All OECD countries responded promptly to the COVID‑19 pandemic by taking action to restrict international movements. However, the extent to which borders have been sealed and immigration services disrupted in the past three months has varied across countries. Many countries have also put in place exemptions for specific categories of migrants in essential sectors and have taken provisional measures for those unable to leave because of the pandemic. Going forward, the health crisis will affect migration management with backlogs, new health requirements and changing skills needs. It may also have lasting negative effects on the socio-economic integration of immigrants. This brief is covers five main issues: overall travel restrictions; exemptions to travel bans – notably for workers in key sectors; concessional measures facilitating stay and access to health care; disruption of migration services; and longer term impacts of the health crisis on migration management and lessons learnt.

The first and foremost measure in response to the COVID‑19 pandemic was the closure of national borders and enforcement of worldwide entry bans. As of 1 May 2020, almost all OECD countries1 have put in place restrictions on the admission of foreigners, although almost all still accept nationals returning from abroad – albeit often subject to a mandatory quarantine period. Most OECD countries also accept the return of legal permanent residents, as well as of their spouses and immediate family members (see Annex A). A few countries, however, extend restrictions even to these categories, such as Colombia, Japan (exceptional circumstances will be considered / except special permanent resident) and Hungary (for non-EU permanent residents)2. Canada, while restricting the entry of non-family members, has however recently enlarged its definition of immediate family to include parents and step‑parents (until 30 June).

At least two OECD countries (Japan and Korea) have decided to suspend the validity of previously issued visas, while a number of OECD countries still allow all valid visa or short-term residence permit holders (i.e. not only permanent residents) to enter or re-enter. These include, inter alia, Ireland, Portugal, France, Greece, Canada, the United States, Chile, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic. Poland accepts all valid work permits, including seasonal workers. Israel and Italy still accept business trips.

In most OECD countries, travel bans have been put in place to prevent importing new #COVID-19 cases   

On 16 March 2020, the European Commission adopted a Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council (COM(2020)115), calling for a temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU in view of COVID‑19 for an initial period of 30 days. The recommendation was subsequently extended until 15 June 2020. The Commission followed with guidance on the implementation of such restrictions, on the facilitation of transit arrangements for the repatriation of EU citizens and on the effects on visa policy.

Most OECD countries, with the notable exception of Sweden, Switzerland (for those without symptoms), Mexico and the United Kingdom (until 8 June), have imposed quarantine measures for people arriving from abroad, at least from most affected countries of origin. The Czech Republic required a medical certificate to avoid quarantine. In most cases, the quarantine is for 2 weeks but it has been limited to 7 days in Slovenia and 10 days in Norway or Switzerland (for those with symptoms). At the beginning of May, a number of European countries – including Belgium, France, Italy and Spain – remained under strict lockdown for the entire resident population, as well as any persons admitted from abroad. By mid-June, many countries in Europe will start to relax the quarantine requirement for selected (mostly neighbouring) countries with a gradual phasing out for all international travellers.

In Europe (in line with the March Council communication) and in other OECD countries, there are exemptions to the travel ban for incoming health care workers (see below) and other essential workers, such as those who are responsible for the transport of goods. Exceptions also exist for holders of residence permits and their family members, persons travelling for imperative family reasons such as funerals or the provision of emergency support. Other categories, such as diplomats, staff of international organisations, humanitarian aid workers, freight transportation workers or passengers in transit are also generally not subject to restrictions, though the latter are sometimes required to provide a medical certificate.

Because of the role of #migrants in key sectors, many exemptions have been applied, notably in health, agriculture and transport   

The situation of cross-border workers is more complex and varies from country to country. The number of land entry points may be limited (e.g. Hungary, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic) or mobility restricted to essential cross‑border workers (e.g. between Mexico, United States and Canada; or in the Netherlands with neighbouring countries for example) or those with a permanent contract (Finland). In some cases, restrictions imposed by neighbouring countries limit movements (e.g. Argentina and Peru for Chile, Poland for Germany). In a few cases, medical certificates are required (e.g. Lithuania). In Europe, the European Commission has expressed some concerns about restrictions on cross‑border movements and has issued guidelines concerning the exercise of the free movement of workers during COVID‑19 outbreak, which cover cross‑border workers, seasonal workers and short-term postings within the EU.

