Large parts of the global population face an increasingly insecure outlook (see Chapter 1). Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) respondents perceive “livelihood crises” as one of the most potentially severe risks over the next decade. Millions of people are already seeking to cross borders in search of better economic opportunities.
Over the last decade, the number of international migrants has grown consistently, from 221 million people in 2010 to 281 million in 2020.1 Economic hardship, climate change, conflict and political instability are forcing millions more people to leave their homes. These trends are reflected in the GRPS, where “involuntary migration” is ranked as a top long-term concern.
Better international collaboration is required to manage these flows to ensure that economic migrants are not exposed to exploitation and that involuntary migrants—refugees—crossing into other countries receive the assistance and shelter that they need. The scale of the challenge has put significant pressure on existing frameworks for migration and refugee protection, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol;2 this pressure is compounded by fractures within the international community and national interest postures that risk-limiting global capacity to address this challenge. Some 60% of GRPS respondents believe “migration and refugees” is an area where international mitigation efforts are falling short (that is, they have either “not started” or are in “early development”).
Economic migration often has considerable benefits for both origin and destination countries. It is “the most effective way to reduce poverty and share prosperity”, according to a World Bank report,3 and can support economic growth by helping address labour shortages in destination countries. While most cross-border migration takes place between low- and middle-income countries, 83% of non-migrant residents in the 22 richest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have experienced net economic gains from the influx of migrants.4 On the other hand, some project-based migration undertakings to enhance cross-border infrastructure have had negative impacts in destination countries, where the tendency to employ workers from origin countries has reduced opportunities for income and skills transfer for native, destination-country workers.5
Refugees can also ultimately make a positive contribution to the economies of destination countries, depending partly on a balanced intake across countries that have the capacity to take them in. Their ability to contribute often depends on whether they receive support to deal with the aftereffects of forced displacement—for example, counselling for post-traumatic stress, which is not normally afforded to economic migrants. Instead, millions of refugees remain crowded in camps on the fringes of society—often in countries in the Global South that do not have the economic capacity to absorb them.
However, national-level barriers to the movement of people are increasing. Disillusionment with globalization has fuelled nativist discourses and national interest policies in many destination countries in recent years, and COVID-19 has accelerated this trend. An IPSOS–World Economic Forum Survey from April 2021 found that positive views towards globalization fell during the pandemic by an average of 10 percentage points across 25 countries.6 Many governments, reflecting popular attitudes, have expressed concern about pressures on education and healthcare services, housing capacity and local employment; for others, integration concerns have been a priority.
Higher barriers to both orderly and disorderly migration elevate the risk of forgoing potential pathways to restoring livelihoods, closing income and labour gaps and maintaining political instability. Instead, the clash between heightened insecurity in origin countries and migration barriers in destination countries will exacerbate global divergence (see Chapter 1), aggravating tensions within and between countries that could complicate an equitable recovery and lead to ever more desperate measures by those who feel compelled to move.
Movement restrictions related to COVID-19 interrupted some migration flows;7 as these restrictions are lifted, divergent economic recoveries will likely amplify pressures to migrate that have been restrained through the pandemic.8 Many origin countries—mostly less advanced and less vaccinated ones (see Chapter 1)—face highly insecure economic outlooks as growth stagnates, public finances continue to be stretched and pandemic-related stimuli—on which vulnerable groups have depended—are scaled back.9 Employment in these countries may also decline if the pandemic persists, exacerbated by a worldwide trend for workplace automation, re-shoring business operations, and shortening supply chains that may affect foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, exports and growth.10 In many lower-income countries, where informal work is prevalent, informal migrant workers are particularly exposed to the pandemic’s economic fallout because of their low income and lack of access to state support.11
Climate change is a key driver of migration. It displaces people directly because of natural disasters and it can displace them indirectly by encouraging economic migration from weakening economies vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. The inability to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change threatens to make certain densely populated parts of the world uninhabitable.12 More frequent and extreme weather events—including fires, floods and droughts—could displace more than 200 million people by 2050.13 Water scarcity is a key driver of migration because of its impact on health and livelihoods as well as the conflicts it risks triggering.14 GRPS respondents rated “extreme weather” and “climate action failure” as strong aggravators of “involuntary migration”. Densely populated countries that are highly dependent on agriculture—such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines15—are especially vulnerable to climate insecurity. Worsening extreme weather will trigger large-scale migration and displacement, but the international community’s reluctance to recognize “climate refugees” and “environmental migrants” is widening their legal protection gap.16 Legislative and governance frameworks remain ill-equipped to protect millions at risk of displacement who do not qualify as traditional refugees.17 These governance voids could leave governments blindsided in the event of a sudden, high-impact environmental shock. Moreover, the failure to achieve inclusive transitions to net-zero economies (see Chapter 2) could worsen economic insecurity for businesses and households in those origin countries left behind.
