The pandemic upends debate on migration

With many borders closed and the flow of migrants down, countries rethink the benefits of hospitality toward new residents.

Migrants from Morocco are detained by Spanish Police after arriving at the Canary Island, crossing the Atlantic Ocean sailing on a wooden boat.

Since March, the pandemic has not only shut national borders, but has also led to fresh thinking about issues of migration across borders. In many countries, the absence of new migrants has made the heart grow fonder for them.

In Canada, which ranked as the most-accepting country for migrants in 2019, the flow of immigrants has slowed to a trickle. This has caused the government to plan for 351,000 new permanent residents next year, the highest number in a century. 

Australia has seen its net migration fall to negative levels for the first time since World War II, sparking debate about the impact of having fewer migrants in the economy. 

In the United States, where a drop in migration was influenced by both COVID-19 and the restrictive policies of the Trump administration, a Gallup Poll finds Americans want more immigration rather than less for the first time since 1965. In the election campaign, only 15% of voters see immigration as an issue. Just two years ago, it was the most important issue. “Public support for immigration shows far less of a partisan divide,” the Gallup survey found.

Perhaps the most welcome debate over migration is in Europe. Last month, the European Commission proposed a new policy that would reshuffle the burdens of migration between its 27 member states. The aim, says EC President Ursula von der Leyen, is to remind Europeans that migration “defined our societies, enriched our cultures, and shaped many of our lives.” That point was made clear during the pandemic by the spotlight put on the outsize role of migrants in “essential” jobs.

Ever since 2015, when Europe was flooded with refugees from Africa and the Middle East, the European Union has sought a cohesive migration policy. At first it tried to impose quotas on member states to accept asylum-seekers. The new plan is more genial, offering them alternative ways to contribute. Finding a compromise is critical if the EU wants to save its so-called Schengen system of border-free internal travel once restrictions on travel are lifted after the pandemic.

Countries that rethink their immigration policies now might be better positioned to use migration in recovering from the pandemic. “People on the move can be part of the solution,” said António Vitorino, head of the International Organization for Migration. He hopes Europe can “reimagine the governance of migration and human mobility as safe, orderly, inclusive and human rights centered.” 

The pandemic has made daily life for many seem inhospitable. The best antidote could be in making the world more hospitable, by broadening the welcome mat for migrants when borders reopen.

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