By Antoine Pécoud

Increased control of people’s mobility because of COVID-19 might not be so easy to undo.

One of the most immediate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the closure of many international borders. This had a severe impact on migration, and in many cases even brought it to a halt. And it is very likely that these effects will be deep and lasting.

Shortly before the outbreak of COVID-19, 164 states met in Marrakech in December 2018 to agree upon a vision for the future of migration and of migration policy. The outcome was the adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM).

Building upon two decades of intergovernmental discussions on migration, the GCM is the latest attempt by the international community to agree on what an ideal migration world should look like. In line with what international organizations have been advocating since the late 1990s, the GCM’s main objective is to ‘facilitate migration’ and ‘enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration’ – an ambition that quickly proved elusive in light of the pandemic.

Yet, the GCM also pursues another objective: in face of states’ concerns with unauthorized migration, it wants governments to cooperate more intensively on control and to ‘manage borders in an integrated, secure and coordinated manner’. According to the GCM, this would also be good for migrants, because what it calls ‘orderly and regular’ migration would be ‘safe’ and protect them from all kinds of human rights abuses (such as smuggling or trafficking).

A lasting impact

In sum, the GCM calls for more/better migration control because this is a condition for more/facilitated migration. But will this objective remain relevant in a post-COVID-19 world?

Kathleen Newland, Co-Founder of the Migration Policy Institute, believes that the pandemic will upset the governance of migration ‘in ways comparable to or even greater than the changes that came about after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks’. Indeed, there are indications that migration dynamics have been going through profound changes.

This can be seen in the dramatic decline in remittances. The economic downturn provoked by COVID-19 reduces the chances of migrant workers to find job opportunities and earn wages. In turn, this also worsens the socio-economic conditions in countries and regions that rely on emigration which could incite more people to try to emigrate. With fewer legal opportunities to leave the result can be an increase in irregular, unsafe and disorderly migration, which is exactly the opposite of what the GCM has in mind.

But while this may well be a lasting consequence of COVID-19, it is only part of the picture. The post-pandemic economic recovery may resume labor migration flows in the years to come albeit according to potentially different patterns, as certain regions will recover faster than others. Furthermore, the need for foreign labor persists even under the pandemic. For example, even the most severe lockdown in spring 2020 did not stop the recruitment of migrant workers in the agricultural sector.

The pandemic arguably aggravates trends that were already in place before – including the global economic imbalances that fuel migration and shape differentiated patterns of vulnerability, and the (often inadequate) immigration policies that lead to irregular migration and the exploitation of foreign workers. From this perspective, COVID-19 is not a game-changer, but another revealer of the forces that shape migration and its governance.

It follows that, if one assumes that the GCM testifies to states’ ambition to break away from such ‘business as usual’, then indeed the pandemic is an obstacle. But there are other issues that may display convergence between the pandemic and the GCM.

Future borders

One of the GCM’s objectives is to ensure ‘access to basic services for migrants’. The pandemic makes clear that migrants’ access to medical services is absolutely central, not only for themselves but for societies at large. Migrants’ exposure to the virus indeed jeopardizes their health, and also that of the population around them.

So far the evidence is mixed. Certain governments, like Portugal, granted rights to undocumented migrants to facilitate their access to health care, illustrating how the welfare of the poor is all the more taken care of when it matters to the rich. But there is also evidence that, as was the case on some Greek islands, migrants and refugees were severely hit by COVID-19 and left almost without any support. In that respect, the pandemic will ultimately constitute a test for the implementation of the GCM’s ‘people-centered’ and rights-based approach.

Health considerations may also affect border management and what the GCM calls the ‘screening’ of migrants. While not very detailed, the concept of ‘screening’ seems to refer to mechanisms that would identify migrants’ characteristics and channel them into the right policy direction, depending upon whether they enter a country to work, study, seek protection, etc. ‘Screening’ also seems to entail the constitution of (and reliance upon) databases, to map and help govern migration flows.

Had the GCM been finalized a few months later, it could easily have added the collection of information about (and the ‘screening’ of) migrants’ health. This is indeed turning into a new norm, as the governance of travel and mobility increasingly foresees that people on the move must prove that they are safe and non-threatening to the countries they are heading to – including through (potentially intrusive) technological devices that governments throughout the world are currently thinking about.

While it is too early to assess the long-term impact of the pandemic, it is clear that health and public safety imperatives make the control of people’s mobility necessary – and hence also much more difficult to contest, to the extent that even health-unrelated patterns of control may well become more widespread. From this perspective, rather than challenge the relevance of the GCM, the COVID-19 pandemic could well facilitate its implementation.


This article was originally published on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons Licence. If you enjoyed this article, visit openDemocracy.net for more.

Antoine Pécoud is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Paris 13. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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