OECD calls on policy makers to prevent coronavirus from turning into “integration crisis”

Shelby Thevenot
Published: October 24, 2020

Around the world, immigrants and their children have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and they are likely to continue to be affected in terms of health and integration outcomes.

Recently the OECD published a policy brief on how the pandemic has affected immigrants and their children in terms of integration measures like health, jobs, education, and language training. They also looked at how public opinion has been affected, and described host countries’ policy responses.

The study complements a previous brief on the impact of the pandemic on migration management. It also accompanies the OECD International Migration Outlook 2020.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, works to build policies that foster prosperity and equal opportunities for all. It is an intergovernmental economic organization that works with 37 member countries, including Canada.

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Key findings from OECD

Immigrants in OECD countries are at a much higher risk of coronavirus infection than native-born residents, at least twice as high in some countries. The reason is that immigrants are subject to a range of vulnerabilities such as higher instances of poverty, overcrowded housing conditions, and many work in job where physical distancing is difficult.

COVID-19 mortality rates for immigrants could also be significant, exceeding those of the native-born population.

Immigrants are potentially in a more vulnerable position in the labour market due to generally less stable employment conditions and lower seniority on the job. Studies also suggest that discrimination strongly increases in times of a slack labour market. At the same time, networks of contacts become more relevant for finding a job. Immigrants, typically, have fewer contacts for networking.

Immigrants are strongly overrepresented in sectors most affected by the pandemic to date. As a result, immigrants' labour market outcomes are more negatively impacted. For example, in the hard-hit hospitality industry, a quarter of employees in the EU are foreign-born. This represents twice their share in overall employment.

It is still early to gauge the labour market effects of the pandemic, particularly in European OECD countries with job retention schemes. However, the initial impact shows a disproportionately negative toll on immigrants, especially in Southern European countries, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S.

School closures and distance learning have put children of immigrants at a disadvantage. Their parents tend to have fewer resources than native-born parents to help in their homework. The OECD says 40 per cent of native-born children of immigrants do not speak the host-country language at home. Such children are also less likely to have access to a computer and internet connection at home, or a quiet place to study.

More adults are also taking language classes online as a result of the pandemic. However, early-stage language learners with low levels of education are having a difficult time in both language learning and broader social integration.

With growing unemployment and the role of international travel in the initial spread of COVID-19, there is a risk of a backlash in public opinion against immigrants. A number of communication campaigns have aimed at addressing this issue, with a particular focus on tackling misinformation regarding the role of immigrants in the spread of coronavirus.

OECD recommendations to policy makers

The OECD offers the following nine recommendations to policy makers, to prevent the pandemic from turning into an integration crisis.

  • Monitor the situation of immigrants and their children regarding health, employment, and education to better identify the issues and appropriate policy responses.
  • Ensure access of immigrants to testing and treatment for COVID-19, in order to alleviate the disproportionate impact on migrants' health. In some countries outreach needs to be stepped up. Financial or legal access barriers need to be removed, especially in countries where testing is still limited, the OECD says.
  • Ensure that housing and employment conditions for migrants respects sanitary norms in order to avoid spreading the virus. Particularly for migrants in collective housing like asylum seekers and seasonal workers, as well as those who are working in specific difficult work environments like meat processing.
  • Raise awareness of discrimination and reinforce anti-discrimination measures, as the labour market impact of the pandemic risks increasing discrimination against immigrants and their native-born children.
  • Make sure that economic and employment support measures do reach migrants, including both staff workers and self-employed workers. This implies not only formal access but also information and outreach.
  • Make sure that the contributions of migrants are not forgotten but rewarded.
  • Provide more flexibility in introduction measures such as language training, particularly where participation or certain outcomes are obligatory.
  • Address the specific difficulties of children of immigrants in distance learning. This needs to be factored in with respect to decisions about school closure and distance learning, and appropriate support measures taken.
  • Provide for possibilities for immigrants to interact with native-born outside of regular integration measures. In Germany, for example, online tutorials were set up to compensate for the temporary closure of immigrant integration courses. The OECD calls these online tutorials an "interesting initiative."

"Finally, it is now more important than ever to bear in mind that integration is an investment," the OECD report says, warning that the lack of investment today will lead to long-term negative integration prospects on migrants, which will also be felt across generations on their native-born children.

"Given the growing population shares of immigrants and their children, the spectre of widening gaps and unequal opportunities is ultimately also a threat to social cohesion – unless appropriate action is taken."

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