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How the coronavirus crisis will affect Hong Kong’s migration dynamics

Originally published at SCMP on 12 April, 2020.

The spring of 2020 has been a season of despair, as the news of people dying from Covid-19 dominates. Restrictions on international travel, cinema closures and other social distancing measures have made life so different from how it used to be. Only now do we truly appreciate the importance of freedom of movement in our everyday lives.

Aside from economic disruptions, the coronavirus crisis could also have a longer-term impact on Hong Kong’s migration dynamics. Here are four ways that could happen.

First, labour migration could come to a screeching halt. The demand for migrant labour has been high, especially for migrant domestic workers. But amid a pandemic, the demand for migrant labour is likely to plummet as the world economy enters a recession.

Between February and March, seven foreign domestic workers were fired following Covid-19-related disputes with their employers, according to Ming Pao. There is likely to be more retrenchment, not only because of Covid-19 itself, but also because of falling demand. Many domestic workers may lose their job simply because their employers have lost theirs and can no longer afford to pay for domestic help.

In times of emergency, migrant workers are often the first to suffer. It is therefore especially important for policymakers not to increase human suffering in the name of public health.

Second, some Hongkongers’ hopes of emigrating to seek a better life are now in serious doubt. The city’s soaring housing prices, lack of upward social mobility, and the anti-extradition bill protests have spurred many to consider leaving. But Covid-19 has dashed their dreams. While “push” factors remain, many “pull” factors that once attracted them to emigrate have vanished.

One issue is the impact on health care systems in potential destination countries. At least initially, some policymakers and politicians in the West regarded the coronavirus as little more than the flu, in contrast to those in East Asia. People are now questioning the wisdom of leaving Hong Kong as the virus ravages many countries deemed to be “advanced”.

The coronavirus-inspired racism and discrimination that has emerged since the outbreak is also taking its toll. This is likely to persuade some people to rethink emigrating, and possibly even deter parents from sending their children abroad to study.

The pandemic has also brought home the challenge of adjusting to a different culture. In the past, people tended to think of cultural differences in terms of food, language and maybe folklore. But Covid-19 has shone a light on the less obvious but equally important differences, such as the concept of cleanliness, approaches to health and medicine, and relationship to authority. The debate over mask wearing is a good example.

Of course, some may feel that the push factors are more powerful and decide to leave anyway, but it is likely that many others will come to see that their idea of emigration was a mirage, and decide to stay.

Third, cross-border mobility between Hong Kong and the mainland will become increasingly politicised. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, many in Hong Kong called for a complete border shutdown.

Given the social tension resulting from the months-long protests, it was important that a call for travel restrictions to curb the spread of the virus was not politicised to become a call to block mainland Chinese entering Hong Kong. If the anti-government protests triggered by opposition to the extradition bill had not taken place, would we have seen the strike by a group of medical workers over border closures?

The theme of “threats from China” now underlie many issues facing Hong Kong. This has significant political implications for the management of cross-border mobility.

Fourth, Covid-19 poses challenges to migrant integration. Invariably, conflict between host communities and migrants distorts social cohesion in times of crisis. One thing I hear a lot from the local Hongkongers is “these people haven’t experienced Sars”.

But do such people really know what migrants have experienced, or how long they have lived in Hong Kong? When there is no virus, everything works well. But when borders are closed to non-residents, the prejudice of the locals becomes a significant barrier to migrant integration.

Asylum seekers and refugees, especially, are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. Many are stuck in Hong Kong awaiting news of their asylum application. Yet, many lack the resources to cope with the disease – money to buy daily necessities, timely information regarding where to buy masks, and updates on the virus situation. With a lack of institutional support, the integration process is likely to prove more difficult.

Looking ahead, governments will have to decide which approach to adopt to best deal with the Covid-19 crisis, not only in public health terms but also as a migration challenge.

In 2003, after having survived the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, Hong Kong took a series of measures to revive the economy, and it worked. So, perhaps we should hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

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