Despite the decline in global migration in 2020, host countries around the world are waiting for the resumption of migration inflows. It is often difficult to heal the disease of migrantophobia and the issue of final recovery is not on the agenda yet, Valdai Club expert Dmitry Poletayev writes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely limited international migration due to border closures and has forced millions of people to return home. According to expert estimates, the pandemic reduced the number of international migrants by the middle of 2020 by about 2 million people: to 281 million people instead of the expected 283 million people. In 2020, immigration to the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was half what it had been in 2019; in Canada the number of immigrants decreased by 45%, and in Australia – by 70%. To compensate the negative impact on its economy, Canada launched a recruitment programme to bring in 400,000 immigrants in 2021, 2022 and 2023. The number of migrants who came to Saudi Arabia decreased by 90%. The pandemic partly realised a hypothetical situation long idealised among migrantophobes: “how much better it would be if the migrants went back where they came from.” Although some, rather than all migrants returned to their homelands, the host countries were able to really feel what it was like to do without them. Industries that had relied on migrant employees began to experience labour shortages. In Russia, the construction industry felt this outflow so sharply that the authorities began to discuss special measures and programmes to compensate for the new deficit. Agriculture in Australia and Germany also felt the closure of borders and restrictions on labour migration acutely, as well as the medical sector in the OECD, in which a quarter of the staff comes from other countries.
The immigration of highly-skilled professionals, for which developed countries compete with each other, has also slowed, in part due to increased opportunities for remote work.
The pandemic has worsened the situation in countries where migrant families depend on remittances. The decrease in the scale of international migration has led to a drop of remittances of migrants to their home countries. In 2020, private transborder remittances from Russia to the CIS countries (from where the main flow of migrants to Russia comes) was only 85.6% what it had been in 2019, for the countries of Central Asia (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan), this figure was 85.4%.
Both states and businesses that consider migration from an economic point of view, in general perceive it pragmatically and understand their dependence on it; they feel the need to close the “skill level gap” which characterises the labour shortage, and often act together when making important decisions regulating migration flows. But the population of countries receiving migrants, including Russia, only indirectly feels the economic benefits of migration, fearing for their future, experiencing a crisis of confidence in state institutions and at the level of individual relationships. A high level of migrantophobia, albeit hidden, still remains.
So, according to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights in Russia, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a decrease in social activity of the population and reduced the number of open conflicts, including those on ethnic and religious grounds. The decrease in the level of xenophobia is largely due to the introduction of restrictions on public events, but intolerance has partly moved to the Internet. A slight decrease in xenophobic crimes is also recorded by other experts of the Russian civil society.
Goodwill or rejection towards migrants in Russia can be assessed from two sides: on the part of Russians and on the part of the migrants themselves, who determine the attitude of Russians towards them. A comparison of these two indicators in 2020 showed that migrantophobia in Russia during the pandemic has retained a latent character, so-called “sleeping aggressiveness”.
Let us clarify this point using the example of migrants from Central Asia, whose presence in Russia raises sharp assessments and opinions. In 2020, two-thirds of Russians voiced a cool attitude towards migrants from Central Asia, and two-thirds of migrants from Central Asian countries said they’d experienced welcoming attitudes among Russians.
According to the Levada Center (foreign agent), migrantophobia over the past 10 years has not fundamentally changed, in the sense that about 60% of Russian citizens consistently do not want to see immigrants from Central Asia or are only ready to see them stay temporarily. On the other hand, over the past decade, the number of those who are ready to see such migrants among their relatives, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and residents of Russia has grown by almost 10% (from 28% in 2010 to 39% in 2019 and 38% in 2020). Russians, according to the opinion of the migrants from Central Asia, interviewed in November-December 2020 . The study was conducted within the framework of the Regional Project of the International Organization for Migration “Reducing the impact of the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrants and communities in Central Asia and the Russian Federation” (2020). are generally rather positive towards them. Thus, almost two-thirds (62%) of the respondents said they’d experienced a welcoming attitude among the local population, and a quarter (26%) – said they’d experienced a neutral attitude. Only 1% of respondents said they’d met with local hostility: including more women (2%) than men (1%) and more migrants from Uzbekistan (2.4%) than migrants from Tajikistan (1.7%) and Kyrgyzstan (0.3%).
The outlined growth of xenophobia and migrantophobia in the countries receiving migrants at the beginning of the pandemic as a whole did not lead to a significant surge in intolerance, but there is no particular decline in it either. So, in 2020, there was an increase in right-wing extremism in Germany, and in 2021 60% of US citizens expressed dissatisfaction with the steps of the new administration regarding the situation on the border with Mexico.
Despite the decline in global migration in 2020, host countries around the world are waiting for the resumption of migration inflows, including through the already-formed informal channels – from the sea route from Africa through Lampedusa island to the US-Mexican border. It is often difficult to heal the disease of migrantophobia and the issue of final recovery is not on the agenda yet.