Borders Re-opening? Migrant Mobility in Southeast Asia

In 2020, global mobility was dramatically and abruptly halted in its tracks by COVID-19. By March 2020, over 43,000 travel measures had been put into place by various local and national authorities worldwide. Despite WHO’s advice that travel bans have little effect as a long-term measure, most countries have instituted travel measures as part of their COVID-19 response – most of which still remain, though in less restrictive forms.

Labour migration, in particular, has been deeply affected. During the first few months of the pandemic, Asian countries were some of the first to put in place travel restrictions as part of their COVID-19 response. These included visa issuance restrictions and border closures, all of which curtailed migrant arrival in key destination countries such as Malaysia, Japan and South Korea. For example, the number of foreigners entering Japan on work visas dropped significantly from 123,000 for the period April-August 2019 to merely 627 in 2020 (April – August).

Unequal Impacts of Travel Measures

Even now with borders re-opening and travel restrictions easing, migration levels are still low. This is in part due to the unequal impacts of these mobility restrictions and travel measures on migrants, exacerbating the inequalities between who can travel and who cannot.

The financial costs of potential travel are becoming increasingly prohibitive as not only has airfare increased, but potential COVID-19 testing requirements – particularly for a PCR test – and quarantine requirements can all add up. While some migrants may be able to absorb these costs, the socio-economic gap between migrants is still likely to widen further.

Vaccine access – or the lack thereof – is also likely to be another marker of global mobility. To highlight this disparity, over 70 per cent of people living in high-income countries have been vaccinated as compared to 20 per cent in low-income countries as of 13 July 2022.

Even in Southeast Asia where there is relative vaccine coverage, there exists disparity with Brunei having vaccinated 94 per cent of their population compared to Myanmar’s 39.2 per cent. After all, vaccines may not always be available considering the financial burden placed on low-income countries.

Moreover, even where populations have been vaccinated, particular brands of vaccine such as Covaxin and Sinovac may not consistently be recognised by other countries. With the need to be fully vaccinated a requirement to enter most countries, this places an undue burden on less affluent migrants.

Migration Initiatives in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, where around 70 per cent of its estimated 10.6 million resident migrants are from the region, the disproportionate effects of these measures on them have been especially noticeable. In an effort to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on these migrants, ASEAN has been developing certain initiatives including the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework.

Although this framework has been in discussion since 2020, there have been recent calls to renew and prioritise these efforts in order to accelerate the economic recovery of the region – a large part of which de-pends on free regional mobility.

While some states have already negotiated travel arrangements bilaterally, this framework could also aid in the creation of ASEAN-wide vaccine certification system, enabling mutual recognition and simplifying regional travel arrangements.

Whether as a result of travel restrictions, lack of financial capabilities or unequal access to vaccines, global mobility is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels in the near future, exacerbating already existing inequalities between migrants. As such, the need to address these inequalities, such as via regional arrangements, is only likely to increase as borders continue to re-open, shaping Southeast Asia’s opportunities for a resilient recovery in the long-run.