High-skilled and student immigrants are leaving —

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One in 10 people living in OECD countries were foreign nationals in 2018. Many are no longer there. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a magnetic force that is pushing immigrant workers out of their adopted homes and pulling them back to their homelands.

What countries could lose

Short-term business travelers and tourists will gradually start moving again when countries ease travel restrictions, but those who planned to go to foreign countries to work or study may never come back.

Immigrants made outsized contributions to the US economy in the aftermath of the last recession. Most European countries facing declining natural birth rates need immigrants to sustain their population growth. Korea wants more immigrants to contribute to its social warfare. Even in the UK and Canada, which do not face an immediate population decline, immigrants have accounted for over 80% of the population growth in recent years.

Some students decided to seek education at home because of the pandemic. In April, a survey of 615 new international students enrolling at US schools found that 53% were considering postponing their fall-semester enrollment, and about 23% were thinking about studying in a country other than the US. World Education Services (WES), a provider of credential evaluation for immigrants to the US and Canada, conducted the survey.

Skilled workers are changing their plans, too. Some workers were forced to leave when they were laid off and lost their authorization to work. Most of the foreign workers in Gulf countries work in the oil and gas industry. With the prolonged crush in oil prices, energy companies are cutting staff. Kuwait aims to cut the level of immigrants from 70% of its population before the pandemic to less than 30%.

As immigrants leave some countries, others are trying to attract them. Many students see Canada as an alternative destination to the US according to research from WES. “Canada has a more immigration-friendly environment than the United States.” says Paul Schulmann, the director of research at WES.

To attract students in Asia, University of Hong Kong created a special PhD scholarship program this year that allows students who had been admitted by top universities around the world and had difficulty traveling to transfer their admission there.

A global recession coupled with a global pandemic makes it unlikely for immigration to return to the pre-pandemic level anytime soon. The question is how long countries could afford to lose immigrants.

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