Sick Mobility: How COVID-19 Affected International Migration
This article originally appeared in Transitions.
On 8 March 2020, my Berlin friend had to urgently interrupt her business trip to Russia. All meetings were canceled rapidly; a return ticket to Germany for a new date cost her a fortune. Disturbing footage from Italian hospitals that could not cope with the new virus from Asia was already in the news, but outside of Lombardy people generally lived as usual: going out to cafes, flying off on vacation, attending conferences. A friend’s husband, a security expert, jokingly asked, “Why are you in such a hurry, as if the borders will be closed tomorrow and planes will stop flying?”
Russia suspended all the flights with Germany on 13 March. Germany kept the “no panic” mode longer than others in the EU but finally closed its borders on 15 March 2020. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary had stopped all incoming passenger air traffic even earlier. Under lockdown rules, most EU countries have banned entry into their territory for anyone other than their citizens and holders of national residence permits. Later some of the restrictions were lifted and revised – for example, in March 2021 citizens of other EU countries, students, or medical professionals received the right to enter into the Schengen zone from third countries. But trips for tourism are almost impossible, and significantly limited for business purposes.
COVID-19 radically changed the way we thought about international mobility and traveling in the 2000s and 2010s. And although the vaccination campaign has already started in most European countries, we have to come to terms with the thought that neither tourist trips, nor immigration will look the same – at least in the coming years.
These changes will especially affect the region of Central and Eastern Europe, which has been experiencing an unprecedented increase in travel and labor migration in the last decade. And while the local middle class and “precariat” (almost white-collar millennials, but with little or no job security) suffer from the loss of the privilege of mobility, physical laborers, whose lives depend directly on communication between East and West, cannot afford immobility.
Death of a “Citizen of the World”
Globalization and the shift in the labor market in the 21st century have resulted in thousands of young professionals from Western countries becoming modern nomads. Armed with powerful passports guaranteeing visa-free travel to more than 180 countries of the world, young professionals with laptops and smartphones would live for three months in Thailand, a month in Bali, a couple of weeks in Mexico, and six months in Georgia.
If in the 1990s only people from Western Europe and North America could be considered part of the club, then membership has recently expanded to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The markets of the Visegrad Four, Baltics, and the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries are particularly prone to labor precarization – the modality of unstable, short-term, or occasional employment of high-skilled workers, who received university diplomas but did not join the corporate sector. This makes travel one of the main pleasures and investments of the young middle class in the CEE region. “Citizens of the world” do not always have access to a permanent work contract or a mortgage in their home country, but they brightened their lives by enjoying the freedom of movement.
Modern nomads were happy to spend time away from home, and other countries were happy to host them. The logistics of international mobility were simplified by a growing number of airlines and Airbnb-type services.
Everything collapsed overnight in March 2020 along with the COVID pandemic.
COVID-19 caused changes in migration governance in the majority of countries: modern nomads who previously were considered a source of income for the host countries had become a source of threat. New border policies, entry restrictions, closed consulates – you can no longer go wherever you want, only where you will be allowed to go. And the list of available destinations was limited to the countries you have strong traditional ties to through citizenship or a residence permit. Thus, the Ukrainian middle class, which has just begun to get used to the comfort of visa-free travel to the EU that was obtained in 2017, is forced (for now) to say goodbye to it.
Although the travel situation looks better today, it is difficult to plan trips more than a week in advance. The Czech Republic and Slovakia at the end of February 2021 announced a new, third lockdown.
The year 2020 will thus be remembered for the collapse of the “citizen of the world” concept, and today your international mobility once again depends not so much on your ambitions or financial possibilities but on the national passport you hold.
No Chance for Home Office
If the privilege of mobility was taken away from the middle class, which more or less enthusiastically works from home, then the right to stay at home was taken away from the physical laborers.
The pandemic highlighted the issue of essential workers – often badly paid migrants, employed in trade, logistics, agriculture, health care, and social assistance, whose presence became necessary during the lockdowns. The European Commission estimates that 14 percent of key workers in EU countries are migrants. In some regions even every third essential worker has a migrant background. In the case of Western Europe, we are talking primarily about citizens of Central and Southern Europe, and in the case of Central Europe – citizens of the Eastern Partnership countries.
