How COVID-19 may be as significant as 9/11 for global migration policy

by | Jun 9, 2020

This time last year, we were living in a different world.

Britain was navigating a turbulent Brexit journey and was about to lose a Prime Minister; Australia had just gone to the polls for what turned out to be a shock victory by the governing conservative coalition; Hong Kong was in the middle of protests; Narendra Modi won India’s elections with the highest voter turnout in India’s history and was about to push forward an aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda; tensions were flaring in the Persian Gulf; the China-US trade war was in full swing; and the Amazon was burning

Fast forward one year, and whilst many of these issues have far from gone away, over 400,000 people have died of COVID-19 and we are staring down the barrel at the deepest recession since the Second World War, with the many challenges that lockdowns have surfaced: unemployment, domestic violence, racial and economic divides, inequalities in access to health and education, and poor international co-operation.

The impact of the pandemic will only be clear in its entirety in months, if not years to come. But what we can dare to guess is that the crisis will exacerbate those divides in our societies that began to sharpen a few decades ago. It will be those in low income jobs in the low skilled service sector and those with a low level of educational qualifications who will suffer the most from the economic fallout, and also from the virus itself (as they are more likely to have underlying health conditions). 

“The impact of the pandemic will only be clear in months, if not years to come”

In the United States, research by McKinsey shows that 86% of jobs made vulnerable by the pandemic paid less than $40,000 a year and in the UK, the typical pay for the most heavily disrupted workers in sectors that have been shut down is less than half the pay of those who can work from home.

One of the consequences of the health and economic crisis likely to unravel over the next six months will be a tougher approach to people flows; firstly, out of fear for a further spread of the disease and afterwards, as a response to unemployment and the economic crisis affecting workers globally. COVID-19’s effect on migration policies may be more serious and far reaching than 9/11’s. It still remains to be seen if one of the effects of the pandemic will be to create a fertile ground for populism, as people become more disillusioned and nationalism and cultural polarisation grow.

Migration won’t stop because of the virus

We know that the principal reasons pushing migrants to risk their lives to cross continents and seas will not subside. If not, they will be exacerbated by the pandemic. 

In recent years, we have seen severe droughts, overcrowding, failed harvests, severe unemployment and conflicts happening across the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas.

A study by Stanford University argues that the conflicts that we have seen up to now may just be the opening act of a much larger and more dangerous drama. They suggested that a combination of extreme weather patterns and growing populations of young people in poorer countries will combine to create more migration, more political anger, and a greater risk of conflict within and among countries. Add to this the weight of a pandemic that has yet to be felt in the world’s most fragile and war-torn nations.

“If the West was unprepared for the pandemic, what will the situation be in countries ravaged by generations of conflict, under-investment, and poverty?”

If we thought the West was unprepared for the pandemic, what will the situation be in countries that have been ravaged by generations of conflict, under-investment, and poverty? In many of those places, where social distancing is unsustainable and often quite impossible, the pandemic will likely cause havoc. 

Take Somalia, where there are no ventilators and where only 50% of urban residents and 15% of rural residents have access to healthcare; Sudan, where almost 65% of the population is in receipt of humanitarian assistance; or even Venezuela, where half of the doctors have left the country and most hospitals face shortages of medicine and critical supplies. Casualty rates in Africa are lower than in Europe and the US thus far – but even if COVID-19 doesn’t become a health catastrophe, it is the secondary effects of the virus which could be devastating.

Unemployment in tourist dependent or farming areas of the world could leave millions of young people jobless and without income. Interventionist policies restricting the import of food products in some countries could cause, according to the UN, ‘famines of biblical proportions’ affecting as many as 265m people across 30 countries.

And of course, the major drop in remittances is already being felt globally: a major blow to households and a significant loss in income and tax revenue for poorer countries, just as they are grappling with the impact of COVID-19 on their own economies.

Migration through countries like Libya and Yemen has slowed down during the height of the pandemic because of government lockdowns but is now starting again despite fears of contagion. To put this into context, there were 2,800 arrivals from the central Mediterranean route (Libya) between January and April 2020 – this is 5 times more than in the same period of 2019, many of these people would have been stuck in Libya.

The Italian government is already warning of a ‘new emergency approaching’.

Migration as a security issue: from terrorism to pandemic?

Throughout history, migration has always been a controversial policy and social issue. Times of fear and insecurity always make it more so and emergencies justify policy measures that would normally seem too harsh or rushed in ‘normal’ times.

After 9/11, countries closed down. Many blamed decades of lax approaches to migration for a situation that allowed ‘enemies of liberal democracies’ and haters to poison our societies and attack us from within. In most countries, we gradually saw discourses that associated migration with security (a connection that had been already made but which 9/11 legitimised), justifying tougher policies and in some cases, opening the door to a resurgence in populism. 

In the US, for example, according to the Migration Policy Institute, the era “witnessed the largest government reorganisation since World War II”; the expansion of immigrant detention policies, an increase in funding for homeland security-related immigration programmes; increased information sharing and data collection across international, federal, state, and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies; and the broad use of nationality-based screening and enforcement initiatives. 