A number of countries have taken special measures for seasonal agricultural workers. In most cases, these enable people with limited work permits – in terms of work rights or duration – to remain in their host country to work. This is the case notably for seasonal worker programme and Pacific labour scheme participants in Australia, and for seasonal workers in agriculture in Greece, Israel (until end May), as well as in Italy, Norway, the Czech Republic and the United States. In some countries, facilitations are mostly administrative, allowing employers to delay the recruitment or to offer longer contract duration (e.g. Canada, Belgium). In a few countries, facilitations have been made to allow categories of migrants who were previously forbidden to work to do so, notably in agriculture. This is the case, for example, in Belgium for asylum seekers in the first four months of their application (they may work also in other sectors), in Spain for youth without work rights aged 18 to 21, and in Ireland for international students. In Austria, foreigners who already reside in the country but who do not have the appropriate working rights are entitled, under certain conditions, to submit an application for a visa for the purpose of exercising a seasonal or harvesting activity. In Greece, an exceptional fast-track procedure, in place until 30 June 2020, allows employers to hire, under certain conditions, third country citizens in an irregular situation already residing in the country, to help address urgent labor needs in agriculture. In Germany, after an initial suspension, the entry of foreign seasonal workers was reauthorised in April and May for a total of 80 000 persons – predominantly Romanian and Bulgarian citizens. Similarly, Greece re-authorised, on 1 May 2020, the entry of seasonal workers from non-EU countries exempted from entry visa requirements, such as Albania, upon an employer’s request lodged before 30 June 2020. Given the absence of commercial flights, charter flights from these countries have been organised; this is also true for seasonal agricultural workers to the United Kingdom. The Czech Republic reinitiated admission of seasonal workers on 11 May 2020.

A number of countries have also taken action to mobilise the migrant health workforce. In addition to the fact than this group is generally exempted from entry bans, and that expedited processing of work visas for this group is in place, a few countries or subnational governments decided to3:

  1. (i) facilitate the temporary licencing of doctors with foreign medical degrees (e.g. Ontario and British Columbia in Canada, New Jersey in the United States and Italy);

  2. (ii) facilitate recruitment in the national health services (e.g. Chile and Spain);

  3. (iii) reduce the requirements in terms of postgraduate training to be able to practice (New York, Massachusetts and Utah in the United States);

  4. (iv) expedite current applications for the recognition of foreign qualifications of health professionals (e.g. Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Spain);

  5. (v) allow foreign-trained health workers in non-medical occupations in the health sector (e.g. France).

The United Kingdom has decided that doctors, nurses and paramedics with visas due to expire before 1 October 2020 will have them automatically extended for one year.

As immigration services are closed in many OECD countries and movements are restricted, it has proved difficult for migrants to renew their visas, to apply for status changes or simply to leave the country. In these circumstances, a number of OECD countries have offered blanket relief measures or the possibility to remain. These include, with varying conditions, Chile, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Estonia and the United Kingdom. Other countries still require formal applications but the possibility to remain is generally granted notably to those who cannot return home (Sweden, Finland, Korea, New Zealand) or exceptional extensions have been granted to certain types of visa holders.

One OECD country, Italy, is undertaking a potentially large-scale regularisation programme as a result of the COVID pandemic. Applications will have to filed between 1 June and 15 July within one of the following streams: (i) temporary 6‑month permit for foreigners whose permit expired after 31 19 October, if they prove they were in Italy at 3 March 2020 and worked previously in the sectors identified in the decree; (ii) new employment contracts or regularisation of current illegal employment in the sectors identified in the decree and presence prior to 3 March 2020 with a fee of EUR 500.

