Earlier this year, Fragomen published its 2021 Worldwide Trends Report. It includes an immigration trends analysis broken down by region and extracts key themes and emerging trends based on Fragomen’s reference library of more than 50,000 data points, 400 global client alerts, and white papers and opinion pieces published through September 2020. We bring you an abridged version, for the full report please click the link at the end of this article.
A new type of restrictionism developed with the easing of travel restrictions. Policies began to focus heavily on health certificates, medical screenings and other related measures.
This year, in response to the unprecedented worldwide economic downturn and in addition to existing protectionist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments, countries renewed their focus on local workforce protections, but with a new emphasis on mitigating the risk of infection and compensating for skyrocketing unemployment rates. Along with widespread travel restrictions to ban the entry of entire groups of foreign nationals, many governments used a range of methods to restrict admission and work rights by imposing heightened eligibility criteria, decreasing quotas and increasing minimum salary levels.
Most countries promulgated restrictive entry and exit rules, and foreign nationals who were allowed entry faced complex and often intrusive health and entry requirements, and in many cases, strict criteria for work authorization that was implemented before COVID-19. Additionally, many countries divided essential workers from non-essential ones, creating a new category of admissibility, and a rapid acceleration of the digital transformation was seen to limit person-to-person contact during immigration processing. If there was ever a year of rapid global change in immigration rules, this was it.
Birth of New Type of Restrictionsim
As the epidemiological situation around the world changed, COVID-19-related travel restrictions ranged from broad entry bans to constantly changing specific bans with exceptions based on citizenship and/or originating country. A new type of restrictionism developed with the easing of travel restrictions. Policies began to focus heavily on health certificates, medical screenings and other related measures. While borders were starting to reopen, employers reconsidered sending their employees abroad in light of the implications of quarantine requirements. Faced with the inconvenience and interruption caused by mandatory quarantines, many travellers were reluctant (or unable) to partake in any form of travel during this quarter.
Implementation of Immigration Policy Reviews and Overhauls Sidelined by COVID-19 Response
With government resources limited, the need for recovery from government closures—including reconciling application backlogs and regularizing out-of-status foreign nationals—will be at the forefront of immigration administrations’ concerns in the short term. As a result, immigration policy overhauls planned for implementation during late 2020 and into 2021 have been delayed in many countries.
Travel Alliances in Stark Contrast to Divergent Policies
As economies struggled to reopen and compensate for months of closures, travel bubbles (also referred as “travel corridors” and “air bridges”) created among countries with similar COVID-19 infection rates resulted in lenient entry rules or exceptions to entry bans/quarantine, to facilitate travel and help improve each country’s economy. In stark contrast to coordinated agreements, a key 2020 trend was the diversion of many local/state governments from centralized plans that were created to coordinate travel policy changes. This was particularly noticeable in the European Union (EU), where the European Council recommended that EU countries lift the external border restrictions for a limited number of countries, based on objective criteria related to the COVID-19 infection rate and whether reciprocal policies apply. EU Member States, however, took a country-by-country approach, creating uncoordinated and complex entry rules.
Unprecedented Unemployment Rates Exacerbate Protectionism
In both developed and developing economies, the pandemic is causing unprecedented job losses and business closures. The unemployment rate in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries increased by an unprecedented 2.9 percentage points in April 2020 to 8.4%, compared to 5.5% in March. As economies begin to reopen, unemployment is projected to fall, but remain substantially above pre-pandemic levels. As a result, policies across the world will continue to shift more toward the protection of local workforce to mitigate unprecedented job losses. As history has shown, countries will likely continue to turn inward in response to sustained high unemployment rates but will ultimately seek to improve their fiscal situation by welcoming foreign talent and foreign investment (often an underrated source for economic recovery).
Work-from-Anywhere the New Normal
Many employees were moved to remote work situations in countries with temporary and ambiguous remote working concessions, that were often hastily created in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. In many cases, companies were compelled to follow temporary government remote work regulations that often led to the employer being noncompliant with labour and other laws. Many times, whether an employee could work remotely under their work authorization depended on several factors, such as the terms of the employment agreement (Austria), the location of work (Canada), or the visa category (United States). These and other scenarios created compliance risks beyond those related to immigration law (e.g., employment law, social security law, tax implications, etc.).
Some employees ended up working in a country other than the one where they applied for work rights. As governments scrambled to catch up to such decisions, lawmakers created ambiguous policies that did not contemplate saving employers and their employees from the various legal compliance risks. The combination of uncharted legislative and policy territory and hasty decisions to address immediate needs resulted in a period of chaotic employer policy changes. This is especially important in the context of the Posted Workers Directive in the EU, where employers are required to comply with strict standards to ensure the posted worker’s working conditions are the same as local workers. In many ways, an ideal approach for remote workers would be if more immigration systems separated the need for company sponsorship from work authorization eligibility, which would allow for more flexible employment agreements, such as employee-leasing or third-party placements.
