Migrating in the Digital, Post-COVID World

TEXT: Elene Tkhlashidze - 28. September 2020

To adapt to the “new normal” under COVID-19, citizens around the world reach out for support to their families, societies, governments. Not everyone has that luxury. Among the most vulnerable to the pandemic are migrants, who left the safety – or sometimes the violence - of their home countries for work, shelter, or family. How can we protect them? What is the future of migration and the jobs of migrants?

Elene Tkhlashidze from the OPTIM Project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) implemented by Helvetas talked about these and other topics with Marina Manke, Head of Labor Mobility and Human Development at the International Organization for Migration.

"COVID is a short-term shock"

Elene Tkhlashidze: In your opinion, how has the crisis affected the migration?

Marina Manke: In the beginning, COVID-19 put a lot of strain on the health system, which had to deal with unprecedented demands for medical services. But soon the impact spread to economic and social domains. The restrictions to movement and disruptions to travel and supply chains have affected trade, markets, the behavior of consumers. Migration is a cross-cutting phenomenon, which is incorporated into social and employment relationships. Therefore, migrant workers cannot be outside of the global impact. The restrictions have immediately created challenges for people who did not have regular residence: for example, seasonal workers, who are left without jobs, unable to travel but still have liability to cover temporary residence costs.

The disruptions affected not only short-term migrants but also migrants with well-established employment. Many companies face a difficult choice of continuing the operations or closing down. This left migrants without jobs and unable to send remittances back home, sometimes even facing xenophobic attacks. We always refer to diaspora communities as the most resilient, but nonetheless, they are being affected as everyone else in the world.

ET: You have mentioned rising unemployment and even antimigrant sentiments. Do you think these trends could have an effect on the migration policies in developed countries? And if yes, how are migrants going to be affected?

MM: COVID-19 has very rapidly shocked businesses, policies, societies, connections, supply chains. The disruptions have been massive and even fiscal and economic stimuli are not sufficient to counter them in some cases. However, it is still a short-term demand shock in destination countries. If we think about fundamental factors that have been driving human mobility for decades and centuries, they are still there, and they are not going to change - for example, the declining population, deficit of the labor force in high-income countries and so on. Therefore, I think in the medium- to short-term perspective the human mobility and employment of foreigners will continue.  The demand for skilled workers will remain. There might be shifts in specific industries, considering digitization or remote work, but fundamentals of migration will remain in place and very few destination countries are denying that. 

As for policies, they will have to change - for instance, towards a stronger focus on health criteria. There will be adjustments to migration patterns, and therefore adjustments to migration management instruments and policies. But we need to be very aware of the relationship between regular and irregular flows of migration. We know from multiple examples: any stricter regulations might lead to people being ready to take more risk! Migrants must be informed about their rights and risks, and there are ways for migration within a regular framework. Because again, migrants bring social, human and financial capital to not only countries of origin, but to destination countries as well, making receiving societies more resilient and diverse.

"If you only look into migration from its economic perspective, anything you do becomes one-sided"

ET: After losing jobs, some migrants return to their countries of origin. Are there opportunities? What can we as development organizations do? There is going to be a decline in remittances, and there is going to be a decline in economies.

MM: Yes, absolutely. We observe large scale trends of migrants returning to their countries of origin. For example, according to the survey IOM conducted among Moldovan diaspora at the beginning of the crisis, 30% of the surveyed were planning to return. Of those intending to come back, 67% wanted to return as soon as possible, and 30% would stay in Moldova even beyond the crisis. So, going back to the question about opportunities, yes, they are definitely there. Migrants are the movers of development; they bring acquired knowledge, skills, and financial capital. Governments, international development organizations and other partners should embrace this reality and look into creating opportunities for migrants. Of course, there will be additional pressure on labor markets in some countries. Still, there will also be a human and financial capital that can contribute to the development of these countries. There should be conditions for migrants to be able to invest their resources, through social services or recognition of skills. From the development perspective, there is a lot that needs to be done.

ET: This means the development of the right systems that would allow migrants to reintegrate quickly and build their lives, which requires partnerships and collaboration between governments, development organizations and not only. Right?  

