We should not roll back progress made on migration and integration

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly generated a global health emergency, which has turned into an economic and social crisis unseen in generations. It has also once again shown the key contributions that migrants make in keeping our societies functioning. During the confinement, foreign-born workers were highly represented in essential activities such as health care and food retail and in some of the hard jobs that the native born eschew, such as picking fruit. Even when travel and admission were severely restricted, most countries realised they needed to make exceptions for some migrants in these sectors.

Migrant workers are on the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis: in the health sector, they account for 24% of medical doctors and 16% of nurses. More broadly, as discussed in the special chapter of this publication, “The Role of Migration in Shaping Industry Structure”, migrants are overrepresented in domestic services, the cleaning industry, seasonal agricultural work and the transportation sector. Their contributions to these sectors should at least be recognised, if not rewarded.

Migrants are also highly exposed to the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, due both to their representation in frontline jobs and to their particular vulnerabilities, for example linked to their housing conditions, exposed migrants and their families to COVID-19, often with a disproportionate incidence of death even in countries with universal access to treatment for COVID-19.

Migrants have also been disproportionally exposed to the economic consequences of the pandemic. Many work in the most affected sectors, such as hotel, restaurant and catering and tourism, and many hold temporary work contracts, a number of which lapsed without renewal during the crisis. In the United States, for example, in the year to August 2020, the unemployment rate for the foreign born jumped from 3.1% to 10.2%, while it increased from 3.9% to 8.1% for the native born. Similar trends are observed in most European countries, despite the wide scale use of job-retention schemes that helped preserve many jobs.

Looking forward, the latest baseline OECD projections suggests that in most economies, the level of output at the end of 2021 is projected to remain at or below that at the end of 2019 and considerably weaker than projected prior to the pandemic. The unemployment rate has already skyrocketed from an average of 5.2% in December 2019 to 8.6% in April 2020 before slightly declining in July at 7.7%. It is becoming evidence that a number of countries are in a second wave, albeit less pronounced and with fewer fatalities than the previous one. In these circumstances, OECD countries will not have returned to the pre-crisis level of employment even by the end of 2021.

Even as migrants contributed to their host-countries’ economies, the COVID-19 crisis led to a dramatic drop in migration flows to OECD countries. According to our preliminary estimates, flows fell by half in the first semester of 2020. Border closures, suspension of domestic and consular services, COVID-19 related restrictions on travel and admission, disruption on international commercial flights explain this trend, as well as the concerns of employers and migrants themselves about travel. Even if migration flows are expected to bounce back as the economy reopens, there are strong signs that they will not reach previous levels for some time because of weaker labour demand, ongoing travel restrictions and alternatives to mobility linked, for example, to the widespread use of teleworking among high-skilled workers and remote learning by students.

Migration, on the other hand, will continue to have an important impact on origin countries. Remittances are expected to decline and employment opportunities to become scarcer. As traditional migration destination countries increase their focus on fighting against irregular movements, as legal channels for migration contract and as travel restrictions remain in place, we can expect more tension between migration intentions and actual opportunities that, in turn, can generate frustration in origin countries.

The past decade has seen encouraging progress on migration policies and integration as well as on international co-operation on migration management. Although significant further improvement is needed, there have been some important successes at both global and regional levels, in the context of the UN, in the G20, and at the OECD. The first-ever ministerial meeting devoted to migration issues, held in early 2020, acknowledged that “international dialogue and co-operation help to make migration and integration policies future-ready”. Our indicators on migrant integration also show that, in most OECD countries, access to employment has progressed for migrants, and labour market outcomes tend to improve with the length of stay in the host country and from one generation to the next. Prior to the pandemic, we were looking forward to seeing these outcomes progress further.

Today, there is a risk that some of the progress in migration and integration outcomes may actually be erased by the pandemic and its economic fallout. The pandemic has created many public policy challenges and public opinion and policy attention may be focused more on other key domestic issues. Public spending for integration, which should be considered as a long-term investment, may become scarcer in some countries at a time when it needs to be reinforced in the face of the looming overall employment crisis.

Securing the health and safety of all workers in essential activities – native-born and migrants alike – as well as support to all those in need is a key priority. Nevertheless, we should not forget that the most migration is undertaken by families, people seeking international protection and people moving within free mobility areas. We should be concerned if travel restrictions and border closures are prolonged beyond what is necessary for preventing the spread of the virus, in order to reassure the public about the presumed impact of migration on the domestic economy. More generally, we should guard against unilateral actions again replacing dialogue and concertation on migration issues.

We do not know today if these risks will indeed materialise, but their consequences would undoubtedly be dramatic. We need to reaffirm that migration is an integral part of our life and that it links us together. If there is anything we have learned from lockdown and isolation, it is how much we need “the other”. This is true at a global level as much as at a local level. Public measures are needed to secure the progress of the past decade on migration and integration, with the active contribution of all stakeholders and civil society. Protecting these achievements and advancing in these areas are key elements of an overall strategy to building back better as our economies and societies begin the road to recovery.


Stefano Scarpetta,

Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs,


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