Temporary concessional measures were necessary for #migrants in most countries during the pandemic   

Employment restrictions have been eased in some cases to respond to the changes wrought by the pandemic. Special concessions for holders of temporary visas include the removal of maximum number of hours students may work (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Ireland), or allowing the possibility of telework (Austria, Belgium, Denmark). In Germany, a no-interest loan of 650 EUR monthly paid to university students through March 2021 is also available to international students. A few countries have also loosened the rules to change employer, reduce hours, or work for a lower wage if the change in employment conditions is COVID-related (e.g. Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Rep, United Kingdom). In the United States, USCIS introduced temporary policy changes regarding the full-time work requirement for H‑1B foreign medical graduates and the provision of telehealth services by those H‑1B foreign medical graduates.

Finally, in line with WHO guidance on prevention and control of coronavirus disease for refugees and migrants, most OECD countries offer access to treatment for COVID‑19 for all categories of migrants. Some countries, like France or Belgium, already offered free universal access to health care. Others, like Portugal, have temporarily regularised all migrants in an irregular situation to ensure full access. In most OECD countries, necessary medical treatment may not be denied to anyone, although treatment may be subject to payment.

The closure of consular services all around the world has led to a de facto suspension of the issuance of new visas and permits abroad for most OECD countries. However, about half of OECD countries still process visa or permit applications in the country, notably for acquisition of permanent/long-term residence or renewals, while others only process applications on an exceptional basis. The United States decided in late April to suspend, until the end of June, processing of pending immigrant applications, and to review by the end of May conditions for the issuance of new non-immigrant visas.

Even in countries still processing visa applications, immigration offices are closed or operating under restricted access to the public, leading to delays. In-person meetings and interviews, biometric appointments and medical checks are generally suspended. Options for online or postal applications have however been developed in a few countries. Canada decided that no application in progress would be closed or refused because of documents missing due to COVID‑19. One country, Chile, recently moved towards 100% digital issuance of visas (already the practice in Australia, for example) which enables continuity in services.

Although there remains a large number of people seeking asylum who are in need of international protection, the number of illegal crossings at OECD borders has decreased. In Europe, according to Frontex, there were 4 650 illegal entries in March compared to 6 200 in February, with a much sharper drop in the central Mediterranean). Similarly, in the United States, apprehensions and inadmissible entries at the Southwest border were down from February to March (from 36 500 to 33 900) and in sharp decline compared to the previous year (76 500 and 103 700 respectively). According to the US administration, record low numbers reflect the effectiveness of their policies.

In theory, asylum applications are still processed in most OECD countries. The European Commission issued guidance on the implementation of relevant EU provisions in the area of asylum and return procedures and on resettlement, which aims at ensuring the continuity of procedures as much as possible while fully ensuring the protection of people’s health and fundamental rights.

Most OECD countries have, however, postponed personal interviews and only process pending applications. Some countries are exploring alternative ways to conduct interviews remotely through the use of videoconferencing (e.g. United Kingdom, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden), while others allow the lodgement of applications for international protection and/or conduct the preliminary admissibility examination via postal mail or online or by e-mail (e.g. Germany, Canada). A number of EU countries are only processing priority cases, such as families. Canada and the United States have also announced temporary and reciprocal measures where they will now return those who attempt to make an asylum claim between official ports of entry along the land border, and at air or marine ports of entry (with some exemptions).

UNHCR has compiled a guide with practical recommendations and good practices to address protection concerns in the context of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Two situations are considered: (i) the continuation of asylum procedures with adaptation to prevent COVID‑19 transmission and adaptation of procedures (e.g. the decision by Austria and Switzerland that COVID-related no-shows or non-co‑operation do not entail any consequences for the asylum-seekers); or (ii) suspended asylum procedures with backlog management with decision preparation to prepare for resumption (e.g. Netherlands). UNHCR encourages and supports transfer from reception and identification centres into individual accommodation, notably for the most vulnerable (e.g. in Greece).

