Covid-19 and the transformation of migration and mobility globally – Why COVID-19 does not necessarily mean that attitudes towards immigration will become more negative

Rather than turning against immigration, attitudes towards migrants across Europe have gradually become more positive year-on-year for the last 20 years or so. There is little to suggest that the COVID-19 crisis will dramatically undermine or reverse this long-term trend.

Also, and again perhaps counter-intuitively, we suggest that a key effect of the crisis will be less, not more attention being paid to the immigration question. This does not mean that the issues associated with immigration become less important, but that citizens and governments will prioritize other concerns: economic reconstruction and States’ finances, as well as their health-care and education systems. Migration will clearly interlink with these concerns, but our point is that the migration issue itself seems likely to be less exposed to direct public debate, which can lead to a period of “quieter” immigration politics that can create space for innovations. However, these innovations – and effective communication about them – should be tailored according to attitudes as they are, and as they have been changing, rather than efforts to fundamentally remake attitudes. Attitudes to immigration are also more nuanced than binary “pro” or “anti” positions.

We focus on Europe, because developments there provide a powerful test of attitudes towards immigration in the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, although similar trends are evident in other major destination countries, such as the United States of America. Indeed, looking at how previous recent crises affected attitudes to immigration provides immediate grounds to doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will necessarily lead to increased anti-immigration sentiment. European countries experienced powerful shockwaves after the 2008 global financial crisis and, perhaps even more relevantly, the so-called migration crisis after 2015. Yet, following both the 2008 and 2015 crises, attitudes towards immigration maintained their favourable direction.

This is a part of a working paper published by James Dennison and Andrew Geddes.