More Resilient Migration Systems Essential for Mediterranean Region’s Socio-Economic Well-Being
WASHINGTON — Restricted mobility due to COVID-19 only partially halted migration in the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, says a new World Bank report that urged countries to build more resilient migration systems to cope with future shocks.
Titled Building Resilient Migration Systems in the Mediterranean Region: Lessons from COVID-19, the report encouraged better coordination between countries that send and receive migrants throughout the migration cycle. It also highlighted the need for new mechanisms to automatically simplify procedures to recruit essential foreign workers in response to shocks such as the pandemic, and to grant migrants improved access to key employment and social services during crises.
People have moved across the Mediterranean in all directions for centuries to flee wars, escape famine and persecution – and also in search of better lives and economic opportunities.
“A fourth of the world’s immigrants live in the extended Mediterranean region,” said Anna Bjerde, the World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia. “Migrants experienced greater COVID-19-related health impacts and faced significant employment disruptions, compounded by limited access to social welfare programs. Our flagship report underscores the need for building resilient migration systems that can respond to future shocks while protecting the welfare of migrants and minimizing disruptions in host economies.”
In the European Union (EU) countries of the northern Mediterranean, migrants make up eight-to-37 percent of the workforce in key low-skill jobs including cleaners, construction workers, machine operators, and personal care workers, and more than six percent in information and communications technology, science and engineering, health, and education. Migrants also make up at least half of the workforce in every Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country.
According to the report, disrupted mobility of migrants due to the pandemic worsened pre-existing labor shortages across all skill levels in the agriculture sector, construction industry, medical professions, and personal care services in countries that receive migrants. Permanent migration decreased by 21 percent and 38 percent, respectively, from 2019 to 2020 in France and Spain, while seasonal migration dropped by 57 percent in Italy in the same period, the report says. In Saudi Arabia, work visas issued in the second half of 2020 declined by 91 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
Persistent drivers of migration — such as poverty, conflict, and a lack of work opportunities — caused people to choose riskier routes in response to mobility restrictions imposed during the pandemic, the report showed. Nearly 2.5 times more people used the deadliest route to Europe — from North Africa to Italy — in 2020 than in 2019, while an increase in arrivals to Europe via the Canary Islands resulted in a doubling of fatalities in the first eight months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020.
Migrants also faced significant work disruptions, with employment rates dropping more among migrants than natives in 2020, particularly in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, and Spain, leading to temporary interruptions in remittances sent by migrants to their families in their countries of origin. GCC states including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are among the top remittance-sending countries.
In addition, migrants experienced considerable setbacks in their integration and education in their new countries due to factors that pre-existed the pandemic, such as language barriers and limited access to technology that hindered distance learning, the report noted.
“The lingering shock of the pandemic has created a pressing need for more progressive policies,” said Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa. “It has created an opportunity for countries north and south of the Mediterranean to strengthen cooperation and build more forward-looking migration systems that can help build much needed economic integration to stave off new crises.”
The report also said migrants experienced greater pandemic–related health impacts than native-born populations — with more infections, hospital admissions, intensive care unit (ICU) treatments, and deaths per capita. This was due to overcrowded housing, employment in front-line occupations, and limited or lack of access to adequate health care, the report found.
The report noted that openness to migration, and ultimately integration, could be limited by increased adverse sentiments toward migrants. An emerging number of studies point to the link between COVID-19 and anti-foreign sentiments. If misinformation is not addressed and if migration is perceived as an even more salient issue after the pandemic, negative attitudes could pose major challenges to migrants’ integration in the long term.
“The pandemic has shown that expanding migrants’ access to key services such as health care, social welfare and labor market programs, and adequate housing — even in periods of crisis when overall fiscal space might be limited —is an investment with a strong economic rationale,” said Mauro Testaverde, a senior economist in the World Bank’s Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice who was lead author of the report. “In fact, granting migrants access to these services in the wake of large shocks protects local populations and migrants, and can help economies re-start faster.”