In view of the unfolding COVID‑19 situation, a number of OECD countries have also released people from detention centres and avoided new placements, including new arrivals, in closed facilities. This is the case for example in Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, because of travel restrictions, most countries have also suspended resettlement. UNHCR and IOM temporarily stopped resettlement operations, and national resettlement programmes have been suspended in Canada, New Zealand, and all EU countries. Refugee resettlement travel to the United States has also generally been suspended, with very limited exceptions for individuals in urgent circumstances. On-site missions and interviews by governments have been halted. To give an order of magnitude of the disruption, March and April saw IOM cancel more than 800 resettlements concerning 9 000 individuals, while fewer than 15 operations (for about 100 individuals) took place. Nonetheless, this did not prevent relocation of Unaccompanied Minors (UAM) from the Greek islands. A number of EU Member States and Switzerland have committed to transfer 1 600 UAM from Greece as part of a relocation scheme organised by the EC and the Greek authorities, with the support of UNHCR, IOM and EASO. The first 60 UAM arrived in Luxembourg and Germany mid-April. Switzerland also accepts requests for UAM from Greece with extended family ties in Switzerland, and around 20 UAM arrived in Switzerland mid-May.

Forced returns have also been affected. While a number of countries have signalled increasing interest and requests for voluntary return programmes, under the current situation OECD countries face practical difficulties in carrying out return activities to countries of origin, including due to the reduced availability of staff and of commercial flights, but also to the closure of borders or restrictive entry measures introduced by origin countries. In Europe, forced returns are very limited from all countries, though most EU Member States did not formally stop forced returns. The United States still operates deportation flights, notably to countries of the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), but at reduced scope. In the first half of April, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted about 3 000 removals compared with 18 000 in the month of March. Some countries of origin are notably requesting that returnees be tested for COVID‑19 to help contain the spread of the virus.

A number of factors suggest that observed gradual exits from lockdowns in most affected countries will not lead to a quick return to “business as usual” in terms of migration management:

  • Consular services abroad may remain inaccessible for some time.

  • Backlogs may appear in the processing of visa applications for most categories of migration.

  • Backlogs may also appear for asylum applications due to the limited mobility of persons and pause on operations during the pandemic.

  • Pending work authorisations may become ineligible due to changes in the labour market situation – either because the employer no longer needs the worker, or because a weaker post-pandemic labour market leads to more restrictions on recruitment from abroad.

  • Students may have been unable to complete their studies within the period foreseen by their visa.

  • Migrants, regardless of their status (temporary visitor, student or worker), may have been unable to depart and overstayed their visa, making them ineligible for further extensions.

  • Those who benefited from a temporary, pandemic-related extension of their visa, may find themselves in an uncertain situation at the end of the shutdown, with limited prospects for return.

  • Highly skilled potential migrants may reconsider their options and cancel or delay their migration projects. Similarly, firms may be less inclined to sponsor intra-corporate transfers and international placements.

  • Return operations are likely to remain complicated by restrictions in countries of origin for many months to come.

  • Resumption of resettlement is also likely dependent on various factors, including border restrictions, flight availability, the capacity of migration offices and international partners. This raises concerns regarding the increased vulnerability of refugees if operations remain suspended or delayed for a long time.

  • Lastly, the disruption of settlement services, as well as their adjustment to a combination of virtual settings and in-person services with physical distancing, may have longer-term negative impacts on the integration prospects of recently arrived immigrants.

Furthermore, migrants may be particularly hard hit by the direct and indirect economic consequences of COVID‑19 related shutdowns, as they are more likely to hold temporary contracts and tend to be concentrated in sectors more sensitive to fluctuations in the business cycle (construction, retail services) or disproportionately exposed to shutdowns (hospitality, domestic services). Migrants may also be disproportionally impacted by COVID/health concerns themselves due to higher proportions working in sectors with high COVID exposure, or their inability to maintain physical distancing: essential services in grocers, cleaners, health care and long-term care home assistance, food processing, etc. On the other hand, the position of migrants working in the medical and care sector might improve, since COVID‑19 has emphasized the labour shortages in this sector in some countries and several countries facilitated or fast-tracked recognition of foreign health professionals. That notwithstanding, for many resident migrants the consequences are likely to be severe.