Conflict and political insecurity are also major drivers of involuntary migration. In 2020, there were over 34 million people displaced abroad globally from conflict alone—a historical high (see Figure 4.1)—mostly due to long-standing conflicts and political turmoil in Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria and Venezuela,18 and to expanding conflicts within and beyond the borders of Ethiopia.19 According to the Executive Opinion Survey (EOS), “involuntary migration” is a top short-term threat in Armenia, Ukraine and Venezuela, which have experienced conflict and political instability.20 Political turmoil may well worsen in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, compounded by the reduction of international security forces from conflict zones such as Afghanistan and the Sahel region of Africa. Moreover, some political leaders have reacted to economic crises and social unrest with authoritarianism, discriminatory policies, or extremist discourses that put ethnic or religious minorities at risk of marginalization or violence.
Global cooperation to resolve or mitigate ongoing humanitarian crises is being challenged by financial pressures in advanced economies, greater focus on domestic priorities, and a more tense geopolitical context (see Chapter 1). Already, the pandemic has diminished external financing to developing countries by US$700 billion—equivalent to the combined GDPs of 36 of the world’s poorest economies (see Figure 4.2).21
There are three potential barriers to cross-border migration: post-pandemic effects on international mobility, future employment trends and increased national interest postures of many countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic ramifications have emboldened some groups and political leaders to adopt more hostile postures against migration, foreigners or communities with foreign roots. Restrictions on international movement as a result of the pandemic remained in place in 32 countries at the time of writing.22 These include critical destination and corridor countries such as China, India, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Future easing of restrictions will depend on the progress of vaccination and the evolution of COVID-19, but persistent vaccination gaps globally, and particularly within origin countries, means international mobility will continue to be restricted for many.
The pandemic may also narrow future employment opportunities for migrant workers in destination countries, both because of the economic disruption it created and because of the accelerating automation and digitalization of tasks and services. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report found that
50% of employers globally planned to automate tasks in response to COVID-19, often in sectors that have relied on migrant workers.23 The report also estimates that 85 million jobs will be destroyed by automation by 2025, and although
97 million new jobs will emerge, these jobs may not necessarily match the skillsets of many migrants.24 The short-term economic rebound from the pandemic has resulted in a surge in hiring in some key sectors for migrants such as hospitality and healthcare, but in the long-term, new consumption patterns in destination countries—such as more e-commerce and less business travel—are expected to shrink demand for jobs in migrant-intensive industries such as agriculture, food services and warehousing.25
National interest postures have also become more entrenched across both developing and advanced economies. For example, Chile and Peru have reframed their migration governance mechanisms, which complicates access for migrant and refugee populations to essential financial and healthcare services.26 Meanwhile, restrictive policies originally grounded in public health concerns have not been rolled back, as indicated by sustained declines in issued visas for the United Kingdom and the perpetuation of Title 42 expulsions at the US border.27
Other destination countries have sought to harden borders to prevent the arrival of involuntary migrants, as evidenced in fresh ambitions to build walls in Europe and Turkey.28
Barriers to orderly migration could have negative global consequences, such as widening labour gaps and income disparity, triggering or worsening humanitarian crises and increasing societal polarization.
