The Covid-19 pandemic has ended the growth in the flow of migrants around the world by a decade, placing foreign-born workers at much higher risk of infection, unemployment and educational disadvantage, the OECD said on Monday.
In the 37 economies covered by the international organization, immigrants and their children now make up more than one in five people. However, the number of residence permits issued by OECD countries in the first half of 2020 was less than half of the previous year, as many governments closed their borders and stopped processing applications.
"It is very clear that 2020 will be marked by a historic decline in migration," said Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of migration at the OECD. The picture is similarly strong in countries outside the OECD with a large migrant population: In Saudi Arabia, the number of permits issued fell from around 550,000 in the first half of 2019 to just 55,000 in the first half of 2020.
Meanwhile, existing migrants – many of whom were unable to return to their home countries, whose borders were closed, and whose flights were either unavailable or unaffordable – were far more affected by the pandemic than the natives.
The OECD said studies in several countries showed that immigrants were at least twice as likely to be infected as natives, also because they were more likely to live in overcrowded homes, rely on public transport, or work in essential roles that couldn't be from to To be done at home.
We will see a reorganization of the migration map
They were also more likely to work in sectors such as hospitality where job losses were concentrated. The OECD said evidence so far showed that almost all countries were more likely to become unemployed.
In the US, the unemployment rate for immigrants before the pandemic was lower than for Native Americans, but it is now two percentage points higher. In countries like France and Italy, where unemployment is limited by vacation programs, migrants were more likely to become inactive. In Sweden, almost six out of ten unemployed people were immigrants.
The OECD also warned that the pandemic jeopardized recent advances in helping immigrants integrate into their host countries, as language classes have been interrupted and a lack of IT equipment has made it difficult for children to manage distance learning.
The loss of jobs for existing migrants, coupled with the sharp decline in new flows, could create problems for economies that rely heavily on foreign workers to send money back to their families.
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So far, global transfers have held up better than expected. Farouk Soussa, an economist at Goldman Sachs, estimates they were only 6 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2020, while the World Bank had forecast a 20 percent decline over the course of the year.
However, a larger decline in remittances could follow. Mr Dumont said that people in emerging economies, who are in even greater difficulty than those in developed countries, have immigrants turning to savings to help their families at home – but "they can only do so for a while".
Mr Soussa said the remittances may also have been bolstered by vacation programs that protected incomes in the short term and by some migrants sending savings home to prepare for return as job prospects dried up.
Mr Dumont said there was little chance that migration could return to previous levels in the short term and that the pandemic would have lasting effects.
Some governments have recognized that migrants are essential to parts of their economies and many have made exceptions for them, he said, with the UK extending the duration of doctors' permits and Germany chartering flights to hire farm workers.
However, it was unlikely that countries like the US, which have put in place sweeping new immigration restrictions to protect American workers affected by the pandemic, would ease those policies in the short term. The global economic slump would squeeze demand for migrant workers while college students and the highly skilled may not be willing to venture far from home, and remote working had prompted companies to reconsider the need to move around large numbers of expatriates .
"We're going to see a reorganization of the migration map," said Dumont.