Five Ways COVID-19 Is Changing Global Migration

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed human mobility for those of us washing our hands vigorously and avoiding social contact. But in addition to these disruptions to daily life, the pandemic could be fundamentally changing the face of global migration in at least five key ways.

As I write this from a corner of my daughter’s room which has been converted into a makeshift home office, odds are you are also reading this from your home—if you are fortunate enough to have access to the internet at home and the option to work remotely. Schools and restaurants are closed. Airports and bus terminals are next. Only when people have stopped moving do we realize how much freedom of movement—the ability to visit a neighbor, to catch the train to work, to see a movie in the theater, or to fly across the world to see family—is a fundamental part of the human experience.

COVID-19 has brought most of the world to a halt. It has ushered in an entirely new human experience full of hand soap and Zoom. But it has also fundamentally altered global human mobility. After 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration shutdown airspace across the United States, and within hours almost all aircraft were grounded. Iconic time-lapse maps appeared soon thereafter showing once crowded skies becoming almost instantaneously empty. This is akin to what is happening to human mobility across the globe.

Much has been made of the important health and economic implications of COVID-19 that could linger well after workers return to work and travelers start traveling again. But the current global cessation of movement is unprecedented in modern times. Some are comparing the current pandemic to the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918, but from one important perspective the two pandemics differ greatly: the face of global migration was much different in the wake of WWI than in 2020. Thus, COVID-19 is likely to have lasting migration implications long after people, health systems, and the economy bounce back.

Human mobility has historically come in many forms. As planes, trains, and automobiles became safer, more efficient, and more accessible over the past century, short-term movements to and from places of work and schooling, between towns and cities, and even across the globe have become commonplace. Accelerated by the advent of the internet and the subsequent social media revolution, the desire and ability to move accelerated to the point that it has permeated even the furthest reaches of the planet.

Not everyone wants to leave home, of course, but many (and many more than in 1918) see migration as at least one future pathway, whether it be permanently or temporarily with the hopes to one day return home. In many ways, the global economy relies on people making decisions to migrate: Central American tomato pickers in Florida, Bangladeshi construction workers in Abu Dhabi, and Indian entrepreneurs in Melbourne. Global migration has proven to be an integral and necessary part of our globalized economy, though its face has looked different in every region, country, and city, as well as to each family.

Until COVID-19 brought it all to a screeching halt.

Today, unprecedented travel and mobility restrictions have potential short- and longer-term repercussions. In the short term, as of March 23, at least 174 countries, territories, or areas have issued new or changed existing COVID-19 related travel restrictions,” according to the UN Migration Agency. The most common types of restrictions are for those with medical issues, those traveling from “restricted countries,” and those with nationalities that happen to overlap with restricted countries. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is essentially tracking the day-by-day shutdown of global mobility pathways. Each day, countries get more restrictive, requiring more people from more places to be quarantined for longer upon arrival. These restrictions are likely to continue for months, at least until the curve has been flattened. In the meantime, separated families will stay separated, global summits (and the Olympics) will be delayed or cancelled, and family reunions will be postponed.

More importantly, COVID-19-related disruptions are likely to have longer-term impacts on migration. Here are five possible ways that could happen.

1. Migrant labor—the engine of a globalized economy—stops moving. While exemptions might be made for key professions (e.g., scientists, doctors, journalists, government leaders), those who travel to work and travel for work may not be able to do so for the foreseeable future. This will have family, economic, and potentially food security implications. Migrant workers currently overseas may not be able to get home, and families already dealing with complicated immigration and visa regimes may experience prolonged separation for an entirely new reason. It is conceivable that, in response to current and future quarantines or “stay at home” orders, businesses will also accelerate development of automation capabilities, thereby removing some jobs often filled by migrants more quickly.

If migrant workers are unable to travel to agricultural fields and these restrictions are paired with broader disruptions to the global food supply chain, it is worth considering longer-term impacts on global food security. As pointed out by CSIS’s Caitlin Welsh, for the time being, countries such as the United States have plenty of food. But prolonged disruptions to migration could reorient agricultural production and value chains to the detriment of food security, especially in the developing world.

