How migration policy can accelerate recovery from the global economic downturn

An article written by Dr Khalid Koser, Executive Director of the Global Community Engagement & Resilience Fund for the IM Yearbook 2023.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine have distracted and distorted global migration policy and diverted resources away from it; with lasting implications which will become exposed during the global economic downturn and slow its recovery.

Globally, migration came to a standstill during the pandemic; by April 2020 more than half the world’s population was under some form of lockdown. Continuing restrictions on entry and exit in some parts of the world (especially China), social and economic impacts of the pandemic which have exacerbated poverty, changes in work patterns and lifestyle choices, and continuing disruption to airline schedules and pricing, are all factors why migration has not yet recovered to its pre-pandemic rates.

Focus on Ukraine

The conflict in Ukraine has had significant migration impacts, particularly on mobility in and out of Russia, but almost the entire policy focus has been on the forced migration of about seven million people displaced internally, and a further approximately seven million refugees mainly to other European countries, many of whom have started to return. Ukrainians are not the majority of the world’s refugees, and globally the number of refugees is far fewer than the number of voluntary migrants.

Migration is critical for global economic growth, providing labour, skills, and money. The failure to recover migration rates more quickly, as well as an understandable emphasis on refugees, will exacerbate the global economic downturn, and slow its recovery.

Three Goals

In the short term, global migration policy should have three goals. One is to ensure that workers can continue to migrate, inside but especially outside their countries. But this is challenging because during recessions, historically, migrants have tended to be scapegoated, with politics demanding that restrictions are increased while economics demands that they be lowered. A partial solution is to enable the many millions of migrant workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic, but mostly were unable to return home, to re-enter the labour market. As the furor over the Qatar World Cup reminds us, however, it is also essential that migrant workers’ rights are respected.

The economic significance of highly skilled migrants far outweighs their numerical significance; and a second priority should be to ensure that talent can flow freely, accepting for the moment that the significant pools of talent in Russia and China currently remain largely inaccessible to the global economy. In certain sectors, for example financial services, the acceleration of online work because of the pandemic can resolve this challenge. But in others, like healthcare and education, people need to be present. One of the lessons of the pandemic is also that remote work rarely fosters the serendipity required for innovation. Particularly important is to promote the migration of students, for example through expanded scholarship schemes, and to ease employment and residence requirements that often mean they cannot remain after their studies.

US$500 billion

The pandemic and the wider implications of the Ukraine crisis, for example on global food supplies, have made more people more reliant on money traditionally remitted by migrants to their families at home. The World Bank estimates that in 2021 over US$500 billion was remitted globally, and that remittances were recovering quickly following their collapse during the pandemic. A third target should be policies geared to maintaining the recovery of remittances, including increasing competition within the sector to drive down commission rates.

Achieving these goals requires a re-allocation of financial and human resources to migration at the national, regional, and global levels. The return on investment will make that worthwhile: It will accelerate the recovery from the global economic downturn, but also promote the diversity of social and cultural exchanges that were lost to the pandemic and are at risk because of political extremism.

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