Morality and Law
The Pandemic and International Migration: Exploiting the Healthcare Crisis to Reform Mobility Governance

It is remarkable that liberal and authoritarian states around the globe alike turned to ultra-radical policy measures and largely outlawed fundamental liberties including the right to leave one’s country, city or even home, at least temporarily, not seen since the exceptional times of martial law, the Chinese Hukou system or the Soviet era, writes Franck Düvell, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, Osnabrück University.

Early 2020, Earth was struck by a pandemic, not for the first time though but this time it caused a global moral panic. The initial response to fight the spread of the virus was to fight mobility and international migration, internal mobility, commuting to work and even short trips for shopping or visiting family and friends were largely banned. Basically, the engine that drives much of today’s economy and social life — mobility — came to a grinding halt; only digital industries, the transportation and delivery sectors and certain key industries were spared and partly even thrived. Still, working-hours equivalent to 100 million full-time jobs were lost and the global economy has dropped by 3.2 to 4.5%, a loss of 4 or even 8 trillion US dollar. As a side-effect, many fundamental rights and civil liberties such as the right to travel, work, education or family life or to gather for political purposes were de facto suspended.

Crises often highlight or exacerbate issues that had already been looming but were often concealed of an otherwise healthy-looking situation. For example, the arrival of large numbers of refugees frequently reveals pre-existing latent nationalism and xenophobia. History also shows that crises can and have been exploited to push through policies that had already been in the drawers but were considered too controversial to be put into practice. For example, the dismantling of workers’ and welfare rights from the 1970s in Europe and the US only became possible in the wake of the economic crisis. And this year, warnings have been issued not to misuse public health issues for other political purposes; though my contributions suggests that these have not been acknowledged everywhere.

The pandemic struck at a time of and thus overlaps with several other crises, the protracted Syrian crisis, the global refugee crisis — numbers have reached record level, the crisis of the EU partly triggered by Brexit as well as the rise of illiberal and/or Eurosceptic forces and political turmoil in the US and elsewhere, and now the Afghanistan crisis. It thus occurred at times of a fundamental transformation of the global socio-economic and political order all causing uncertainties and tensions.

Notably, mobility had already been widely looked at with increasing anxiety. In many countries, anti-migration sentiments and xenophobia had for long been on the rise. This spurred a securitisation of migration and the pandemic added concerns over health security to this already strong trend. Migration and migrants are now widely perceived as risks. This is fuelled by the climate crisis which has already been raising doubts over the future of extensive driving, flying and traveling as is so typical for our hyper-mobile era; the pandemic further accelerated this trend. Also the rise of authoritarian ruling had been noticed in many parts of the world and the pandemic only spurred this trend. It is very likely that at least some of the new features, notably new lines of migration and border controls such as health controls and traveller tracking and tracing apps will exist beyond the end of the pandemic just as many of the measures introduced after 9/11 are still operational.

The recent report by Dmitri Poletaev and Andrei Korobkov on “International Migration in Pandemic Times” published by the Valdai Club is not only so relevant because it adds to international scholarship the cases of Russia and Central Asia, cases which are so often and annoyingly neglected by western academia. The report also reveals some important similarities and differences between Russia, the US and other countries.

On the one hand, it shows that in Russia, as well as in Germany, the UK or Dubai the pandemic exposes the vulnerability of migrants, notably their often precarious immigration status as well as their precarious employment situation. It also illustrates how close many of them and their families are on the brink of poverty: many lost their job but are not eligible to benefits and have thus become destitute. This, we could clearly see, is a global phenomenon affecting migrants in Russia, Germany and elsewhere alike.

On the other hand, the report implies, for example, that reverse migration of migrant workers seems more dramatic in Russia but also in the UK (partly driven by Brexit) or the Gulf countries than, for example, in Germany. It can be assumed that this is because immigrants in Germany often have a permanent status and thus access to welfare rights so that they are affected less severe than those migrants with a temporary and thus precarious status; hence, in countries with more settled immigrants fewer people are severely affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic so that the pressure to return is less strong.

Further to this, Poletaev and Korobkov imply that also the different countries of origin in the different regional migration systems are affected quite differently by this “great reverse migration” and the subsequent collapse of remittances of migrants. Whereas in the EU migrants in their majority come from other member states they did not immediately plunge into severe poverty upon return; in contrast, in the already poor Central Asian republics the return of the now unemployed migrants and the breakdown of the all-important remittances pushed many families into despair, as in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

A potential side-effect of the increase of global poverty due to the loss of income from migrant work we might only see in the future: rising poverty could potentially fuel social discontent which in turn may lead to the destabilisation of entire regions and countries. This would cause more future forced migration which would affect the still affluent countries, also the international relations between the different countries would be distorted.

The surprising decline of xenophobia in Russia, as opposed, for example, to Germany is, however, deceptive, as the authors show as it has been only retreating due to the now limited contacts between Russians and migrants; xenophobia is rather “sleeping” than diminishing as they argue convincingly.

Only implicitly the report also highlights a couple of other important differences between Russia, the US and some EU countries and between specific groups of migrants. For instance, migrants to Russia are more likely to be low-skilled filling gaps at the bottom of the labour market and whilst in the US and the EU we find similar patterns there is nevertheless a strong focus on skilled migration.

Also, in western countries the proportion of refugees — who since 2020 find it even more difficult to migrate — is significantly higher than in Russia; therefore, the decline of international refugee migration to OECD countries is felt more pronounced in the West than in the East. Indeed, we probably need to come to terms with the fact that in the wake of the pandemic “the west” has been silently accelerating the demolition of the international refugee system. Notably, the Afghanistan crisis suggests that large-scale forced migration will be combatted by all means necessary whilst being replaced by a regime of comparably small-scale evacuations and resettlements. This suggests, that the pandemic has been used to reverse an important element of the post-war western liberal and human rights-based system; an element that Russia and other countries in the Global East never (fully) implemented anyway.

Generally, generic references to migration tend to obscure differences between and discrimination of specific group, notably women, specific nationalities or ethnicities, families and children or irregular immigrants. But many reports demonstrate that the pandemic exacerbated structural inequality and thus the vulnerability of many people. For example, because migrant women are disproportionally employed in informal services they have been more likely to lose their jobs due to lockdowns whilst simultaneously excluded from benefits. The same goes for irregular immigrants. Also, transnational families, as typical in migration, have been separated for long periods of time; notably children have been affected the worst.

To conclude, it is remarkable that liberal and authoritarian states around the globe alike turned to ultra-radical policy measures and largely outlawed fundamental liberties including the right to leave one’s country, city or even home, at least temporarily, not seen since the exceptional times of martial law, the Chinese Hukou system or the Soviet era. States, the pandemic has shown, still have the power to almost fully control migration; in fact, nationalism and national interests once more trump rights-based, multilateral or supranational arrangements. This disproves previous claims that under conditions of globalisation states have lost control over their borders; rather the opposite is the case, border controls have been modernised and intensified and are more effective than ever before. Some of the new migration selection criteria and new control lines are very likely to stay. The pandemic thus accelerates the trend to facilitating migration of skilled workers into key industries whilst preventing undesirable migration; it also drives replacing migration and mobility with remote working. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the pandemic spurs a paradigmatic shift in socio-political and economic policies, the often-mentioned “new normal”.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.