COVID-19 and the State of Global Mobility in 2020

Period Covered
Mar 01 2020
Dec 31 2020
  • Other


The year 2020 will go down in history books as marking an unprecedented shift in human mobility. The COVID-19 pandemic decimated tourism and business travel; cut the lion’s share of seasonal and temporary labour migration; and halted or held up visa processing across all streams, from international students to family reunification. It is uncertain how, on what timeline and even whether these different forms of human movement will rebound to their pre-pandemic state.

Following a flurry of region- and country-specific travel bans in February 2020, once the virus started spreading more widely, countries began closing their borders like dominos. Points of entry were shut; arrivals (and, in some cases, departures) were restricted; and flights were grounded. Often, these border closures and restrictions were put in place with limited warning, leaving countless travellers in need of repatriation assistance, many families separated, and thousands of migrants and seafarers stranded. Visa processing, including extensions and renewals, ground to a halt as embassies and consular offices were closed or began operating on a skeletal staff, and refugee resettlement was temporarily suspended.

 Since then, a patchwork of fast-changing travel restrictions of various kinds has emerged – from bans on arrivals from specific countries or subnational regions, to visa and flight suspensions. Countries have introduced numerous exemptions to restrictions for certain travellers (such as for their own nationals and family members), and over time, many have shifted from blunt travel bans and border closures to measures that seek to tentatively restart cross-border movements, such as requiring travellers to stay in quarantine after arrival or show proof of a pre-departure COVID-19 test. But this process of opening up has been non-linear. “Travel bubbles” (quarantine-free agreements between countries or cities) have been introduced and then closed; borders have been opened and then snapped shut; exemptions have been expanded and narrowed; and health requirements and quarantine measures have been introduced and adapted. Towards the end of 2020, new waves of travel restrictions associated with the identification of new and highly transmissible variants of the virus, and with rising caseloads in many countries, rekindled debates about the relationship between international mobility and COVID-19.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been tracking travel restrictions and border closures since March 2020, and it has made reports on these measures publicly available on its COVID-19 Mobility Impacts platform since May 2020. This report marks a collaboration between IOM and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) to collate and analyse these data, presenting a first-of-its-kind look at how the movement of people worldwide was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic over the course of 2020.

In early 2021, optimism has grown about a potential return to normality as several vaccines have been approved and are being administered. This report establishes a benchmark through which to evaluate the hoped-for revival of cross-border mobility that these vaccines and other pharmacological interventions could bring. It begins by reviewing what happened in 2020, aggregating and analysing data on travel restrictions and border closures at both the global and regional level. Next, it turns to the human impact of these curbs on mobility for different groups of travellers and migrants, and across different regions. In the final section, the report considers whether the evidence supports travel restrictions as effective tools for managing pandemics and analyses the main policy levers beginning to replace blanket travel bans and how these may be seeding a new cross-border infrastructure built around public health. The report concludes with a look ahead to major decisions that will need to be made in 2021.