised economies to low- and middle-income countries—more than three times the volume of development assistance.
Throughout history, mobility and migration have also represented indispensable coping strategies, providing a lifeline to refugees and persons displaced by humanitarian crises and an opportunity for talented individuals to match their ambitions with opportunities. With remittance flows estimated to shrink by about 20 per cent this year, and mobility grinding to an halt, there is an increased risk hard won anti-poverty gains will quickly recede, further widening global inequalities.
Regular migration and mobility are core features of a healthy economy. The number of international migrants reached an estimated 272 million globally in 2019, contributing to virtually every country’s economic output. It is estimated that migrants contribute yearly around 10 per cent of global gross domestic product.
Despite this, for many years all political attention has been devoted to a minimal fraction of this group, the migrants—in fact largely refugees seeking asylum—arriving irregularly at the external borders of Europe and the United States. Rather than an economic powerhouse, migration has been treated as a security threat.
Covid-19 may offer a unique opportunity to overcome the mistakes of the past and rethink the global migratory and mobility system from bottom up, incorporating it as a core element of the recovery strategy. Doing so will require four major paradigm shifts.
First, migration should move away from being a sole competence of interior ministers. Economic and social actors should be brought to the table and their concerns should deeply inform the redesigning of migratory policies at national, regional and international levels. Legal migration and mobility channels should be developed on the basis of this dialogue, focusing on the economic sectors facing labour shortfalls. This will offer an opportunity to address irregular migration through structured legal migration channels and widen opportunities for refugees, including students and workers, to seek protection in a regular manner.
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Secondly, the migratory chains and pipelines should be rethought altogether, to integrate justified health concerns without hampering the role migration and mobility need to play in supporting the recovery. Specific ideas are starting to emerge, from health passports to airport screening, but many more will be required and their compliance with fundamental rights assured.
Thirdly, governments and civil-society players need to coalesce around collective campaigns to prevent the spread of false and misleading narratives about migrants, promoting instead the role third-country nationals are playing in societies and communities in responding to the crisis. The last thing the world can afford right now is a recrudescence of the xenophobic and right-wing narratives that will stifle recovery and deepen the recession.
Last but not least, authorities need to invest in designing ‘inclusive recovery plans’, which incorporate dedicated investments to cater for the most vulnerable in society, reduce inequalities and allow migrants to play an active role in the emergence from the crisis. Portugal and Italy are leading the way by promoting innovative regularisation opportunities for irregular migrants who live at the margins of society and the economy.
The upcoming European Union Asylum and Migration Pact can be a powerful opportunity to integrate migration in the recovery programmes, overcoming an approach focused primarily on the few irregular migrants who reach Europe’s borders and rising to the ambition of redesigning migration in all its aspects and complexities. At a global level, implementation of the United Nations refugee and migration ‘compacts’—to which a large part of the world’s governments have subscribed—can offer the means to design a more sustainable global migration and asylum system.
For many years, policy-makers took for granted the mobility and migration which oiled global value chains and propped up the world’s economies. That system has shattered. It will require careful rebuilding with a purposeful redesign. Sliding back to a failing status quo ante will not do.