Pandemic (Im)Possibilities
2021, issue 46, Izabela Grabowska and Olga Czeranowska: With the Covid-19 global pandemic, societies have been shifted from hyper mobilities to forced immobility [1]. There is however a space for an exceptional type of mobility – return mobility. When threats, but also opportunities, appear, people tend desperately to return home, which we observed in March 2020, both with the EU programme and various national actions where governments organised charter flights to bring back their citizens home from various parts of the world.

Izabela Grabowska and Olga Czeranowska, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Mobility Research Group, Poland.

With the Covid-19 global pandemic, societies have been shifted from hyper mobilities to forced immobility [1]. There is however a space for an exceptional type of mobility return mobility. When threats, but also opportunities, appear, people tend desperately to return home, which we observed in March 2020, both with the EU programme and various national actions where governments organised charter flights to bring back their citizens home from various parts of the world.

In the pre-pandemic era “depending on the studies, usually measured from host country data, return rates vary from 20-75% among immigrants within their first five years after arrival in OECD countries (OECD 2008). Fresh estimates using a new method show that, when aggregated across the globe, 26-31% of migration movements in each time period constitute a return to an individual’s home country (Azose and Raftery 2019, at [2]). In the EU in the pre-pandemic era in 2018, 723,000 persons aged 20-64 returned to their home country, as compared to 680,000 in 2017 ([3], [4]).

Return migration was usually analysed in the context of macrostructural changes, such as economic recession ([5], [6]). However, it is not clear yet to what extent the pandemic can be conceptualised as a similar kind of crisis as an economic downturn. An important differentiating factor may be, firstly, the pace of the changes involved: when the pandemic started in China on the turn of 2019/2020, it was impossible to predict that only three months later the majority of the world would be affected. Secondly, unlike economic crises, the pandemic, or rather precautions undertaken by governments to hinder its spreading, inevitably prevents mobility.

In this text we offer four scenarios of return (im)mobility during or between or post-pandemic times, on two continuum axes: (1) return to an origin and multi-directional mobility, and (2) pandemic lockdown and pandemic unlock.

Graph 1. Scenarios of return mobility during/between/post-pandemic

Source: own elaboration inspired by: a seminar Pandemic and Immobility, with Karylin Schevel, Steven Vertovec, Olena Babakova and Biao Xiang, which took place on the Zoom Platform on the 9th April 2020, and which was organised by Konrad Pedziwiatr and Jan Brzozowski from the Migration and Multicultural Observatory in Cracow; and also by the online lecture by Biao Xiang delivered on the 19th March 2020, at COMPAS, University of Oxford and the Coronavirus and Mobility Forum at: (accessed 14/04/2020).

Scenario 1: Immune Passports.

The first scenario is one of pandemic lockdown connected with a strong will to return home (as opposed to undertaking different, more geographically dispersed, mobility) by migrants.

Two types of motivations should be taken into consideration. Firstly, emotional/psychological factors: people prefer being close to their families during the uncertain times. This may be especially true for migrants who left their parents and grandparents behind, as the elderly are statistically in more vulnerable positions during the Covid-19 pandemics, and ‘caregiving from a distance’ [7] may no longer be possible or sufficient. The second type relates to rational/economic motivations: as migrants can foresee the economic consequences of the pandemic lockdown, especially when “typical migrant” sectors such as hospitality and other services will be probably most affected. Returning to the home country can be the strategy especially for economic migrants without strong ties with the host country, and those in difficult situations on the labour market: precarious workers, low-skilled, underemployed.

Migrants would therefore try to undertake journeys to the home country, despite quarantine being demanded in their current locations. Migrants’ individual strategies might intermingle with country-level strategies (partly motivated by public opinion and voters’ demands). We had already seen at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 how both the European Commission and independently some governments were able to organise home return programmes for their passport holders.

Scenario 2: Return Boom.

The second scenario is also based on the assumption of a prevalence of return motivations, but without a pandemic lockdown. As of the beginning of April 2020 there are no reliable premises to predict when the borders will re-open, but several European countries are planning to lift everyday life restrictions soon, and the European Commission has recommended to the Member States carefully to plan a gradual returning to a normalcy.

Opportunities for international mobility would mean that individuals could employ their personal strategies of return, without any need to count on a government’s support. Having a possibility to monitor and evaluate a situation (e.g. challenges on the labour market), and to organise a move (involving issues of “closing down” everyday life in a host country), may mean that a wave of return mobility might be extended in time. Still, strong emotional reactions should be also taken into consideration, as well as the threat of discrimination and pandemic-related xenophobia [8]. Also, disappointment with a host country’s politics in the time of the pandemic crisis can play an important role in decisions to return to the home country, especially when compared with a home country’s more desirable responses.

