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COVID-19: Though it Exacerbated Anti-Immigrant Sentiments, it Could Accelerate Immigration’s Digital Transformation

COVID-19 has brought existing protectionist ideologies in the immigration context into sharper focus, with administrations using a range of methods to restrict entry to contain the spread of COVID-19. This piece discusses the most prevalent global immigration trends amidst the pandemic and related projections for the next 18-24 months.

This year, COVID-19 brought existing protectionist ideologies in the immigration context into sharper focus. Along with wide-net travel restrictions to ban the entry of entire groups of foreign nationals, administrations used a range of methods to restrict entry, but also allowed in many cases, allowed foreign workers to continue to contribute to each country’s economy. This piece discusses the most prevalent global immigration trends amidst the pandemic and related projections for the next 18-24 months.

  • New type of restrictivism. As the extreme entry restrictions implemented from December 2019-March 2020 to control the spread of COVID-19 were eased, a new type of restrictionism developed: immigration policy became directly tied to health and medical information. The invasiveness and complexity of the health and entry requirements varied widely across the world, from the most informal methods such as questioning about symptoms and travel history at the border in Canada, to 14-day quarantine in a government facility and COVID-19 tests upon entry and while in quarantine, as is required in many Asia Pacific and African countries.
    • What’s next? Constantly-changing entry rules. We will see the continuation of incremental entry policy changes contingent on health data over the next 18-24 months. Generally, as borders open, health-based entry rules are implemented. Many countries are expected to implement more stringent health checks and even COVID-19 testing into their permanent immigration processes.
  • Unemployment rates intensified restrictive policymaking. Restrictivism was already moving uphill in immigration policy around the world, but unprecedented unemployment rates due to COVID-19 exacerbated such sentiments, with some governments directly tying economic concerns to reasoning for their immigration restrictions.
    • What’s next? Raised standards for entry for business/work. As national lockdowns are lifted, many governments will likely raise the bar for work permits and business visas–especially where immigration officials have broad decision-making discretion–as a way to limit the volume of entrants. Previous recessions have led to increased compliance activity as well – expect this to show up in the next year as well.
  • Mandatory quarantines make travel difficult. Faced with the inconvenience and interruption caused by mandatory quarantines (often on both sides of travel), many travelers were reluctant (or unable) to partake in any form of travel during Q2 2020. Violating quarantine rules meant harsh penalties such as fines (in South Africa), deportation (in Colombia) and even prison sentences (in Singapore).
    • What’s next? These factors will push employers to adopt long-term instead of short-term travel plans to compensate for the inconvenience of quarantine, strict penalties for violations of entry requirements, and costs associated with quarantining (often at a hotel or government facility, with costs not covered by the government).
  • Digital transformation accelerated during COVID-19. To try to rescue immigration processes from a prolonged standstill over the COVID-19 government closure period, governments transitioned more immigration processes to existing online systems, implemented electronic processes where none existed, or waived in-person appearances, more than ever before in the last six months. The result was predictable: countries that had successful electronic immigration application systems before COVID-19 fared better at handling the move to online processing than those with poor electronic infrastructure.
    • What’s next? Rush into digital transformation may fast-track online immigration processing. Though the conditions under which the shift to digital may not have been ideal, the rush toward digitalization may accelerate the move to online immigration processing in many countries around the world. Some processes that were moved online may remain digital following the pandemic, creating permanent online systems where none existed before. This may apply to government processing as well as employer processes in the immigration context.
  • Work-from-anywhere phenomenon accelerated. Traditional work environments transitioned quickly to “work-from-anywhere” situations as companies moved workers to remote work during lockdowns. This high-volume switchover was especially problematic for foreign workers, since their situations ranged dramatically – from being in countries with no explicit provisions or concessions for remote work during COVID-19; to working remotely in a country other than the one where they were authorized to work; to working remotely in a country that explicitly disallowed remote work (though there are very few of those), just to name a few scenarios. Due to this uncharted legislative and policy ground, as well as hasty decisions made by governments and employers to address immediate needs, a period of chaos ensued.
    • What’s next? More remote work visas. As the gap between the “new normal” remote work culture and traditional regulatory framework widens, governments will start to slowly adapt. So far, only Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, Estonia, Georgia and the United Arab Emirates have implemented remote work visas. Other than in these countries, workers and employers who follow remote work practices may unknowingly put themselves at risk of noncompliance with many aspects of the law, exposing them to possible fines or even losing their rights to hire foreign labor in countries where this is a penalty for noncompliance with immigration laws.

The bottom line: Immigration systems will continue to adapt to the needs of the local population and local economy as the pandemic rages on around the world. Whether a second wave hits a country or area will impact the direction of entry regulations. Employers and foreign nationals alike need to keep abreast of the constantly-changing immigration rules to avoid issues upon entry or exit, as well as fines and other penalties for noncompliance.

For up-to-date coverage of the entry bans, quarantines, restrictions, government closures, concessions and other immigration policy changes related to COVID-19, access Fragomen’s dedicated website.

For more information on the digital transformation in immigration processing and other insightful discussions of recent and projected immigration trends, see Fragomen’s Worldwide Immigration Trends Reports, available here.

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