In most industries, inevitable COVID-19-related layoffs will undoubtedly target migrant workers, many of whom are on temporary visas. For example, New Zealand has around 190,000 people living on temporary visas, many of whom will face impossible choices upon being laid off: try to find another job suitable under their visa in a tanking economy before being deported, try to get a different type of visa, or try to get on one of the very restricted flights back to a home country that is likely dealing with even greater economic hardship. And when jobs do become available, the governments of New Zealand, the United States, and many other countries will undoubtedly encourage businesses to hire citizens over migrants. Such decisions will have lasting effects on migrant workers, their families, and their communities.

Whether it is Turkish guest workers to Germany in the 1960s, Vietnamese refugees across the globe in the 1970s, or rural farmers flocking to Chinese megacities in the 1980s, migrants have been the engine of the last century’s globalized economy. The inability of labor to move efficiently—or at all—will impact future global output while putting migrant families themselves under greater financial strain. This will, in turn, increase global inequality.

2. Global inequality increases. Global inequality was already at its highest levels in history when COVID-19 hit. As of January 2020, 2,153 people hold more wealth than the world’s poorest 4.6 billion people. The world’s 22 richest men have more wealth than all the women in Africa. While stock market losses will undoubtedly impact the near-term prospects of some wealthy individuals, recent history suggests that they will be just fine. In fact, global inequality is likely to increase in the medium-to-long term, in part because of the pandemic’s lasting impact on migration. Countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ghana, and Honduras rely heavily on remittances from citizens abroad. In 2018, the developing world as a whole received $529 billion in remittances, 75 percent of total foreign direct investment inflows received in the same year. If migrant labor abroad is significantly disrupted by the economic shocks detailed above, those sources of income for families across the developing world will be impacted, creating ripple effects throughout their economies and, in turn, further widening the gap between the richer and poorer countries. Governments do have options, and the way they respond will matter, especially since the full economic impacts of COVID-19 have not been felt in much of the developing world.

Some of us are fortunate enough to work from home during this time, benefiting from not only the requisite physical and digital infrastructure but also the types of jobs that can be taken online. Many labor migrants—especially of the low-skilled variety—do not have the option to work from home. Like many lower-income people, they must physically go to work, putting them at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 and putting them in further jeopardy because many do not have access to appropriate, financially-accessible health care. According to the United Nations, “[migrants] and their families are often part of marginalized and vulnerable groups that are already experiencing economic hardship as a result of containment measures.” In an extreme case, that could become more the norm as the pandemic worsens. For example, Iranian hospitals are refusing to treat Afghan migrants, resulting in many returning home to a country with a health infrastructure all but destroyed after decades of conflict.

Seeing unequal responses and increased xenophobic reactions to migrants, the United Nations Network on Migration has called for more uniform, non-discriminatory approaches in line with international law. A recent press release states that “[migrants] and people on the move face the same health threats from COVID-19 as host populations but may face particular vulnerabilities due to the circumstances of their journey and the poor living and working conditions in which they can find themselves.”

3. Faucets turn off more easily than they turn on. With few anecdotes to the contrary, politicians with skeptical or outright hostile views of migration have experienced electoral success around the world in recent years. COVID-19 has ushered in a new era of travel restrictions and required medical testing of migrants. While most of these regulations are designed to be temporary, it is not hard to imagine President Victor Orbán, or others, manufacturing crisis after crisis to keep Hungary’s borders de facto permanently closed to migrants. A fear of a second or third wave of COVID-19. A subsequent disease. A crisis originating in sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East that forces millions to seek refuge in Europe. An entirely manufactured crisis playing to fears and a current lack of trust in institutions. Such never-ending emergency extensions are not unprecedented nor are they unrealistic in a post COVID-19 world. As Yuval Noah Hariri points out, “temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies.”

Though many migration pathways will reopen after the threat of COVID-19 disappears, some political leaders such as Orbán will see current migration restrictions as an opportunity to reinforce broader, longer-term agendas built around xenophobia and the “othering” of migrants. As deaths inevitably increase in the days and weeks ahead, these leaders will have increasing public support for tighter short-term migration restrictions. What the public does not realize is that it may not be as easy to turn the flow of migration back on after it has been turned off.

