Migration during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a strong influence on various aspects of social life, including mobility and migration. Based on the reports drafted by the European Commission Atlas of Migration 2020 and Migration statistics update: the impact of COVID-19, this article provides the preliminary findings about the consequences of COVID-19 pandemic on migration in Europe. In particular, it focuses on the different kinds of migration flows and some economic aspects connected with migration.

COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions adopted by the governments are profoundly affecting the mobility of all individuals (UN 2020). In particular, the studies conducted so far agree that the pandemic and its consequences have had and are having an important effect on migratory movements. Not only the quantity and composition of migrations are changing, but also some characteristics of the phenomenon, such as routes and directions of the movements (EC 2020). Preliminary data on 2020 migration movements to some EU countries showed a decline in entries and changes in different aspects of migration phenomenon.

How COVID-19 pandemic affect migration

Migratory movements to and from Europe may have been affected by the pandemic in several ways: potential migrants may have decided not to travel to countries with a high spread of the virus; countries with very strong restrictions may have discouraged potential migrants or applied stricter measures in granting visas or permits; economic difficulties related to the pandemic may have pushed migrants out of a particular country; and the contagion itself may have prevented people from moving. Some categories of migrants can benefit from some measures adopted during this period, also as a consequence of the mobility reduction. This can be the case of seasonal or health workers than, in some contexts, have seen new ways open to regularize their position. Furthermore, in general, migrants also run a greater risk of contracting the virus, both due to their mobility and the type of jobs and living conditions they experience in the destination countries (EC 2020).

COVID-19 and migration trends in Europe

At the European level, overall data on migration flows (stemming from population registers and residence permits) are not yet available for the year 2020. However, on the basis of data already available for some European countries, the reports provided by the EC (2020) and OECD (2020) have tried to outline a framework of the consequences that the pandemic has had and will have on migration trends in Europe. According to EC 2020, considering that many of the permits granted between 2015 and 2019 had been approved for employment reasons, it is to be expected that due to the economic difficulties and lack of job opportunities related to the pandemic, the trend (increasing in 2015-2019) may change radically. On the basis of preliminary data on the first months of 2020 regarding some OECD countries, the report drawn up by the OECD estimates that the number of new residence permits granted fell by 46% compared to the previous year. According with OECD, although there may have been a recovery of the flows in the second half of the year, the economic situation has had too much impact on the work of migrants to determine positive trends in the second half of the year.

COVID-19 pandemic and asylum trends in Europe

Data on asylum applications in the EU are available for the first ten months of 2020. In this period, there were 390,000 asylum applications (nearly 90% were first time applications), 33% fewer than in the same months of the previous year (EC 2021). There are, of course, differences between European countries. In particular, during the first seven months of 2020 and compared to the same months in the previous two years, applications declined in Germany, France and Italy, while countries such as Spain and Romania saw an increase. In particular, the number of applications decreased, compared to the previous two years, for people from Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria (EC 2020).

COVID-19 pandemic and irregular arrivals in Europe

In the period January-November 2020, irregular entries at the EU borders were 114,300, 10% less than in the same period of 2019 (when the lowest level of entries in the last six years was recorded). The decrease involved arrivals along the Eastern Mediterranean route, which were 19,300, 74% less than the previous year. In particular, this decline was caused by a decrease in entries into Greece from Turkey. On the other hand, arrivals via the Central Mediterranean route, through Malta and Italy, increased. There were 34,100 arrivals, 34% more than 2019, and the majority of these people arrived in Lampedusa (Italy). In Spain as well, with 35,800 arrivals, there was an increase, equal to 46%, in comparison to the same months of the previous year (EC 2021). In the first eight months of 2020, the main countries of origin of people who arrived irregularly were Syria, Tunisia, Afghanistan and Algeria (EC 2020).

COVID-19 pandemic and migrant workers in Europe

In some countries, the lack of migrant entries has resulted in a lack of seasonal workers in sectors where native workers are less employed or absent. Indeed, in Europe, many migrants work in key sectors such as agriculture, personal care services or cleaning services. The European Commission Guidelines have listed categories of key workers who should not be restricted on entry due to the importance of their contribution to certain economic and employment activities (EC 2020). In countries like Italy, an amnesty has been instituted to provide for the lack of workers mainly in the agricultural sector.

COVID-19 pandemic and remittances from Europe

The decrease in job opportunities and the increase in unemployment levels have led and will lead to a decrease in remittances which, in some countries of origin, represent an important support for development (EC 2020, UN 2020). Moreover, mobility restrictions could make it more difficult to access intermediaries or money transfer services. Europe is an area from which many of the global remittances are sent. The severity of the epidemic in some European countries will therefore likely contribute to a reduction in global remittances (EC 2020).

Preliminary conclusions

Since the pandemic is a recent and still current phenomenon, it is now complicated to outline a precise framework of the profound consequences on migratory movements both in the short and in the long term. The available data and research, however, agree that the pandemic, the mobility restrictions and economic difficulties have had an impact in 2020 and will continue to have an influence in the medium term. The spread of the epidemic in the countries of origin can then have a further impact. The countries of origin of many migrants in Europe have been heavily affected by the virus (such as India, USA, Brazil), but other countries of origin of migrants arriving in recent years (such as Morocco, China, Ukraine) have been less affected. The countries of origin of many asylum seekers continue to have enormous humanitarian problems and the pandemic could have exacerbated existing difficulties leading to an increase in push factors (EC 2020). In general, the decrease in remittances could make the economic situation in some countries of origin even more complicated (EC 2021). Since migrations are the result of so many determinants and different contexts, it is difficult now to understand the exact patterns of changes that migration will undergo with and after the pandemic. It is certain that, however, the pandemic has had an important impact on a central social and demographic phenomenon such as migration.


Note: This article is based on reports drafted by the European Commission Atlas of Migration 2020 and Migration statistics update: the impact of COVID-19

Author: Sara Miccoli


European Commission, Joint Research Centre. (2020). Atlas of Migration 2020. EUR 30534 EN. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. ISBN 978-92-76-27836-8. doi:10.2760/430992, JRC122942.

European Commission. (2021). Migration statistics update: the impact of COVID-19. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_232 

OECD. (2020). International Migration Outlook 2020. Paris: OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/ec98f531-en.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2020). International Migration 2020 Highlights. ST/ESA/SER.A/452. 


migration, covid-19, pandemic, migration flows, asylum

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