MM: Yes, migration is a multi-dimensional phenomenon that needs to be looked at from different angles. If you only look into employment issues of migrants and do not think about health or social protection, then anything you do becomes one-sided. Only through a complex combination of solutions can we create enabling conditions for migrants. We strongly advocate for so-called mainstreaming migration into sectoral policies and collaboration across all ministries, for example. Local governments, administrations, and mayor offices are essential in identifying the needs of specific communities and developing immediate support measures.

"Development organizations must be mindful while offering digital literacy opportunities"

ET: You mentioned shifts in some industries, increased digitilazation and application of remote work.  And this is something that is spoken about a lot. We hear that the future is in digital jobs and the future is in new skills, there is a shift to distant work with the new technology. In your opinion how are the patterns going to be affected?

MM: Even before COVID-19, the trend towards digitilization was very pronounced in human mobility patterns. Of course, this is mainly affecting higher-skilled professions and sectors such as STEM [Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. In the global context, the increasing demand for skilled workers is difficult to satisfy, and that’s why even developed countries are in fierce competition for higher-skilled workers, and the issue of citizenship or nationality of those workers becomes secondary.  

Digitalization is crucial for migration also in terms of risks it creates. It requires investment into digital skills and therefore creates the potential for the so-called Digital Divide of communities. Development organizations must be mindful while offering digital literacy opportunities and ensure it is done in an equitable manner so that we are not positively discriminating towards one group or another, but really allowing all communities to benefit.

Digital connectivity is crucial not only for skills development but also in our work with diaspora communities. For example, through the collaboration platform IDiaspora.org, or mobile apps like MigAPP, we are targeting different groups to offer orientation support on rights and obligations. The digital agenda is crucial because it is creating new forms of protection of migrant rights, allowing us to reach out to the more vulnerable groups, for example, domestic migrant workers.

"We have moved away from the notion that if a person moves from the country, it is a loss"

ET: Helvetas is implementing a lot of youth projects. One of the significant areas is skills development, so that young people have better prospects and get gainful employment. Of course, some of them migrate with their new skills, but we argue that they at least migrate safely. Nonetheless, development organizations do get criticized. In your opinion, is investing in digital skills development a good thing or a bad thing?

MM: The brain drain / brain waste is a recurrent topic in discussion between countries of origin and destination. But the migration will be happening even if governments or development organizations do nothing! The question is, to what extent are we capable of creating conditions and support structures that would help migration to be a positive experience.

We have already moved from the notion that if a person moves from the country, it is a loss for that country. We live in a world of transnationalism, globalization and interconnectivity. Even such shocks as COVID-19 cannot stop the growing integration that goes back thousand years, including our drive to move from one place to another, mix, develop new cultures and traditions.

When we invest in skills, we invest in the skills of communities. Of course, some people might be leaving, and it is crucial to monitor this process. For example, Balkan countries are seeing an outflow of medical workers. We need to make sure they are not left without medical staff. We should continue investing in relevant skills in communities and creating the necessary infrastructure and decent working conditions, so that people don’t have to leave out of despair and lack of opportunities.

ET: Thank you very much for these valuable insights. This brings us to the point that migration is a positive phenomenon. It enriches societies, speeds up development, catalyzes knowledge sharing. I am more inclined towards the notion that leaving your country is not a loss, but a gain. I am a migrant worker myself, but I don’t feel as if I have taken something away from my community back home. I rather feel that I gain so much experience, so much knowledge, which I immediately share with my friends, former colleagues and family, that it fascinates me. What is your personal opinion on that?

MM: I believe in connectivity and the contribution of connectivity towards resilience. Migration and mobility make people more tolerant towards differences; it encourages them not to reject but understand those.

The new generation in this time of global connectivity has developed an amazing perspective of the world, and we need to understand where their identity is. My son is a good example. Being born in the US, he has a German father and a Russian mother. When I ask my son about his identity, I am not sure I know where he feels more connected. Sometimes it seems like he wants to be more American, although he was just born in this country.

Migration is an exciting issue. It is not just a professional experience for me; it is the life we live. If you look around, there definitely will be someone who has either lived abroad or has someone in the family who lives abroad. Every time we speak about migration in a positive sense, people start bringing up lots of interesting examples. Our role as development organizations is to continue talking about it and raising awareness about its positive dimension in a balanced manner.


This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic. Subscribe to never miss an issue.

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