4. Forced migrants are unable to move, keeping vulnerable people in harm’s way. Though this commentary focuses heavily on the potential longer-term implications of restrictions to labor migration, already vulnerable forced migrants will also suffer from fewer movement options. Already at risk of COVID-19, the forcibly displaced—refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons—and other forced migrants are also faced with diminished institutional capacity offering them support. In Italy, this means that recently arriving asylum seekers face mandatory two-week quarantines and vastly fewer or no integration services even after the 14 days due to mandatory country-wide restrictions on workers going to work. If forced migrants—such as those coming to Italy via Libya—are seen as bringing COVID-19 with them, public opinion from Sicily to Sweden will undoubtedly harden in ways that will not soon go away.

Some movement pathways will reopen as quickly as possible, but their closing at all may have longer-term repercussions. Colombia has halved its Venezuela response services despite ever increasing needs. Even though they consider it a “ vital lifeline” for the forcibly displaced, the United Nation’s migration and refugee agencies halted refugee resettlement globally over COVID-19 concerns. These and other necessary short-term restrictions, however, mean that vulnerable forced migrants often living in overcrowded camps and in dense urban areas with poor access to quality health care will be at increased risk. According to Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development who was a central player in the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, “[You] would have a hard time designing a more dangerous setting for the spread of this disease than an informal IDP settlement. You have a crowded population, very poor sanitation . . . very poor disease surveillance, very poor health services. This could be extraordinarily dangerous.” Much of this risk will be concentrated in the developing world, where 84 percent of refugees and 99 percent of internally displaced persons currently reside and to where COVID-19 is only recently arriving. For example, Italy had more COVID-19 related deaths in one day (602) than all of South Africa’s confirmed cases to date (402) as of March 23. When the virus inevitably spreads across sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world, forced migrants will almost certainly be at greater risk.

But these risks are not all far from the United States. In northern Mexico, asylum seekers denied entry into the United States bide time in makeshift, overcrowded camps with poor access to sanitation, watching as COVID-19 spreads among their already vulnerable population. Even so, as pointed out by CSIS’s Jake Kurtzer, there are relatively few known cases of COVID-19 in displaced communities, but this is “more likely a result of a lack of testing and awareness than the absence of the virus.” Given the risks and the nature and spread of COVID-19, it is only a matter of time before a significant outbreak spreads throughout more displaced communities.

Additionally, the majority of forced migrants are internally displaced, so blocked movement pathways also mean that these people will be stuck in or near the dangerous places that forced them from home in the first place. This could create opportunities for non-state actors to exploit grievances against governments. It could also force desperate people escaping harm to do so via shadowy irregular pathways.

5. Global migration goes increasingly into the shadows. There is growing evidence that limits on safe, orderly, and regular migration push vulnerable people—as many as 100 million globally —into shadowy irregular pathways. As I wrote recently, “[irregular] migration exists because there are not enough opportunities for safety and prosperity at home and too few regular means through which to remedy that lack of opportunities.” COVID-19 means that there are fewer regular means for migration than there were a couple months ago. When combined, the economic, inequality, political, and displacement-related implications discussed above will only increase desperation at a time when fewer migration pathways exist. In such a scenario, those feeling compelled to move will do so increasingly using smugglers, traffickers, and other illicit groups. Migration will be increasing in and among developing countries with weaker health systems and rule of law. Irregular migrants will travel in close quarters with other people. They will cross international boundaries without documentation or health checks. In the age of COVID-19, they will also put themselves, their fellow travelers, and anyone in their extended path at grave risk.


The above list of five longer-term impacts on migration is by no means comprehensive, nor do any of these challenges come with easy solutions. However, it is important to consider longer-term repercussions when designing short-term human mobility restrictions, akin to efforts to make sure that people unable to work right now do not lose their jobs permanently. Not doing so could result in more economic stress, greater levels of global inequality, more vulnerability to forced migrant populations, and increases in irregular migration.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program