9/11 presented a threat that was seen to be global, foreign, invisible, and merciless. It could hit at any time, indiscriminately and anywhere. Public and political acceptance to toughening migration policies became easier to obtain. 9/11 became a trigger point for the inevitable, and a way of ‘othering’ the problem and keeping the enemy out. 

The COVID-19 pandemic could be the next trigger point. Like 9/11, it is invisible, it is global, it transcends borders, and it is carried by people; it provokes panic and jobs insecurity and its impact on the global economy will be significant. Worse than 9/11, the pandemic is affecting most of the world and has led at varying points to the almost universal closure of borders, affecting people flows and global travel in a way that we hadn’t seen before. It has trapped people within countries, often without rights or access to healthcare.

“The COVID-19 pandemic could be the next trigger point”

We have read stories of Venezuelan migrants leaving Colombia by foot to get back home (Colombia closed its borders but still allowed Venezuelans to leave) or in India, where tens of thousands of migrants have been fleeing cities on foot, trying to return to their villages with no access to food or water or public transport. And according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), thousands are stranded in Mauritania, Cameroon, and Djibouti, where many were abandoned by traffickers.

In addition, like most pandemics in history, COVID-19 is seen as a foreign disease (‘the Chinese disease’). This approach has its roots in the inglorious history of pandemics, which are often labelled after disdained groups, through a process of ‘othering’.

Back in the late 1400s, Russians referred to syphilis as the ‘Polish Disease’, the Polish called it the ‘German Disease’, the French and the Italians named it after each other. In our more recent past, we have dealt with the 1918 Spanish influenza, the 2003 Asian SARS, the 2012 ‘camel flu’, or African Ebola. It is not our disease, it is someone else’s fault – as President Trump has reminded us many times over.

Differently from 9/11, however, when migrants were immediately seen as the primary security threat, it is likely that with the pandemic, countries’ approaches to restricting migration will be more gradual and heavily dependent on how the pandemic ends up affecting their economies and low income jobs. 

Tightening migration policies

COVID-19 has already put a stop to any form of legal migration, potentially discouraging most forms of people flows through quarantines and border closures; refugee programmes are mostly on hold and anyone crossing borders illegally is likely be expelled swiftly. In the EU, COVID-19 has loosened cohesion between the member states, making any future attempt at a regional approach to migration harder than ever.

In April, Italy and Malta declared their ports ‘unsafe’ and said they would not authorise the landing of rescue boats until the end of the emergency. In Italy, members of both left and right including Italy’s health minister joined forces to support the legislation. This move to close ports came only six months after a new Italian government reopened them to migrants, overturning the anti-immigrant policies spearheaded by Northern League’s Matteo Salvini (former interior minister).

Salvini, now the opposition, has already denounced a government plan to give legal status to half a million migrant workers (many of them in the agriculture sector) because the idea would ‘foster crime’. Serbia sent the army to deal with migrants at its border ready to reach the EU to ‘protect the local population from alleged harassment and robberies committed by the migrants’. 

In the US, after announcing on social media his intention to temporarily halt immigration to the US ‘in light of the attack from the invisible enemy’, and ‘ to protect the jobs of our GREAT American citizens’, President Trump signed an executive order to pause the issuing of green cards for 60 days. Later it was announced that the ban wouldn’t apply to agricultural workers.

“We will undoubtedly see rising attitudes against immigration in many countries around the world”

Over the next 12 months, as travel gradually commences and the sheer scale of domestic unemployment reveals the long-term scale of the problem, we will undoubtedly see rising attitudes against immigration in many countries around the world. This will be tempered by awareness that many of those frontline workers whose courage we have celebrated are indeed immigrants, at risk of contagion because of the work they do.

This is happening right now in the debates around the UK immigration bill as well as in public opinion in the US, where according to the Migration Policy Institute, foreign born workers account for 19% of the US workers in frontline essential industries, while making up approximately 17% of the employed workforce.

In recent years, the accelerating cross-border flow of migrants has made and remade the politics of Europe and the United States. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will be a turning point once again for immigration policies in most countries. The danger of rising populism (particularly in those countries where populists are currently the opposition), the scapegoating of migrants, and anti-immigrant feeling is live and real.

The hope is that our governments will not react to this, and instead take a long view, as to what’s needed to both re-start and sustain our economies and maintain global solidarity.


  • Alessandra Buonfino has a background in international affairs, trade and development. She worked for the British Government for six years both in the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade, working with private investors and philanthropists from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America before joining a leading international law firm as Head of International Development. Prior to working in government, Alessandra spent many years in senior roles in think tanks and academia researching, writing, and advising on diversity, civility, populism, migration, and security. Her doctoral and postdoctoral studies focused on the securitisation of immigration policies after 9/11. Alessandra is a dual Italian and British citizen, she sits on the Advisory board of Expectation State, a consultancy that works with government in emerging states. She is a trustee of the think tank Demos and of Water Unite, a not-for-profit which is currently raising £100-200m to invest in plastic recycling, water, and sanitation projects around the world. She lives between London and Norfolk with her husband and twin boys

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