Immigrant flows fell sharply in 2020 due to COVID-19, says latest OECD report

Alexandra Miekus
Published: November 14, 2021

The COVID-19 crisis led to the largest-ever decline in immigration to OECD countries, including Canada.

This finding was presented by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its annual report on migration, published on Thursday, October 28.

“Migration flows to OECD countries declined significantly, with much of the progress in migrant integration achieved over the past decade wiped out in just one year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic," the organization said in a news release.

In 2020, 3.7 million migrants entered the twenty-five OECD member countries included in the analysis, the lowest number since 2003. It also represents the biggest drop in immigration flows to OECD countries on record, by more than 30 per cent, according to the report.

It suggests that the decline could be much more significant, reaching more than 40 per cent, due to factors such as changes in status that can result in administrative double-counting of an individual.

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There were declines in all areas, impacting all categories of permanent migration in 2020.

Family migration showed the largest decline with a 35 per cent drop. Temporary labour migration also saw a sharp decline in most OECD countries in 2020. Canada had one of the largest declines (-37 per cent), along with countries like the United States (-37 per cent), Australia (-37 per cent), Korea (-57 per cent), and Japan (-65 per cent).

The number of holidaymaker workers fell by 58 per cent and intra-company transfers by 53 per cent, while the flow of seasonal agricultural workers was the least affected with a 9 per cent decline.

As for the number of study permits issued in 2020, they fell sharply, by 70 per cent in Canada and the United States, and by an average of -40 per cent in the European Union's OECD countries.

New asylum applications in OECD countries fell by 31 per cent in 2020, and resettlement by 65 pe rcent.

The OECD report points out that throughout 2020 and 2021, the majority of OECD countries scaled back their immigration services. To curb the spread of COVID-19, entry bans were imposed on foreign nationals and others in most countries.

On the other hand, a great majority of countries also put in place temporary measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, such as facilitating the entry of essential workers or extending the duration of the legal status of workers already present on their territories as well as online learning for international students.

Beyond the numbers related to migrant flows, the report also stresses the fact that the pandemic has brought to light other existing and emerging challenges related to the integration of migrants into their host countries. For example, it has contributed to the exacerbation of pre-existing inequalities between immigrants and the native-born. The gap in employment rates between the foreign-born and native-born has widened in OECD countries, and foreign-born workers have been disproportionately affected by job losses during the pandemic.

"Comprehensive and co-ordinated action is required to avoid that the pandemic leads to a lasting setback on migrant integration. Given the large numbers concerned, such a setback would not only entail negative economic consequences but also threaten social cohesion at large," said Stefano Scarpetta, OECD Director of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, in a commentary accompanying the report.

As countries implement post-pandemic recovery plans, Scarpetta emphasizes the importance they pay special attention to immigrant integration to avoid exacerbating the many disadvantages they face in today's labour markets and societies.

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