Year-End Review: Global immigration in 2020 and a look at 2021

Last Updated on February 23, 2023

A look back at the driving forces behind global immigration policy changes in 2020 and what could be ahead in the new year

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was a key driver in immigration policy making around the world. Travel restrictions were issued beginning in March to control the spread of the virus, and many remain in place as of December 2020. With border closures and travel bans still common around the world, employers have had to adjust their compliance strategies to remain compliant with entry restrictions and post-arrival requirements to avoid problems ranging from fines and other criminal penalties to deportation.

Despite the challenges 2020 presented, demand for foreign talent remained high due to an ongoing skills gap and competitive labor markets. To overcome these challenges, companies are turning to immigration, both to help find talent for hard-to-fill roles and create a diverse workforce. 

Key takeaways from 2020 immigration policy around the world

United States

In the U.S., access to foreign talent declined due to increased government scrutiny, higher denial rates and slower processing times. President Trump’s Presidential Proclamation 10052 further hindered the ability of foreign nationals to enter the U.S. 

Visa issuance declined in 2020 due to COVID-19 and other factors, and a lengthy backlog in permanent residence applications created uncertainty for employers and their foreign workers. Changes were made to the H-1B system throughout 2020, including a proposal to replace the lottery system with a wage-based system in November 2020, which was struck down in early December.

United Kingdom

Brexit had a major influence on immigration policies for the UK in 2020. The Brexit transition will end on December 31, 2020. Starting on January 1, 2021, individual countries will enact their own policies for UK citizens living and working within their borders following the transition. 

This year, the Government of the UK created a more digital immigration system to reduce in-person contact. Going into 2021, a newly introduced points-based immigration regime will be in effect for foreign national applicants that aims to account for the lack of free movement in the EU and other worldwide factors.


Much of Europe saw an increase in minimum salary levels again in 2020, following a historic upward trend. Salary levels have increased by approximately one percent to 10 percent. Switzerland, Croatia, and Romania eliminated quotas or increased quotas to encourage foreign workers to enter their borders. Many countries introduced digital platforms to streamline efforts and reduce administrative burdens. Additionally, many EU member states updated their own national laws to comply with new EU Directives, including Revised EU Posted Worker Directives.  

Latin America

In Latin America, the trend of creating more streamlined processes and ease of entry has increased in 2020. Chile eased entry and exit restrictions for many foreign workers, including eliminating a requirement to obtain a Travel Certificate for permanent residency. Barbados introduced a remote work visa that allows foreign nationals to work in the country for up to 12 months, and Bermuda also implemented a remote work visa in 2020. The Brazilian government is permitting visa-free entry for Qatari citizens for business and tourism.  

Asia Pacific

In 2020, many countries in the Asia Pacific region developed more restrictive policies on employer compliance and government enforcement. Singapore enacted a new law that imposes stricter penalties on employers of foreign workers that are found guilty of workplace discrimination. Penalties under the law include bans up to two years for work pass and renewal sponsorship. The Philippines deployed over 400 inspectors to examine establishments where foreign nationals were employed. Additionally, many countries implemented strict entry requirements due to COVID-19, and many imposed fines and penalties for non-compliance with government regulations, including imprisonment for up to one year in Indonesia. 

Middle East

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have increased their efforts to attract foreign talent on a short-term and longer-term basis. The UAE implemented a remote work visa policy in 2020 that allows qualified foreign nationals to live and work in the UAE for up to one year. The UAE has also implemented permanent residence and long-term residence programs to encourage investment and draw highly skilled foreign nationals. Saudi Arabia adopted new rules in 2020 requiring employers to obtain written permission to employ local workers and foreign employees in certain occupations and reserve some professions for Saudi nationals. 

Looking Ahead to 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to play a large, influencing role in shaping global immigration policies through the foreseeable future. Brexit will also shape immigration policies in Europe at the start of 2021. A changing administration in the U.S. will also affect global mobility. Digitization, a trend that began largely in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, is expected to increase in 2021. 

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

Content in this publication is not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an Envoy-affiliated attorney or another qualified professional.