Published on Voices

Social protection for migrants during the COVID-19 crisis: The right and smart choice

Travailleurs portant des sacs (Pakistan). Photo: Curt Carnemark/World Bank Travailleurs portant des sacs (Pakistan). Photo: Curt Carnemark/World Bank

This blog post is based on a note on migration policy in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. The note includes an inventory of policy responses that will be updated regularly.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the transmission control measures it has necessitated have abruptly halted the movement of people that characterizes our interconnected world. The implications are enormous for migrants, who rely on working away from home to support themselves, their families, and their communities. Many of them are now in conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The pandemic is also affecting critical sectors like agriculture where labor shortages are looming.

Governments around the world have taken action to protect people’s lives and livelihoods in response. But thus far the unique challenges of migrants and their families have been addressed in too few cases.

Ensuring that migrants are included in policy responses can help protect this particularly vulnerable group during the crisis. But it is also smart economics: protecting migrants means reducing the risk of transmission for the entire population while helping sustain a source of labor that will be critical to recovery from the economic effects of COVID-19. 

Why does migration matter for the pandemic response?

Fact 1:  Migrant health and livelihoods are at significant risk from COVID-19.  Migrants tend to live and work in crowded conditions that do not permit social distancing, putting them at increased risk of contracting the disease. They are also at high risk of income loss. The UN estimates that nearly 30 percent of the workforce in highly affected sectors in OECD countries is foreign-born. The negative effects of job loss can be particularly significant for both internal and international migrant workers, because they often work in informal jobs and lack safety nets in case of job loss or illness. Hence staying at home during the outbreak is a luxury that many migrant workers can’t afford.

Fact 2:  Migrants’ families and communities of origin are likely to face severe economic impacts.  The drop in income from job loss will mean significant declines in the remittances that families throughout the world rely on to make ends meet and to invest in human capital and businesses. For example, a new World Bank report suggests that a 19.7 percent drop in remittances to low and middle-income countries is expected in 2020. BBVA Mexico projects a 17 percent drop in remittances to Mexico in 2020. Remittances to Bangladesh dropped 13 percent in March year-over-year.

Fact 3: Measures to control transmission are causing significant disruptions for employers and entire sectors.  Major migration destinations have closed their borders to international travelers (Figure 1). As a result, many migrants who work in another location can't access their job, travel home, or move to fill job vacancies. The limited availability of seasonal migrant workers has been a particular concern for farmers in Spain, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Poland who are struggling to recruit workers for the harvesting season.

Figure 1: Travel restrictions around the world as of early April 2020

Figure 1: Travel restrictions around the world as of early April 2020
Source: IOM; Hale et al. (2020).

What can countries do to address migration-related challenges during the pandemic?

Both sending and receiving countries can provide crucial support to migrants through social protection mechanisms, including social safety net programs, employment retention policies, and employment promotion policies. Adjustments to migration regulations can help support these policies and programs. We’ve discussed remittance interventions in a separate blog post.

Social safety nets provide direct support either in the form of cash or in-kind goods and services to smooth consumption, compensate for higher prices, and prevent falls into poverty. Governments could consider three options. First, eligibility for existing safety net programs can be expanded to address the challenges facing migrants. Second, programs newly created in response to COVID-19 can be implemented without regard to migration status. Third, new programs can be created to help migrants address the distinct challenges they face. These include providing virus testing and treatment, food and accommodations, transportation assistance, and cash grants.

Employment retention policies incentivize employers to maintain their workforce either through deductions in social insurance contributions, as is being done in China, or through employment subsidies, as we are seeing in Korea. These policies can cover the entire workforce, but be implemented with a focus on preventing the displacement of migrant workers, particularly internal migrant labor.

Employment promotion policies help jobseekers find jobs and employers find workers. Regulations on migration programs can be adjusted to ensure that labor market needs can be met including by lengthening visas for existing workers and facilitating new admissions. Job matching and job search programs as well as transportation assistance can help migrant workers who are displaced find jobs, particularly to fill the labor market gaps created by travel restrictions. This may require incorporating health checks to protect against transmission of COVID-19.

What should policymakers consider when designing and implementing migration-sensitive policies?

Governments can work at mainstreaming migrants into existing programs to ensure that all groups are protected against the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.  The programs will need to take into account the barriers that migrants often face to accessing social protection including documentation requirements and language differences. Identifying migrants will be difficult, particularly where they have not used legal channels, hence it will require innovative approaches including self-targeting, self-enrollment, and cooperation with telecommunications companies and remittance services providers. Finally, delivery will need to comply with good public health practices. For example, programs to facilitate seasonal work in agriculture will need to incorporate health screenings, guidelines on how work should be undertaken, and plans for responding if a migrant worker falls ill.


The World Bank Group and COVID-19

The World Bank is working closely with countries around the world to deploy social protection programs that address the challenges posed by COVID-19. This builds on the Bank’s work with countries on issues related to migration. By mobilizing financial resources and providing technical assistance, we can help countries expand or introduce social protection programs to serve the migrant populations affected by the pandemic.


Mauro Testaverde

Senior Economist in the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice of the World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000