Economic consequences. The economic rebound from COVID-19 has created labour shortages in specific industries—albeit some maybe temporary—by disrupting market dynamics and supply chains and prompting workers to re-evaluate their personal and career choices. At the time of writing, the United States faced over 11 million unfilled jobs in general and the European Union had a deficit of 400,000 drivers just in the trucking industry.29 The hospitality sector, one of the most severely affected by the pandemic, is especially vulnerable to long-term labour shortages that migration could close. In the United States, a survey found that over 50% of former hospitality employees would not return to their previous jobs, and 60% of workers seeking employment would not consider the hospitality sector.30
A decrease in migrant employment could weaken the global flow of remittances such that growth in income fails to keep pace with inflation, thereby limiting social mobility in origin countries. Remittances also support private consumption, savings and investment in origin countries and can equate to a significant proportion of GDP (from nearly one-fourth of GDP in El Salvador and Honduras to over one-third in Somalia).31 They proved to be resilient through the pandemic, falling by 2% annually in low-and middle-income countries in 202032—far less than the 30% drop in FDI33—and quickly recovering to rise by 7.3% in 2021.34 Combined with stagnant tourism and pressures on exports,35 a fall in remittances would weaken another important source of financing for many developing countries.
Humanitarian consequences. Humanitarian crises could worsen where barriers to exit prevent vulnerable groups from escaping persecution or violence. In some fragile states, governments could block their citizens’ departure to halt depopulation as well as capital flight. In Afghanistan and Myanmar, governments have reportedly impeded citizens from leaving the country.36 Blocking emigration prevents people from seeking more secure livelihoods and diasporas from reuniting with families. It can exacerbate societal fractures by closing a mechanism to reduce poverty and narrow inequality, fuelling citizens’ animosity towards government and potentially empowering criminal or even terrorist groups that offer hope to disaffected individuals.
More limited international mobility opportunities will push migrants to embark on more perilous journeys and risk worsening or triggering humanitarian crises in neighbouring and corridor countries. One such case is the Syrian crisis, which by 2021 had already displaced nearly 6 million Syrians abroad—mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan—but could further deteriorate.37 An estimated 700,000 Central American migrants transited through Mexico in 2021—a rapid return to pre-pandemic levels38—and those unable to enter the United States are unlikely to return to their origin countries.39 At one point, 15,000 Central American refugees were stranded for days in precarious conditions under a bridge on the Mexico-US border.40 According to the EOS, “involuntary migration” is a top short-term threat in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
These perilous journeys can also lead to tragic loss of life, such as when people become lost at sea or face harsh weather while stuck in borderlands.41 At the time of writing, nearly 4,800 migrants were estimated to have perished or gone missing in 2021, most of them trying to reach Europe from Africa.42 Although there is worldwide consensus on the urgent need to combat human trafficking, the International Organization for Migration estimates that organized human-trafficking groups operate in every country.43
Geopolitical consequences. Migration pressures could exacerbate geopolitical tensions and even fuel cross-border conflicts. For example, in the Middle East, half a million Afghans are expected to take increasingly drastic measures to circumvent migration restrictions and flee to neighbouring countries44—including Iran, which has enlarged its military presence along the border to deter a potential Taliban incursion.45 Management of migration flows has become a tense issue between Turkey, which hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees,46 and the European Union.
Geopolitical rifts could also worsen—and new ones emerge—if origin country migration is increasingly used as a geopolitical instrument. The crossing of migrants from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta aggravated tensions that originated in the European Union’s lack of support for Morocco’s claims over Western Sahara.47 Political tensions between Belarus and the European Union escalated considerably as Belarus encouraged travel from the Middle East, moved migrants to camps along its border with Poland and pushed them to cross over, prompting Poland to deploy troops in response.48 In such cases, destination-country governments seeking to comply with international laws on the treatment of refugees—thereby preserving their reputation among the global community in the spheres of global development and human rights—will have to carefully manage diplomatic relationships with neighbours to arrive at a way forward while responding to immigrant scepticism among a significant proportion of their populations.
