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Global Migration Changes in the Wake of COVID-19 Restrictions

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many sectors of life to a screeching halt; from social gatherings to in-person education, there is not much that has not been influenced by COVID-19. One of the most significantly impacted sectors has been immigration. Across the globe, migrants and asylum seekers have been faced with new hurdles they must overcome in order to gain residency or refuge in new countries. Many of these issues reflect governments’ decisions to implement lockdowns, travel bans, and other legal measures to curb the spread of the virus. COVID-19 restrictions have either paused or significantly slowed the normal processes of migrating in many different countries.  In addition to actual issues surrounding immigration to certain countries, migrants are also faced with increased risks involving the virus itself. While these risks are not uniform in every country, many of these problems are shared between migrants all over the world. 

As mobility around the world became difficult, various groups including seasonal workers, temporary residence holders, international students, people who travel for medical treatment, refugees, and more, have found themselves in precarious situations, either in their home countries or abroad. Due to the dynamic nature of the situation, it is difficult to quantify exactly how many migrants have been negatively impacted by the effects of COVID-19. However, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has estimated that the pandemic may have slowed migration flows by 27 percent, or by around two million people when compared to mid-2019.

Many COVID-curbing measures introduced by governments - including travel restrictions, prohibiting residents of other countries from entering, and, in some cases, closing borders completely - have left people stranded for indefinite amounts of time, often with little notice. For some migrants, these restrictions have left them scrambling for assistance from their governments while incurring unforeseen extra costs for accommodation, canceled flights, and mandatory COVID-19 tests. With migrants already vulnerable to financial insecurity, many people have been unable to afford these extra costs. This predicament threatens their well-being and could potentially hinder their status as immigrants in the long term by complicating their ability to maintain legal status and residency.

Alongside mobility issues, migrants are also facing severe difficulties accessing normal immigration services. COVID-19 restrictions have left gaps in many governments’ ability to support migrants with timely and accurate information as well as visa assistance and processing. These impacts are not merely inconvenient; they can also have serious effects on a migrant’s ability to maintain residency and legal status which could lead to future entry bans from the country to which they have immigrated. Through no fault of their own, migrants across the world are at the mercy of confusing and constantly changing policies that are leaving them in a liminal state. While these COVID-19 restrictions will not be in place permanently, they still have serious implications for the future of migrants everywhere. 

COVID-19 has also exposed and exacerbated longstanding vulnerabilities of migrants. Travel restrictions have greatly decreased the ability for migrants to find employment abroad and thus their ability to support themselves and their families. The financial situation of migrants has suffered greatly, often because many groups of migrants do not have access to government assistance following the loss of employment. For example, students and migrant workers in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore have reported losing their jobs because of COVID mitigation measures which have posed dire risks to their financial security and overall livelihoods. The exclusion of certain migrant groups from accessing government-based financial assistance is common in many countries and COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of these groups as they struggle to survive in a turbulent situation. 

Migrant groups are also facing increased health risks as in some countries they are forced to live in situations that do not allow for proper social distancing or other COVID-19 related precautions. This specific scenario is prominent in the United States where migrant arrivals are kept at detention centers with inadequate hygiene measures. There is also a lack of healthcare coverage for migrants in certain countries, stemming from restrictions to health services based on their status as migrants and language barriers.  In addition to these healthcare restrictions, misinformation and stigmatisation of migrants as prevalent carriers of the virus may also lead to migrants hiding symptoms of the virus. In the long term, this politicisation and stigmatisation could severely hinder the integration of migrants and obstruct social inclusion. 

Globally, migrants have faced increasingly precarious, and sometimes dire, situations following the changes to the world made by the COVID-19 pandemic. While each government is trying to do its best to stop the spread of the virus and protect its citizens, migrants have been made more vulnerable than ever. Restricted mobility, tightened immigration policies, and lack of adequate healthcare access have exacerbated a dangerous situation for many different groups of migrants around the world.


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