Executive summary

OECD countries, with the exception of Colombia and Turkey, together accepted about 5.3 million new permanent migrants in 2019. This represents a stable level compared to 2018. Flows to the United States and Germany (the top OECD receiving countries) continued to decrease, while in most other OECD countries flows tended to increase, notably in Spain and Japan.

Initial estimates of migration flows in 2020 suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on migration flows in the first half of the year, with the number of new residency permits granted to migrants down by 46% on average in the OECD. Part of the effect might be offset by a rise in flows during the second half of the year, notably for international students, but the current economic downturn will also most likely aggravate the impact on labour migration. Overall, 2020 is projected to be a historical low for international migration in the OECD area.

After two years of decrease, the number of asylum applications to OECD countries rebounded 11% in 2019, reaching 1.2 million. The number of asylum applications remained, however, much lower than the record highs of 2015 and 2016. About half of all asylum applications in the OECD were made in OECD European countries. More than 20% of all asylum seekers came from Afghanistan, Venezuela and Honduras, while asylum requests from Middle East countries were now at their lowest level since 2013-14.

Partial data on the number of newly accepted refugees in OECD countries in 2019 showed an overall 25% drop. Permanent labour migration rose sharply (+13%) and family migration remained relatively stable.

Temporary labour migration, when a person migrates for limited time to do a specific job, continued to increase in 2018, reaching 5.1 million, compared with 4.8 million in 2017. Preliminary data indicate that this upward trend continued in 2019. Poland was the top temporary labour migration destination, followed by the United States. The main categories of labour migration were: posted workers within the EU/EFTA (1.7 million), working holidaymakers (475 000) and seasonal workers (323 000, not counting Poland). In 2018, more than 1.5 million visas were granted to tertiary-level students, 3% more than in 2017. Flows of tertiary-level students rose in 2019 as well, notably in Europe.

The labour market outcomes of immigrants continued to improve in 2019. On average, more than two-thirds of immigrants were employed and about 8.2% were unemployed, a 0.5 percentage point decrease compared to 2018.

However, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may set back the progress in the labour market inclusion of immigrants in OECD in recent years. Early, partial evidence shows that the pandemic has revealed and reinforced vulnerabilities of migrants in the labour market. Migrants are for example more likely to hold temporary contracts and tend to be concentrated in sectors more affected by the pandemic and its economic consequences. Migrants may also be disproportionally impacted by COVID-19/health concerns due to higher proportions working in sectors with high COVID-19 exposure.

Immigrant women remain at higher risk of exclusion from the labour market and may be particularly vulnerable in the current context due to their share of temporary contracts. They are overall more prone than native-born women to be in long-term unemployment, in involuntary inactivity and to be “not in employment, formal education or training”. They are also more at-risk of being over-qualified for the work they do.

The bulk of 2018-19 labour migration management measures and reforms addressed emerging needs among highly and medium-skilled occupations. Some European countries, notably Germany, significantly enlarged their shortage occupation lists and/or relaxed the requirements in terms of minimum educational attainment to recruit migrant workers from abroad. Measures concerning asylum seekers mainly focused on reducing processing times. A limited group of receiving countries eased their entry conditions and access to the labour market while many others put in place stricter conditions.

OECD countries continued to design and fine-tune comprehensive integration programmes for newcomers, to facilitate their rapid labour market integration and their access to basic social services.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in most countries migration and asylum offices as well as consular services abroad were closed for one to three months in the first half of 2020, leading to a quick increase in backlogged applications. Nevertheless, in some countries the pandemic accelerated re-organisation, digitalisation and/or simplification of administrative procedures measures. Return and resettlement activities have de facto been suspended in most countries.

Migrants – and especially recent arrivals – are not equally distributed across the economy. They are strongly concentrated in a number of sectors, especially in low-skilled services, but also in information technology (IT) and manufacturing in some countries, and sectoral concentration of migrants has tended to grow since 2005. Few OECD countries currently have strong sectoral migration policies, with the exception of agriculture where almost half of all countries have specific policies to promote seasonal labour migration to this sector. Migration has sectoral implications – whether these are intentional or not. To be aware of this dimension is a precondition for reaping intended sectoral benefits as well as for avoiding unintended adverse impact. This is particularly important in the current context, as the economic consequences of COVID-19 has affected some sectors more than others.


This work is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

Note by Turkey
The information in this document with reference to “Cyprus” relates to the southern part of the Island. There is no single authority representing both Turkish and Greek Cypriot people on the Island. Turkey recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Until a lasting and equitable solution is found within the context of the United Nations, Turkey shall preserve its position concerning the “Cyprus issue”.

Note by all the European Union Member States of the OECD and the European Union
The Republic of Cyprus is recognised by all members of the United Nations with the exception of Turkey. The information in this document relates to the area under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.

Photo credits: Cover © David Rooney.

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