Consequences for stakeholders. People, governments and businesses in origin and destination countries face distinct challenges from divergent perspectives on migration. But stakeholders in both geographies also face common challenges: social unrest if migration is used to discriminate against and marginalize certain groups; hardening political contexts if governments exploit migration challenges to justify more control over citizens and markets; and some negative economic consequences if legitimate diaspora networks in destination countries created by migration are undermined.
Left alone: Consequences for people. By 2020, there were more than 4 million stateless persons in the world, the highest number in a decade;49 but this number risks increasing due to heightened social polarization and strained government capacity. Limited options for migrants to gain admittance to destination countries upon entry—even temporarily—could be compounded by corridor countries refusing to allow them to remain within their borders. People in this situation—who are unwilling or unable to return home and whose governments do not take responsibility for their welfare—are at risk of being stranded in irregular settlements or facilities with minimal access to basic goods and services, financial support or diplomatic assistance. Others unable to escape insecurity are at risk of violence or falling prey to extremist ideologies and organizations. Refugees would face poor conditions and even violence in transit and in camps if international cooperation to manage involuntary migration is lacking. Even more economic migrants could resort to desperate measures and become vulnerable to exploitation by human-smuggling cartels.
In destination countries, growing extremism could create greater challenges for migrants trying to assimilate.50 Citizens could also see their civil liberties violated by governments using migration management to justify widespread population surveillance and intrusions on personal information.
Last resort: Consequences for governments. Remittances improve living standards in origin countries and provide an important source of financing.51 Without them, governments in origin countries whose economic stability hinges on remittances may face severe complications in their ability to govern—some could be at risk of degenerating into failed states. Destination-country governments also face risks domestically from failing to address citizens’ concerns with migration. Adopting stricter migration measures could encounter some popular backlash as pro-migration advocates make their voices heard on the streets and online, while failing to effectively manage inflows risk stoking the growth of populism.
Little room: Consequences for businesses. Businesses in destination countries are at risk from a global worker deficit and demand-side shocks that could result from constrained migration. Migrant workers comprise an attractive consumer group that can contribute to developing domestic markets and support international expansion by boosting brand awareness in their home countries. But businesses perceived to favour stricter foreign labour requirements, or that are seen as not making enough effort to support their migrant staff, could face a public backlash from migrant communities and their supporters. On the other hand, businesses that welcome migrant workers with a view to low-cost labour may expose themselves to union pushback.
At a time of global divergence, migration could foster economic integration. International mobility could narrow inequality within and between countries by matching job seekers in origin countries with unfulfilled vacancies abroad in growth industries—such as healthcare, renewable energy and transportation.52
More efficient and orderly channels for migration—including coherent legal and policy frameworks, cross-border cooperation and alignment and better enforcement against smuggling operations—could prompt closer political ties between countries and encourage collaboration on issues of mutual concern such as shared infrastructure for cross-border financial flows. The global community could also build goodwill across geopolitical divisions by strengthening collaboration mechanisms for refugee intake.
Migration offers opportunities but also entails challenges for origin, corridor and destination countries. Leaders have the chance to jointly identify where new bridges can be built for mutual benefit.
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36: Gannon, K. 2021. “Taliban stop planes of evacuees from leaving but unclear why”. AP News. 5 September 2021. https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-religion-taliban-dbe38a9a3c0b33f3532aac5ff1b50078; Myanmar Now. “Workers trying to leave Myanmar turned away at airports after junta tightens rules”. Myanmar Now. 21 October 2021. https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/workers-trying-to-leave-myanmar-turned-away-at-airports-after-junta-tightens-rules
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46: UNHCR. 2021. “Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Turkey”. UNHCR.
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48: Emmott, R. 2020. “EU says Lukashenko is not legitimate Belarus president”. Reuters. 24 September 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-election-eu-idUSKCN26F0ZE; Pempel, K. and Kiselyova, M. 2021. “'Go through. Go,' Lukashenko tells migrants at Polish border”. Reuters. 26 November 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/lukashenko-tells-migrants-belarus-poland-border-he-wont-make-them-go-home-2021-11-26/
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51: World Bank. 2018. Op. cit.
52: McKinsey Global Institute. 2021. Op. cit.