Migrants: A critical aspect of COVID policy responses and recovery

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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This article was co-authored by Margaux Tharaux, Junior Policy Analyst, Territorial Dialogues and Migration Unit, Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, OECD

COVID-19 is having a very uneven impact across social groups and territories, particularly on migrant communities. The virus has struck primarily capitals and highly urbanised areas, which have higher concentrations of migrant communities. In France, Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the most populated “départements” and host to the highest share of immigrants (see table below), has incurred the highest excess mortality among those under 65 years of age. Singapore, initially praised for its effective containment of the outbreak, now accounts for the largest number of cases in Southeast Asia, as foreign workers sleeping in crowded dormitories outside the city centre were not included in the government’s mitigation plan. In early May, they represented 88% of all cases in the city-state.

Regional differences in the presence of migrants

Regional differences in the presence of migrants
Note: The figure displays the share of foreign-born among the total population of TL3 regions in 2019. Source: OECD 2020, based on municipal data for individual countries.

These figures are hardly surprising: many migrants continue to work – sometimes without adequate personal protection – live in overcrowded apartments, or lack access to healthcare services. Besides threatening migrants’ health, the lack of place-based measures to support them may have a ripple effect as countries start to reopen. As the health and economic crises unfold, policy makers must address migrants’ situations by adopting a territorial lens that includes both urban and rural places.

This crisis has also brought into sharp relief just how much OECD economies depend on migrants. While countries and cities are on lockdown, migrants are at the frontline of core activities. Namely, 24% of doctors and 18% of nurses in OECD countries are foreign-born (OECD brief). In London, caregivers with a migrant background represent 50% of NHS nurses and 59% of the social workers. In New York, more than half of all frontline workers are foreign-born, with this share reaching 70% in building cleaning services. Furthermore, migrants are also filling in pressing and unexpected labour gaps. The Business and Skilled Migration department of the State of Queensland, Australia has given priority to foreign medical professionals to apply for visa entry.

Read the OECD's analysis on the Contribution of migrant doctors and nurses to tackling COVID-19 crisis in OECD countries

Read the OECD's analysis on the Contribution of migrant doctors and nurses to tackling COVID-19 crisis in OECD countries

In rural areas, migrants are also critical to fill the labour gap. Farms across Europe are missing workers because of travel bans, and might lose large parts of their crops. To address this shortage, the German Interior and Agricultural ministries have allowed 80,000 eastern European seasonal workers to fly to the country, mostly for the asparagus harvest. Similarly, Italy – where 40% of fruit and vegetable harvests are at risk – has extended residence permits until mid-June. Moreover, the Italian government may provide six-month residence permits for up to 200,000 undocumented immigrants. As these measures have differentiated impacts across sub-national territories, they require co-ordination and appropriate multi-level governance mechanisms.

Places and migrants are mutually dependent. Migrants are needed to run the local economy and they depend on host communities’ willingness to treat them as part of the community and provide them with adequate support. Above all, it is important that sub-national governments also ensure that they can support migrants in the long term. Indeed, rising unemployment, notably in cities, could negatively affect attitudes towards migrants (OECD report). Policy-makers can address these risks by carrying out surveys, investing in communication campaigns recognising “essential jobs” undertaken by migrants, or by creating interaction opportunities between locals and migrants inspired by the OECD Checklist for public action to integrate migrants at the local level.

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As countries rebuild their economy, effective integration measures will open new opportunities for migrants to help in the recovery. Various studies have shown how migrants boost their host economies. Since the 1990s, they have been the primary source of population growth in developed regions. In light of the demographic challenges they face, some regions and cities such as Altena (Germany) encourage refugees to settle there to match local market needs and keep public services running. Among high-skilled migrants are entrepreneurs and job creators (OECD report). In Philadelphia, immigrants are responsible for 96% of small business growth and 75% of workforce growth. Local authorities, including Amsterdam, have evaluated refugees’ long-term impact on their economy and found a positive effect. Therefore, some countries such as New Zealand act to retain migrants during confinement so as not to spoil the chances of recovery. Finally, integration appears more than ever like a precondition for local authorities to grow more resilient (OECD note). Promoting migrant integration will make cities more inclusive and attractive to all, especially investors, visitors and talent.

The crucial role of migrants in both reacting to, and recovering from, the COVID-19 crisis seems clear. From the disproportionate impact of the initial COVID crisis on migrant communities, as residents of highly affected areas or as essential workers, through to the role they might play in the recovery from this crisis, policy makers must build on migrants inclusion in the local society when considering the recovery plans and policies.

Related Topics


Tackling COVID-19                                                      Migrants' Integration

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Go to the profile of Claire Charbit

Claire Charbit

Head,Territorial Dialogues and Migration Unit, Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, OECD

Claire Charbit is Head of the Territorial Dialogues and Migration Unit at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. She has developed the OECD’s work program on multi-level governance informing many studies such as on the local integration of migrants, regional strategies for inclusive and sustainable attractiveness, and the use of contracts across levels of government. Claire Charbit holds a PhD in Economics, specialising in institutional economics from the University Nice- Sophia Antipolis.

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