By SUNITA SOHRABJI/EMS Contributing Editor
Global migration dropped by 77 percent in 2020, as countries around the world closed their borders to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
But the closures, along with internal migration in countries such as India and Brazil, have had a ruinous impact on economies and livelihoods, refugee resettlement and asylum.
“The challenge that every country around the world faces is very simply this: how can you reopen the economy? How do you slowly reopen the borders? How do you go back to having some mobility while at the same time protecting yourself and your population from the ravages of this particular disease?” questioned Demetrios Papademetriou, co-founder and President Emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute.
COVID-19 will have a “boomerang” effect, said the scholar, noting that countries with low infection rates may feel emboldened to open their borders, but will then find themselves grappling with the pandemic all over again.
MPI released a study in November, “Managing the Pandemic and Its Aftermath: Economies, Jobs, and International Migration in the Age of COVID-19,” written by Papademetriou, which noted that millions of jobs worldwide have been lost to the pandemic, and will not return. Private and public debt is rapidly growing. A deep global recession lasting for several years is on the horizon.
A fact sheet released by MPI in November noted that immigrant women have suffered the worst economic losses during the pandemic. Just 46 percent of immigrant women worldwide were employed in September. In December of 2019, unemployment rates for immigrant women in the U.S. were at 3.6 percent; by May of 2020, the numbers jumped staggeringly to 18.5 percent, according to MPI data.
Women are also burdened with the full-time care of children whose schools have shut down and turned to remote learning, noted MPI.
Critically, remittances from people working abroad to their families in developing countries have largely stopped. Papademetriou characterized remittances as lifelines for low-income families. And it remains unclear as to how long countries will continue to shut off their borders to asylum seekers.
While some countries have slowly started to reopen, 77 countries around the world still have sealed borders amid an epic crisis during which 1.4 million people worldwide have died.
In the U.S., foreign born people have borne the brunt of the pandemic, said Papademetriou, speaking at a Nov. 20 briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services. “They have contributed. They have worked the front lines. And we need to make sure they are supported as we dig ourselves out of this vast hole that this virus has dug for all of us.”
Other speakers at the briefing included Vicente Calderón, Editor of Tijuanapress.com, who spoke from Tijuana, Mexico, and freelance investigative journalist Krishnaraj Rao, who spoke from Mumbai, India.
One of the first issues the new Joe Biden-Kamala Harris Administration will face is the influx of immigrants attempting to enter the U.S., after a virtual lockdown of the borders by the Trump Administration, even prior to the pandemic. Calderon highlighted “express deportation,” a policy that sends an asylum seeker back to Mexico within two hours of arriving at a U.S. border.
“The pandemic was the perfect excuse to implement Trump’s harsh immigration policies,” he said.
A combination of issues, including the economic hardships people have faced due to the closing of economic activity in Central America amid the pandemic has caused many people to flee, looking for better options, said Calderon. Terrible hurricanes have hit the region, making conditions even worse.
“So they were waiting and hoping that Biden was the winner of this election, to ease the policies that Donald Trump institutionalized,” he said, noting the former administration’s policy of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico until their claim could be adjudicated.
Stronger surveillance at the U.S. borders during the former administration forced people to take more difficult paths to reach the U.S., said Calderon. At least 12,000 immigrants have died en route, he said. People from European countries have also begun to make the perilous journey, said the journalist, highlighting a group of Armenians that came via Moscow to Cancun and then to the U.S. border.
Rao highlighted India’s internal migration crisis as the pandemic began there: as day labor dried up in the cities due to a strict lockdown in late March, more than 140 million migrant workers travelled hundreds of miles, mainly by foot and without sustenance, to return to their home villages. Rao and a photographer friend documented the humanitarian crisis, and themselves got involved, distributing watermelon, biscuits, and water to the traveling migrants.
Day laborers have largely returned to the cities said Rao. “They are very clear. They say it’s not the pandemic they are worried about. What they are worried about is not having an income, and not having an occupation.”
“I am amazed at the lack of bitterness that they have towards the administration who threw them to the dogs. People like me, the critics of the government, are much more bitter about it than the people who actually suffered by walking a thousand miles in the hot sun with bad footwear or no footwear,” he said.
Interstate travel from village to city is the oxygen of the Indian economy, said Rao, noting that urbanites rely on village labor and villagers need city jobs to sustain their families back home. “So the urban areas are the economic engines for the rural area,” he said.