Immigration Policies and Special Concessions for Essential Workers
The pandemic created a new division in the immigration landscape. Essential workers, such as healthcare workers, production and food processing workers, maintenance workers, agricultural workers, and truck drivers, and other categories of workers deemed necessary in the fight against COVID-19, were exempt from entry bans. This approach may create a new policy focused on workers deemed essential by the destination country governments for various situations (even outside this pandemic) and could create more opportunities for local and foreign medium-skilled workers. Labour protections, such as quotas and labour market tests, traditionally disfavoured such applicants, who in many countries are considered medium- and even low-skilled.
Education-focused Immigration Programs May Increase Opportunities for Medium-Skilled Foreign Workers
Prior to COVID-19, immigration programs in countries that sought to attract the best and brightest featured eligibility criteria based on high standards of professional skills and experience. Conversely, education-based programs, such as the post-graduate practical training program in the United States, were the focus of many immigration-related restrictions. When COVID-19 hit, there was a heightened need for medical professionals and other essential—but lower-skilled, lower-paid—workers. Immigration schemes may start to reflect such needs in entry rules; immigration paths may be created especially for such entrants and protectionism may ease to allow special exemptions and rules for medium-skilled workers with certain educations such as vocational or non-traditional schooling, or otherwise. This is already seen in the United Kingdom, where the new points-based system will create a preferential route just for healthcare workers with a job offer.
Fragomen believes the following key trends will strongly impact the immigration landscape in the next several years. While there is no direct action to be taken now, they feel these trends require close observation, as they will likely have a significant impact on how business is conducted in the future.
Health Assessments in the Spotlight
While the topic of an “immunity passport” caught on during the early days of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, the World Health Organization warned that there is no evidence that those who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies or are protected from re-infection. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that up to half of antibody tests could incorrectly state that an individual has antibodies. For these reasons, among other, immunity passports are not a realistic option as a basis for travel rights. However, health records for travellers, often referred to as a “health passport,” containing antibody test results, recent negative COVID-19 test results and proof of vaccination are now becoming the norm.
Government Need to Increase Revenue May Impact Employer Budgets
Just like nearly every private industry, public government departments suffered from cuts in spending and expenditures in national health and economic recovery programs. As governments aim to rebuild economies post-COVID-19, politicians will have difficult decisions to make with respect to how to recoup funds after months of closures of public services. In some countries, this could result in higher taxes, while in others it may result in cuts on public spending.
Attempts to compensate for losses could have two effects:
∞ Higher application fees and fines for noncompliance. Employers and foreign nationals could see increased application fees for both initial and renewal applications. Fees for noncompliance with immigration regulations could also increase.
∞ Increased enforcement efforts. Government motivations to increase noncompliance fines could lead immigration departments and other governmental bodies that enforce immigration and employment law to expand their watchdog roles and increase the volume of their enforcement efforts, if resources and laws allow it.
This means employers will need to factor increased fees— which could prove to be dramatic—into their budgets. Employers should be prepared for stricter enforcement efforts, including government audits of workplaces and workplace documents, as well as increased strictness in reviewing employer and foreign nationals’ immigration applications.
Mismatch in Demographics to Create Work Opportunities
The working age population in most high-income countries is declining, while elderly populations are growing. By 2050, the prime working-age populations of OECD countries will have shrunk by more than 92 million people, while their populations over 65 years old will have grown by more than 100 million people. This means OECD countries are facing a gap of more than 15 million workers per year, or a total of 400 million workers over 30 years. However, many lower-income countries have working-age populations that are growing faster than job creation rates (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America, Middle East). Since it has been proven that the potential income gain from mobility exceeds the gain from more schooling, this could mean a great opportunity for foreign workers.
Manufacturing Will Move to Home Countries, Decreasing Long-term Assignments
COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of supply chains. Governments and companies will start to review manufacturing locations and move facilities home to create a more dependable and sustainable supply chain. Pharmaceutical and medical supply manufacturing locations were under a microscope during COVID-19, as personal protective equipment shortages loomed and reliance on Chinese production was strong. These may be the first of many industries that shift production to other locations in the long term. In 2021 and after the pandemic, U.S. and European companies will likely reconsider their supply and service ties with China, which could either spur a growth in home country production and service jobs, or a spread of production in other production hubs with low wages.
This could reduce out-of-country travel needs and could instead re-focus hiring efforts on local populations (including immigrants in the home country under local hire work permits). This will also force companies to create new forms of automation to decrease the costs of onshore production, which may create needs to cut budgets elsewhere. Alternatively, COVID-19-related financial losses will, for many companies, undercut the ability to move production at this time, as very little spare capital remains to make such drastic changes. However, the conversation and concern were amplified during the pandemic and, in three to five years, moving production posts could become more of a reality for employers with continued concerns about the stability, both economically and politically, in China.
Finally, Fragomen believes the private sector will play an ever more significant role in shaping immigration policy. With the past several years of immigration restrictions spurring the business community to become more involved in policy development at both national and international levels, organisations such as the Global Forum for Migration and Development help the private sector raise awareness of the benefits of labour migration. The pandemic has brought the role of the private sector into even higher relief as governments and organisations work to balance crucial COVID-19 containment measures with mechanisms to support the global economy.
For the full report, please visit the Fragomen website.