  • Many migrants may struggle to stay in compliance with the terms and conditions of their residency permits because of the pandemic. Some may have become eligible for social assistance. They may have lost a job on which their residence was contingent, or had to change employer or sector.

  • Migrants may have more difficulties meeting the criteria for family reunification and fulfilling requirements for naturalisation or even the renewal of their permits.

  • Migrants with lawful residence may need increasing economic and social support especially if they cannot access general measures envisaged to support more vulnerable workers and families.

  • Migrants may have pre-existing vulnerabilities due to poorer language skills, lower digital literacy, lower socio-economic status, previous trauma and underlying mental health wellness, inadequate housing, and lower social capital. The pandemic and its impacts on society and the economy may exacerbate these vulnerabilities, including susceptibility to higher stress at home and financial precariousness, which may increase their risk for abuse or violence, especially gender-related.

  • Remittances sent back home may be severely reduced.

How might COVID-19 fundamentally change migration overall?   

In the medium-term, responding to these challenges will not be easy and will require needs and policies to be anticipated and adapted in a timely manner. Coordination between OECD countries will also be important to avoid decisions in one country having unexpected consequences on others. Going forward, the COVID‑19 crisis is likely to have also long-lasting impacts on migration management and integration policies – both positive and negative.

First, a number of questions may arise regarding how to ensure the safe and efficient management of migration. This could be the case, for example, for short-term and seasonal labour market needs, for programmes aimed at attracting foreign talents, including international students, or for fulfilling pledges, commitments and obligations in terms of humanitarian migration, notably through resettlement and relocation. In the case of international students, for example, the pandemic may have long-lasting effects on students’ behaviour and school/country choice, notably if universities are switching to mainly online courses. Likewise, with fewer resources and more limited opportunities to fund study through work, high‑cost international education choices may become less attractive.

Associated with this, it is important to recognise the bigger question of how COVID‑19 may fundamentally change migration overall. In the context of a severe economic recession and increasing challenges for maintaining social cohesion, not only may the need for international recruitments may be reduced; support for proactive migration policies may also be affected. Further, the hiring of high-skilled individuals and firms on international mobility and travel may evolve, impacting business trips, intra company transfers, or international studies and cultural exchanges.

Second, experiences from previous economic crises, suggest that there might be disproportionate and long-lasting negative effects on the integration of immigrants and their children unless appropriate support measures are in place.

Thirdly, long-term effects may also affect the intention to emigrate from less developed countries because of the effect of the global economic downturn and reduced remittances adding to the anticipated migration pressure and increasing anxiety in public opinion of host countries. This may be even reinforced by the fact that certain alternative (non-OECD) destinations for labour migration, such as in the Gulf region, have been hard hit by the parallel economic shock of the economic downturn and the low oil prices.

Lastly, there might be opportunities to streamline digital visa applications and to use technology better in migration and integration management more generally. For example, the development of online language and civic classes in integration programmes during the COVID crisis may provide new opportunities. These new developments must, however, be considered as additional resources rather than substitutes for regular integration programmes especially for the most vulnerable migrants, the illiterate or persons with limited internet access. Similarly, virtual meetings for citizenship or asylum applications were used in a few countries but attention should be paid to the fairness and efficiency of these digital processes.

In this context, the OECD will continue supporting Member countries in monitoring emerging trends, exchanging information and identifying good practices in migration management and integration to inform the formulation and implementation of policies at national level.

Contact

Stefano SCARPETTA (✉ stefano.scarpetta@oecd.org)

Jean-Christophe DUMONT (✉ jean-christophe.dumont@oecd.org)

Notes

← 1. Notable exceptions are notably Mexico and Ireland.

← 2. Detailed information on travel restrictions are compiled by the International Air Transport Association https://www.iatatravelcentre.com/international-travel-document-news/1580226297.htm.

← 3. Information on policy changes in specific US States was compiled by the OECD Secretariat based on publicly available information.

Disclaimer

This paper is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and the 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.

© OECD 2020

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