Scenario 3: Mobile Things and Return Human Delivers.

Even with pandemic lockdowns hindering the mobility of people, mobility of things is less affected. The pandemic seriously disrupts supply chains, but nevertheless at least some kinds of goods have to be transported internationally. Moreover, some new channels of the mobility of things (especially over short distances, such as inside cities) have been created as a result of the lockdown, in order to help companies to survive.

Still, some people are inevitably involved in the process. Dependent on the companies’ strategies and legal possibilities, delivery workers and drivers may be returning home or travelling between different locations. The lockdown has been both a burden and a privilege, as workers on the move (frequently low-skilled, precarious workers) are forced to face health risks.

Scenario 4: Agile Mobility.

In the case of pandemic unlock, when restrictions are lifted, we can also conceptualise a scenario in which post-pandemic mobility will have a multi-directional character. As both the severity of the pandemic’s restrictions, and countries’ policies to deal with it, differ, we may also assume that the pandemic’s repercussions (economic, social, political) will vary between countries. Some labour markets will be less affected and will recover faster. The pandemic may also result in a change in occupational prestige hierarchies of certain occupations, in a similar way to firefighters after 9/11 [9]. This time, medical occupations are the most important ones, but also other groups can be defined as essential. These categories might involve fundamental jobs usually filled in by migrants.

The post-pandemic demand for certain skills on labour markets might attract migrant workers – not only single-time migrants but also multiple migrants. Mobility strategies may be analysed as an improvised step-wise migration, in which multiple migration is not a result of a well thought-out plan [10], but a reaction to unexpected changes.

Still, even with open borders, we may presume that different kinds of health-related restrictions will prevail for a longer time. It might affect workers’ mobilities to a varying degree – for example, mobility for the highly-skilled tends to be organised by hiring entities and facilitated by governments [11].

To sum up, future return mobilities might depend both on opportunities like lifting travel restrictions, on opening borders, and on social factors, including migrants’ strategies and motivations. The four scenarios that we presented in this text are not mutually exclusive – two or more can play out synchronically in different geographical locations, or diachronically, one by one. We must also remember that the current situation is in many ways unprecedented, which makes any predictions difficult. 


[1] Schewel K. (2019). Understanding Immobility: Moving Beyond the Mobility Bias in Migration Studies. International Migration Review, 54(2), 328-355. doi: 10.1177/0197918319831952
[2] Constant A. F. (2020). Time-Space Dynamics of Return and Circular Migration: Theories and Evidence, CESifo Working Paper, no. 8053.
[3] Fries-Tersch E., Jones M., Böök B., de Keyser L, Tugran T. 2020. 2019 Annual Report on  intra-EU Labour Mobility. Brussels: European Commission Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Directorate D – Labour Mobility.
[4] Fries-Tersch, E. Tugran, T. Markowska, A. Jones, M. 2018. 2018 Annual Report on intra-EU Labour Mobility. Brussels: European Commission.
[5] Bastia, T. (2011). Should I stay or should I go? Return migration in times of crises. Journal of international development, 23(4), 583-595.doi: 10.1002/jid.1794
[6] Zaiceva, A., Zimmermann, K. F. (2013). Returning Home at Times of Trouble? Return Migration of EU Enlargement Migrants During the Crisis. IZA Discussion Paper No. 7111.
[7] Baldock, C. V. (2000). Migrants and their parents: Caregiving from a distance. Journal of Family Issues, 21(2), 205-224. doi: 10.1177/019251300021002004.
[8] Devakumar, D., Shannon, G., Bhopal, S. S., Abubakar, I. (2020). Racism and discrimination in COVID-19 responses. The Lancet. 395(10231), 1194. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30792-3.
[9] Goyder, J. (2009). Prestige squeeze: occupational prestige in Canada since 1965. Montreal: McGill-Queen's Press-MQUP.
[10] Paul, A. M. (2017). Multinational maids: stepwise migration in a global labor market. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[11] Beaverstock, J. V. (2012). Highly skilled international labour migration and world cities: Expatriates, executives and entrepreneurs. [in:] Derudder, B. (ed.) International handbook of globalization and world cities, Cheltenham – Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 240-250.

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Issue 46: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 2