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FEATURE STORYJune 15, 2022

COVID-19 Disrupted, But Did Not Halt, Mediterranean Migration

An Arab man cuts wood in a workshop.


  • Disruption in migrant flows due to the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing labor shortages in the agriculture, construction, medical and personal care sectors
  • People were forced to take riskier routes, with the number of people traveling the deadliest sea route to Europe – from North Africa to Italy – almost tripling in 2020 compared to 2019
  • Report recommends better coordination between countries that send and receive migrants, plus simpler procedures to recruit essential foreign workers and give them access to key support services during a crisis

Report calls for strengthening vital migration systems to help Mediterranean region cope with future shocks

Migration is essential to the economic and social well-being of the Mediterranean region. For thousands of years, people have moved through the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea to escape hardship and seek better lives, and by doing so have contributed to host countries’ economies.

These trends have intensified over the last decades. In the past 30 years, Mediterranean migration flows have tripled, and a fourth of the world’s immigrants now live in the extended region that includes parts of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East.

Starting in early 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted those migration flows as governments took steps to control transmission of the virus that included closing borders and locking down societies.

Almost overnight, migrant were unable to travel for work or to flee conflict across the Mediterranean. Those already in receiving countries became trapped, often without jobs or access to adequate housing, medical care, and social benefits. Families back home temporarily stopped getting money they depended on sent by workers abroad.

Disrupted Mobility

A new World Bank report that examined the impacts of the pandemic on Mediterranean migration found that despite such disruptions, some people kept moving through the region — even at greater risk.

“When the structural drivers of migration are strong, mobility restrictions do not necessarily halt migration flows but are likely to increase the vulnerabilities faced by people on the move,” said Mauro Testaverde, a senior economist in the World Bank’s Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice and lead author of the report titled Building Resilient Migration Systems in the Mediterranean Region: Lessons from COVID-19.

For example, land and sea arrivals of asylum seekers to Spain were higher in 2021 than the previous two years, while arrivals to Italy were also substantially higher throughout 2021 than in the two previous years, despite mobility restrictions in every country in the region at some point during that period.

At the same time, disrupted mobility of migrants due to the pandemic worsened pre-existing labor shortages across all skill levels in the agriculture sector, construction industry, medical professions, and personal care services in Mediterranean countries that receive migrants.

“A fourth of the world’s immigrants live in the extended Mediterranean region,” said Anna Bjerde, the World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia. “Migrants experienced greater COVID-19-related health impacts and faced significant employment disruptions, compounded by limited access to social welfare programs. Our flagship report underscores the need for building resilient migration systems that can respond to future shocks while protecting the welfare of migrants and minimizing disruptions in host economies.”

Increased Risks

With the mobility restrictions came increased risks for people choosing or compelled to move. Migrants in West and North Africa reported greater reliance on smugglers charging higher fees and taking more dangerous routes, with women migrants also experiencing domestic violence and economic exploitation. The number of people traveling the deadliest sea route to Europe — from North Africa to Italy — almost tripled in 2020 compared to 2019.

Migrants already in receiving countries faced greater COVID-19–related health impacts than native-born populations — with more infections, hospital admissions, intensive care unit treatments, and deaths per capita — due to overcrowded housing, employment in front-line occupations, and limited or lack of access to adequate health care.

Migrants also faced significant work disruptions, with employment rates dropping more among migrants than natives in 2020, leading to temporary interruptions in remittances sent by migrants to their families in their countries of origin.

In addition, migrants experienced considerable setbacks in their integration and education in their new countries due to factors that pre-existed the pandemic, such as language barriers and limited access to technology that hindered distance learning.

Countries in the Mediterranean region took steps to better manage migration during the pandemic, such as fast-tracking migration procedures and extending coverage of key social services and benefits, the report noted.

Strengthening Resilience

However, maintaining the full benefits of migration that are vital to the region, particularly amid future shocks such as climate change and conflicts like the war in Ukraine, will require more comprehensive action.

In particular, the report recommended better coordination between countries that send and receive migrants throughout the migration cycle. It also highlighted the need for new mechanisms to automatically simplify procedures to recruit essential foreign workers in response to shocks such as the pandemic, and to grant migrants improved access to key employment and social services during crises.

Including migrants in policy responses can help protect such a particularly vulnerable group when major shocks occur, and is smart economics, Testaverde contended.

“The pandemic has shown that expanding migrants’ access to key services such as health care, social welfare and labor market programs, and adequate housing — even in periods of crisis when overall fiscal space might be limited —protects local populations and migrants, and can help economies re-start faster,” he said.

Such reforms can face opposition in countries where immigration has become a divisive issue. An emerging number of studies demonstrate a link between COVID-19 and anti-foreign sentiments, and negative attitudes fueled by misinformation could pose major challenges to the integration of migrants in the long term.

“The lingering shock of the pandemic has created a pressing need for more progressive policies”, noted Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa. “It has created an opportunity for countries north and south of the Mediterranean to strengthen cooperation and build more forward-looking migration systems that can help build much needed economic integration to stave off new crises.”


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