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Migration in the time of COVID-19

Despite the pandemic, migration has risen

Migration is not a new phenomenon. The need to move could arise from violence and conflict; financial crisis; for better livelihoods; or from impacts of severe climate.

The recently released World Migration Report 2022 explores how COVID-19 altered migration and mobility of people around the world and why policymakers need to look at migration holistically, rather than as a political weapon.

The past year witnessed an increase in international migrants, growing from 272 million in 2019 to 281 million in 2020. “We are witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history,” said the International Organization for Migration’s Director General António Vitorino. “While billions of people have been effectively grounded by COVID-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries.”

Exhibit 1: Overview of international migrants in 2020

Source: (a) UN DESA, 2021; (b) ILO, 2021; and (c) IOM, n.d.a

Although the number of international migrants increased in 2020, the value of international remittances declined by 2.4% due to the pandemic.

Exhibit 2: Overview of international remittances

Source: (d) Ratha et al., 2021

The number of displaced people living in foreign lands also increased from 84.8 million in 2019 to 89.4 million in 2020. And internally displaced persons (IDPs) made up the bulk (55 million) of displaced persons globally in 2020.

Exhibit 3: Overview of displaced persons

Source: (e) UNHCR, 2021; and (f) IDMC, 2021.

And although mobility was restricted amid the pandemic, the number of internally displaced people due to disaster and conflict increased substantially to 30.7 million and 9.8 million respectively in 2020.

Exhibit 4: Overview of migration mobility

Source: (f) IDMC, 2021; (g) IOM, 2021a; and (h) ICAO, 2021.

Migrants and movements in Asia

In 2020, Asia was the origin of over 40% of the world’s international migrants – at around 115 million. Migrants within Asia rose sharply in the last decade – growing from over 40 million to nearly 70 million by 2020. Migration from the region is mostly to developed regions of North America and Europe.

Exhibit 5: Migrants to, within and from Asia, 1990-2020

Asia’s two large economies, India and China had the largest number of migrants living abroad in 2020. India also has the largest emigrant population in the world.

Exhibit 6: Top 20 Asian migrant countries/territories, 2020

The region was also among the first to implement international and internal movement restrictions due to COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic scare between April to May 2020, economies in Asia had implemented total border closure and internal movement. Ban on international arrivals from some regions are still in place in the region, while internal movement restrictions have somewhat subsided.

Exhibit 7: COVID-19-related travel controls in Asia: International and internal, January 2020 to June 2021

The report also indicates that travel restrictions within Asia is still high, while travel restrictions to global destinations have been lowered. But we also see that health-related measures to global destinations have increased substantially.

Exhibit 8: COVID-19-related international travel measures in Asia: March 2020 to June 2021

And in 2020, India and China received the largest amount of international remittances in the region. A combined total of $140 billion, most of which came from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Exhibit 9: Top Asian international remittance recipient and source countries, 2019 and 2020

The violence against and persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, dictated the population of refugees in Asia. Myanmar was the country of origin for the third largest refugee population in the region and the fifth largest number of people displaced across borders globally in 2020.

Exhibit 10: Top 10 Asian countries by total refugees and asylum seekers, 2020

Natural disasters were the biggest cause of internal displacement in Asia. China recorded approximately 5 million new disaster displacements, followed by the Philippines and Bangladesh with over 4 million new disaster displacements.

Exhibit 11: Top 20 Asian countries by new internal displacements (disaster and conflict), 2020

COVID-19’s impact on migration in Asia

Travel and internal movement restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic has been the greatest disruptor in both international and internal migration. The immediate impact of the pandemic was the number of deaths.

Exhibit 12: COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths by United Nations, region after one year

As of March 2021, more than 45 countries in Asia had international travel controls in place. Restrictions on gatherings and school closures remain in many countries in Asia.

COVID-19 impacted the movement of migrants starting from departure from countries of origin to transit to destination countries, to even return to countries of origin. It enforced immobility, allowing only certain types of mobility, while pushing mobility to informal channels.

Exhibit 13: Impacts of COVID-19 throughout the migration cycle

Use of AI in the migration cycle

Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) has been in use to manage migration and mobility since many years. AI and other related technologies are being used in Australia, the US, Japan and many European countries to manage the increasing number of cross-border movements.

Exhibit 14: AI and the migration cycle

But the use of AI also brings with it challenges that is equally vital to be addressed. Three main implications arise from the use of AI, which policymakers need to address.

  • AI systems suffer from biases, leading to discrimination and exclusion of people based on protected characteristics. And overreliance on AI systems also results in incorrect and biased decisions. This needs to be addressed by developing AI systems that remove or reduce biases, while policymakers and systems architects need to run regular human monitoring.
  • Increased datafication of migrants’ information also heightens chances of data thefts and misuse. Both public and private sectors should develop sufficient measures to safeguard data-sharing practices and access to sensitive data.
  • To ensure safety of sensitive data, governments reduce access to such data, thereby increasing transparency challenges. The lack of transparency in turn leads to erosion of human rights.
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