2021 Year in Review: Global Immigration and Mobility

Last Updated on February 23, 2023

Immigrants are critical to the economic success of global economies. However, COVID-19 poses a massive threat to the movement of people around the globe.  

With nearly every country on the globe imposing travel restrictions, border closures and more, 2021 has still been a remarkable year for global immigration and mobility. In 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and the threat of the virus became apparent, some of the world’s largest global economies shut their international borders  with many remaining closed for nearly nine months. 

Countries, including Sweden, Ireland and India, stopped processing visas at some point throughout the pandemic and immigrants everywhere were met with strict entry requirements and restrictions.  

Despite these hurdles, 2021 has seen vast improvements with immigration processes around the globe. With more countries gaining access to vaccines, the gradual lifting of entry restrictions and the introduction of vaccination passports and certificates, people are once again gaining the ability to move and travel more freely.  

Reopening of Borders

At the beginning of 2021, many countries maintained border restrictions that had been in place since the start of the pandemic. However, with the rollout of vaccination programs, countries have begun to gradually reopen borders to international travelers.  

In June, travel between all European Union (EU) countries reopened for fully vaccinated travelers who were able to produce an EU Digital COVID Certificate. This allowed for EU citizens to travel and immigrate within the EU more easily. Even countries with some of the strictest border controls have announced reopening plans. 

In October, the Australian government announced plans to reopen the country to international travelers after remaining in a strict lockdown since the beginning of the pandemic. Singapore unveiled a Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) that allows for fully vaccinated travelers from select countries to travel to the country with fewer restrictions, including reduced quarantine times.  

As countries continue to reopen their borders, expect an increase in immigration and international travel in the coming months. 

Developments in Immigration

The effects of the pandemic and border restrictions have also led to the creation and implementation of permanent immigration measures and policies. Even prior to the pandemic, many countries, particularly those in the Global North, experienced labor shortages due to aging workforce populations. Coupled with the effects of the pandemic, countries have pursued new methods for retaining and attracting foreign workers in 2021.  

Many countries in the Caribbean and Pacific Islands have sought new ways to overcome decreased tourism over the last year. The creation of digital nomadic visas and remote-work programs have become critical to the economic success of these regions. Through these programs, long-term visitors can work across the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands if they stay at certified, government approved properties and adhere to COVID-19 related restrictions and requirements.  

Countries of the EU have also made efforts towards attracting foreign talent. In October, the European Council adopted a new directive to establish entry and residence conditions for highly qualified non-EU nationals seeking to live and work in the EU.  

Under this new directive, the EU Council made admissions criteria more inclusive, simplified procedures for recognized employers, made reunification for intra-EU mobility and family reunification easier and encouraged EU member states to place more emphasis on advertising activities and information campaigns concerning the EU Blue Card directed at third countries. 

In the U.K., the government has launched new policies to facilitate the conclusion of Brexit, such as the EU Settlement SchemeThe EU Settlement Scheme ensures that EU, EEA and Swiss citizens that resided in the U.K. are able to obtain an immigration status to continue to live, work and study in the country. On June 30, 2021, the application period for the EU Settlement Scheme ended with around 6 million applications having been received.  

Yet, the U.K. faces a severe shortage of labor in certain industries like transportation and agriculture.  

As a result, the country created several temporary programs and routes to encourage immigration. They rolled out a new pilot Skilled Worker program in July to provide more work opportunities for displaced foreign nationals and refugees. In September, the UK government opened 10,500 more short-term visas for heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and poultry workers.  

Moving eastward, numerous countries in the Middle East and Africa introduced new visa types and the digitization of visa application processes in an effort to reduce backlogs and ensure faster processing times. In BotswanaUganda and Seychelles, certain work visas and passports were digitized in order to reduce paperwork and simplify processing.  

Travel restrictions in several countries in the Middle East have been lessened or lifted for select international travelers and new visa types have been implemented in countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

Digitization of Immigration Systems Worldwide

Many countries around the globe have begun to digitize immigration processes to create faster and more reliable immigration systems. In October, Ireland announced a new website and unveiled its plan to digitize immigration processes by 2023; in 2021, the country had already launched a digital COVID certificate scheme, expanded online forms and introduced e-Signatures and expansion to e-vetting.  

Additionally, the EU created the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in order to completely digitize visa procedures in the coming years. More countries are likely to continue to automate and digitize immigration processes, creating more efficient and easier pathways for individuals to live and work where they want. 

Developments in Humanitarian Crises

In 2021, humanitarian crises have persisted, with their impact further heightened by the conditions of the pandemic. At the end of 2020, the UNHCR reported over 82.4 million people worldwide who had been forcibly displaced.  

The UNHCR has called the world’s attention to the many people forced to flee their home countries due to economic hardship, persecution, environmental disasters and uneven access to medical supplies throughout the pandemic. Countries around the globe have made greater efforts towards admitting refugees and displaced persons. The Canadian government created the Economic Mobility Pathway Pilot with the goal of accepting more highly skilled refugees into the country.  

Countries, including the U.S. and several EU Member States, have passed legislation and made pledges to aid persons fleeing Afghanistan and many countries in East Asia have created programs to aid Rohingya refugees.  

Countries around the globe have also engaged in new forms of vaccine diplomacy to help vaccinate some of the world's more vulnerable populations.  

All these events have had an immense impact on immigration worldwide and will continue to shape migration patterns. The past two years have heightened the focus around issues such as uneven vaccine distribution and immigration during a pandemic. Furthermore, the current distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has had a major influence on the global economy, humanitarian crises and immigration.  

However, despite these issues, 2021 has provided an important glimpse into immigration patterns that will be important to consider in the upcoming years. Immigration has seen major changes this past year. With more countries gaining access to vaccines, borders reopening, the lifting of entry restrictions and the digitization of immigration systems and processes, global immigration is undoubtedly experiencing a major shift. 

This past year has also seen the addition of new technologies and processes to immigration systems worldwide, many of which were spurred on because of COVID-19 restrictions and application backlogs.  

The need for immigrants has never been more critical, with many countries becoming more reliant on immigrant labor to counteract the effects of aging populations, skill shortages and the need for highly skilled workers.  

Immigrants have also played a key role in the healthcare industry and supply chains across the globe. The reopening of international borders will have a massive influence on global immigration routes and work programs.

Envoy is pleased to provide you this information, which was prepared in collaboration with Brendan Coggan, who is the SVP, Global Services, at Envoy Global.  

Content in this publication is for informational purposes only and not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an attorney at one of the two U.S. Law Firms working with the Envoy Platform or another qualified professional. On non-U.S. immigration issues, consult an Envoy global immigration service provider or another qualified representative.