A significant part of these immigrants before COVID preferred not permanent, but short-term migration: 40 percent of Polish immigrants in the UK and 80 percent of Ukrainian immigrants in Poland used to be circular migrants who came home quite often. In 2020 they were pushed to choose between staying with their families or preserving their source of income. Closed borders completely changed their life model established during the 2010s.
Already in late March 2020, British farming organizations and recruitment agencies reported that the closure of the borders would mean there would be no one to harvest. Only 5 percent of workers employed in the British agriculture sector are British citizens. As a result, when tough restrictions on flights and border crossings existed in the UK and on the continent, special charters brought workers from Bulgaria and Romania. Charters from Bulgaria were also organized by Austrians, while Estonians, Poles, and Czechs decided to bring workers from Ukraine.
The increased demand for physical workers in the EU allowed the Ukrainian government to play with the idea of banning its citizens from leaving the country. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said at one point that it was high time for migrants to serve their own country and take not particularly well-paid jobs locally instead of going abroad. In late April 2020, Ukrainian authorities even delayed for seven hours the departure of a plane that was supposed to carry more than 100 Ukrainian workers to London.
Unlike during the 2008 migrant crisis that roiled Europe, not only did EU countries in 2020 not try to expel such visitors but wanted to keep those who work in production and services. Thus, the terms of validity of work visas and residence permits were automatically extended; for instance, Poland– today the largest recipient of the labor force from outside the EU – allowed even those Ukrainian workers who came under the visa-free regime to stay in the country until the end of the pandemic.
While both Western and Central European countries have frozen or limited the migration of high-skilled professionals, the migration of essential workers is welcomed. The question is how long this trend will exist after the pandemic. According to McKinsey’s estimates, we should expect a transition to a new system of work in corporations, when leading companies no longer develop large regional offices with multinational teams. Instead, they will only subcontract projects for ready-made teams that continue to perform tasks in their own country.
New Schengen Area
Already, there are striking disparities between countries in terms of the rate of vaccination and the set of contracted vaccines. As of 1 March 2021, Poland had already administered almost nine vaccine doses per 100 people, while Czechia stood at 6.3, Latvia at 3.5, and Ukraine at a mere 0.01. And while the richer states were able to get Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Europe’s Eastern neighbors are either just starting vaccination, or they are administering it with the Chinese or Russian versions. Once again, it has become clear that the “golden billion” club is not only about a higher level of income, but also about the banal physical security of human life.
If the EU opens its borders to third-country nationals this year, the citizens of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – who in recent years rejoiced at the long-awaited visa-free regime with the EU – will hardly be able to use it due to the vaccination requirements that probably will be implemented shortly. The vaccination campaign in EaP countries goes too slowly, while the vaccination passport is likely to become the new Schengen visa of the 2020s.
Сomplicated or delayed migration processes, together with the deterioration of the economy, can lead to increased social tensions in Central and Eastern Europe. If Poland and the Czech Republic do not yet feel the significant negative consequences of the pandemic and the lockdown – GDP fell by only 2-3 percent, and unemployment rose to 7-8 percent, then in the Baltic and Balkan countries, the situation looks worse. Everything is even more alarming in Ukraine, where COVID has led to a reduction in the income of more than 60 percent of the population.
If in the 2000s and 2010s a young generation in CEE, unsatisfied with the situation in their home countries chose to emigrate, in the 2020s it could simply have no chance to do so. It has become more difficult to leave for those who look for a qualified office job or freelance work abroad. That could push fresh university graduates to engage in domestic politics more actively, bringing along with them new ideas. For instance, for the first time in two decades, there are more 18-24 years old in Poland who share social-democratic ideas than rightwing ones. A generation with rather limited migration experience after a year of lockdowns, quarantines, and closed borders can no longer count on globalization as a cure for all problems. Seeing inequality and injustice at home, they might focus more on civic participation than emigration.
Because when you lose the exit option and loyalty is unbearable, you still have a voice.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.