Human mobility is at a standstill, and it may never be the same

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The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has disrupted every aspect of human life in recent months, including bringing all forms of human mobility to a complete standstill – from walking to the shop, to commuting for work, to taking a holiday, to moving abroad

No time before in human history have so many human beings halted in their tracks at once.

Mobility and migration have always played key roles in the development of societies and economies, but the pandemic has seen borders slam shut everywhere. While our future still depends on the choices we make, this pandemic will impact our mobility and migration options regardless of what we choose – probably for a whole generation.

In the short term, human migration and mobility will probably be quite volatile. For some people and places migration pressures will decrease.

Studies show that crises like earthquakes make people less tolerant of risk, and since migration is risky, we expect that some would-be migrants will wait till the pandemic is under control.

Migration pressures for other people and places will increase. The pandemic is exacerbating the health, economic, and political drivers of forced migration.

When lockdowns open, many people will be desperate to escape their predicaments. Tracking and responding to these new dynamics will be the main task of migration agencies at every level for several years.

A crucial component of the response must be to avoid a meltdown of the multilateral system like that of the 1930s, when xenophobia took over and the world collapsed. There must be cooperative and coordinated action at the global level to facilitate safe and orderly migration.

For now, COVID-19 is here to stay and as a result we can expect to see a further thickening of borders. The biggest impact of the pandemic is a global unemployment crisis on a scale not seen at least since the Great Depression.

Such high unemployment rates amongst resident workers will depress demand for immigrant labour and companies will face political pressures to employ native workers instead of immigrants.

This must not turn xenophobic. History shows that recessions go hand-in-hand with racism. Immigrants do not ‘steal jobs’ or exploit unemployment benefits. They do jobs that natives won’t or can’t, and they are less often unemployed.

But in this ‘post-truth’ era, political narratives, media stories, and urban myths amplify stereotypes. Anti-immigrant sentiment was already on the rise well before the pandemic, with the likes of Donald Trump and the Brexiteers openly exploiting racial and ethnic prejudices to win at the polls.

The pandemic is unfortunately providing them with ammunition for stricter immigration controls.

In this environment of increased anti-immigrant sentiment and volatile migration patterns, migrant workforces face an uncertain future. It is imperative to avoid discrimination in hiring despite the temptations provided by prominent but irresponsible voices.

We have learned from the past. The decisions we make regarding human resources in the coming months and years must respect human rights, must see through digital propaganda, and must recognize that some forms of mobility and migration are essential to being human.

Alan Gamlen is associate professor at Monash University

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