Projecting migration scenarios for the post-pandemic Europe

2020 June 05

In mid-2020, a global pandemic caused by a coronavirus, COVID-19, is impacting the societies and economies in nearly every country in the world. There are different mortality rates among European countries and regions depending on the age structures of their populations, population density, health status, policy responses to the virus, and other factors, many of which will not be fully understood until careful analysis can be carried out later.

For much of the spring, the countries of Europe have been under various levels of lockdown or restricted mobility. These restrictions, combined with the direct impacts of the virus on mortality, have had significant negative economic impacts. These include a projected decline in GDP across Europe of 7 percent in 2020 and increases in unemployment.

The future course of the virus is unknown, as is the extent of the economic impact. What is known is that for a period, there will be significant reductions in mobility and migration within and into Europe. In response to the virus, many countries imposed significant restrictions on the movements of their residents and closed their external borders. These restrictions had varying degrees of efficacy and were in opposition to the freedom of movement granted by the European Union. For a time in the spring of 2020, travel into the European Union was forbidden. In June 2020, these restrictions on mobility and migration were slowly lifted but it will be quite sometime before travel will return to pre-pandemic levels, if ever.

It was against this backdrop of greatly reduced mobility and migration that the EU-funded project FUME (Future Migration Scenarios for Europe) held a two-day virtual meeting on 12-13 May. This was the second project meeting following an in-person kick-off meeting in January. It was ironic that the very object of the project's study - migration - is currently impacted by the coronavirus and shutdown of borders.

The project uses various methods to envision what patterns of migration into and within Europe will look like in the future. These include scenarios narratives, migration projections, spatial modeling, and interviews of prospective migrants, and migration experts. The project includes several case studies in sending countries - Iraq, Senegal, Tunisia, and Ukraine - various alternative means of carrying out the cases studies were discussed during the meeting. The situation with current border closings and restrictions on mobility provides something of a natural experiment for analysing a large shock to an active migration system in Europe.

Demographers and others who study migration typically focus on differences in population structure and growth rates and economic size and growth between origin and destination countries as key drivers of migration. History has shown that shocks such as wars, natural disasters, and border changes also exert considerable influence on migration patterns. In Europe, we could witness the impact of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, the end of communism and the expansion of the European Union and the impact these events have had on migration.

COVID-19 and the subsequent economic downturn will have differential impacts on world regions and European countries and regions. It has already been documented that there has been a large decline in short-term movements such as travel to work and shopping trips. Commuting either short or long distances via public transportation has also been greatly reduced. It is too early to tell, but migration, defined as a permanent change in residence, both into Europe and within Europe will also likely decline significantly. The FUME project is well-positioned to analyse the impacts on the pandemic on future migration patterns for Europe.


Written by Timothy Heleniak, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio