While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the globe into an unprecedent state of immobility, a gradual reopening is beginning. The deep economic recession that has followed may spark new forms of migration and changing routes, even as it constrains other movements. What are some of the first indications as to the drivers of migration in a post-pandemic world? And is Europe geared up for dealing with a new migration wave?
In March 2020, human mobility – one of the signal traits of the 21st century – ground to a near total halt. As governments raced to stop the spread of the virus, every single country in the world imposed entry restrictions and many severely restrained citizens’ internal movements. Cross-border movements fell to a fraction of their former magnitude, and the immobility kept millions, whether labor migrants, returning family members or asylum seekers from reaching places they very much wanted to be. Nearly three million migrants, including those who lost their jobs overnight due to business closures, became stranded, unable to return home.
The summer of 2020 saw a faint resumption of mobility, mostly inter-regional and for travelers such as businesspeople and tourists, as governments eased some travel restrictions after detecting a glimmer of hope in the COVID-19 infection and mortality graphs. In Europe, asylum applications slowly picked up from a historical low of 9,000 in April (an 87 per cent reduction compared to January 2020) to 42,000 in September. And even in cases where numbers remained relatively small, the precarity of these journeys attracted intense attention. Despite irregular border crossings into the EU dropping to 116,000 for the first 11 months of 2020—coming close to the lowest-ever number of 104,000 recorded by Frontex in 2009—the perilous migrant boats setting off for the Canary Islands, Greece, Malta, Italy, or the United Kingdom were front and center in the media.
It was not long before warnings about COVID-induced migration began to surface. The European Asylum Support Office (EASO), for example, published a special report on ‘Asylum trends and COVID-19,’ which warned that rising security concerns and food insecurity could act as “potential drivers for displacement and onward migration directly correlated with the COVID-19 pandemic”. Fears about COVID spurring increased migration aspirations are unsurprising. The pandemic has had a profound and disruptive impact on the global economy and on the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, causing a steep increase in inequalities and extreme poverty, often exacerbating pre-existing fragilities. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the second quarter of 2020 saw a 14 per cent decline in the number of working hours, or the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs. Tourism is among the economic sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, with the United Nations (UN) forecasting a potential US $1 trillion loss in revenue and 100 million jobs at risk. In Tunisia, for example, tourism revenue had plummeted 61 per cent by October, leaving the future of 400,000 workers in the sector uncertain. And in some countries, the lifeline that remittances offer is weakening, with the World Bank for example estimating a fall of 8 per cent in remittances sent to North Africa and the Middle East by the end of 2020.
This raises the question of whether Europe is ready to detect, mitigate and respond to a surge in migratory flows in 2021 or beyond, should those migration intentions translate into actual migration. With the memory of being caught unprepared for the 2015-2016 influx still vivid, the European Union (EU) is deeply committed to investing in migration forecasting and early warning mechanisms. Projects led by various EU bodies, including DG HOME, EASO, Frontex, and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) seem promising, but struggle to reach their full potential due to unanswered questions over data ownership, legal bases or what Europe’s default response should be if certain benchmarks for irregular arrivals appear imminent.
As to its mitigation strategy, the post-2015 European Union is one increasingly intent on enhancing cooperation with countries beyond the bloc to better manage – and reduce – flows. This was at the centre of the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. If this externalisation strategy is to stand in the face of (potential) COVID-related upticks in flows, it will be crucial for the EU and its Member States to engage in a sustained conversation with these third countries now, and not when the alarm bell sounds. This means that the EU not only keeps a close eye as to the state of labour market or health care in origin countries—and how this may affect the desire to migrate—but is also on standby to support those governments with their own migration challenges, including stranded migrants in their territory. As the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has warned, if stranded migrants in third countries are barred from returning home, they may eventually recalibrate and head north. IOM and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will be crucial sparring and implementation partners here, as the EU figures out how the newly adopted EU 2021-2027 budget can be mobilised towards (better) partnerships with third countries.
However, when it comes to Europe’s strategy for those who do reach its shores, a far bleaker picture emerges. The German Presidency of the Council of the Europe Union did not attain the highly sought-after political agreement on the parts of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum that determines what should happen at the bloc’s external borders, in terms of procedures for identification and security checks of new arrivals, quick determination of who gets to stay and who doesn’t, and return for those who cannot stay, for example.
In the absence of a coordinated response by EU Member States, the ad hoc and at times unilateral responses by national governments to mixed arrivals are likely to persist in 2021 and leave the bloc in a state of disarray or even chaos if arrivals begin to mount in earnest. The European Commission’s parallel investment in more operational forms of cooperation between the Member States, such as the imminent Strategy for Voluntary Return and Reintegration (planned for Spring 2021), may offer glimmers of light. The promise of Member States working together in the field to improve voluntary return uptake, however, still rests on fragile grounds. As such, the EU will enter 2021 with a stronger strategy for addressing migration outside its borders - and must hope that its comparatively weaker internal strategy will not be put to the test.