International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman
World News /14 May 2020
05.14.20

A Mass Migration to Competence?

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshuffling the global deck of cards in innumerable, unpredictable ways. Of that little, we can be certain. It will have profound and lasting economic, sociological, and psychological effects, to be sure, some of which we are already witnessing in the short-term. But this crisis may usher in one unforeseen yet enduring demographic phenomenon: a fundamental change in global migratory patterns.

Migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are, like most of us, rational actors. In leaving their respective countries of origin, they have traditionally prioritized opportunity and security and with good reason. The societies they left were often beset with poverty, conflict, disease, or corruption, or some potent combination thereof. They targeted destinations—mostly in the United States and Western Europe—that promised economic opportunities, educational possibilities, and a better, more predictable life for them and their children. And more often than not, they have measurably improved the societies to which they emigrated.

Countries that have long been perceived as desirable, attractive destinations for migration, however, may no longer be universally perceived as such in the wake of the pandemic. Those countries that have failed the coronavirus litmus test due to governmental incompetence or a lack of trust in institutions may see a drastic drop-off in future immigration inflows. On the other hand, the countries that have aced this stress test, whose societies were perhaps previously deemed too impenetrable, illiberal, or otherwise undesirable, may well be rising in the estimations of transient populations given their demonstrated competence, policy coherence, sage governance, and stability.

It is becoming increasingly clear that certain countries are emerging from the current crisis as success stories while others have had their reputations tarnished as failures and cautionary tales. At this juncture, South Korea has been held up as the gold standard. Having identified its first case on the same day as did the United States, the government of South Korea quickly ramped up testing, made it widely available, and successfully contact-traced and quarantined those confirmed or suspected to be infected. That has allowed their economy to continue to function with some semblance of normality while still not imposing draconian and overly-restrictive measures upon its citizenry. Other early success stories include Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Which brings us to the biggest losers of the pandemic to-date: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and Europe. The prestige and predominance of the U.S. in international affairs and international esteem had already suffered a debilitating body blow as a result of the feckless, impetuous, and schizophrenic leadership of the Trump administration, but this crisis has revealed the crippling weaknesses and predictable fault lines of the American political and health care systems as well. The United Kingdom has actually had more deaths per capita than the U.S., and Italy and Spain have seen some of the highest numbers of fatalities at this juncture in the crisis, with their respective economies crippled by the pandemic.

So what then, will the consequences for international migration be? The United States and Western Europe have served as the traditional destinations for migrants for the last century-plus as engines of economic growth and bastions of relative tolerance and acceptance. But will that now be enough? If the United States is seen, and correctly so, as a nation with a haphazard approach to health care and desultory crisis leadership, how many will be deterred from seeking relocation there? Studies have demonstrated that international migrants are attracted by solid health care systems and sturdy social safety nets, both of which have been exposed as lacking in the U.S. during the pandemic. If the UK, Spain, and Italy which have been traditional destinations for Asian, Latin American, and African immigration respectively, are seen as divided, weak, and frail states, will bright, aspiring students from Pakistan, Colombia, or Nigeria still flock there to study and work?

At the same time as these traditional immigration destinations are faltering, other, alternative destinations not customarily perceived as ideal may be growing in migrants’ estimation. Some may have demurred at the linguistic and cultural difficulties of emigrating to a place like Seoul. But the competence and assuredness of the South Korean government may go a long way toward allaying these fears amidst greater concerns by those seeking safety and sanctuary. You may not like the onerous, restrictive social policies and regulations in Singapore and New Zealand, but you might value the competence of the Singaporean approach or the steadiness of Kiwi leadership.

This pandemic has laid bare national weaknesses, and these weaknesses will have not gone unnoticed by potential and future migrants. Where they have a choice, and many skilled and even unskilled migrants do indeed have a choice, they will increasingly opt for those locales that have figured out universal health care, pandemic and crisis response, and unified national action, and these are the nations that now stand to gain from this migratory boon.