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Pandemic challenges spark innovation in how countries measure migration and remittances, finds UNECE study

Pandemic challenges spark innovation in how countries measure migration and remittances, finds UNECE study


A new working paper, Measuring Migration and Remittances in UNECE Countries during the Pandemic, reveals both innovative solutions and continued hurdles as countries strive to gather information about international migration under pandemic conditions.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic brought about sudden and massive changes in international migration. As countries first discouraged travel and then closed their borders, rates of migration all but ground to a halt starting in March 2020.

International migration involves not only the movement of people, but also of their money. Many migrants travel abroad to earn money which they send home as remittances. For some families, and even for entire countries, these remittances represent a significant share of overall income. The large-scale and unforeseen restrictions on migration may therefore have had knock-on effects for many who rely on such remittances.

Measuring the size and impacts of the unprecedented changes in these movements of both people and money is clearly essential—yet they came about at the same time that the offices responsible for producing such measurements had to contend with huge challenges of their own. National statistical offices (NSOs) around the UNECE region faced rapid shifts to new modes of work, and obligations to collect data in new ways to reduce the need for physical interactions when conducting surveys, one of the main sources of data in migration and remittances. Administrative data sources, such as border crossing records and population registers, were also subject to changes that affected the reliability of the data.

The new study, which builds on the findings of the 2018 Working Paper Analysis of Household Surveys on Migration and Remittances in the Countries of Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central Asia, is based on the results of a survey of NSOs in UNECE countries carried out in October 2020. It explores the administrative, logistical and methodological challenges faced by NSOs collecting data and producing statistics on migration and remittances during the pandemic, and the strategies used to cope with them.

It finds concerns among NSOs about the quality of source data, with high rates of non-response to surveys caused by the challenges of responding online, such as limited IT skills and poor connectivity among both migrants and staff responsible for conducting surveys in some countries.

Many NSOs have adopted remote methods of conducting surveys, including online and telephone interviews. These adjustments have helped fill urgent needs but further improvements are needed to make them feasible approaches for the long term. Meanwhile, restrictions on staff movement and limited physical access to public offices have impacted access to the administrative records that can serve as alternative data sources.

Some of the countries surveyed have taken steps to gather new data specifically designed to shed light on the impacts of the pandemic on labour migrants. The fastest way to do this is to incorporate new questions into existing surveys, an approach pioneered by Hungary, Luxembourg and the Republic of Moldova which have asked respondents whether their income, living conditions and employment have changed because of the pandemic. Other countries, rather than gathering new data, have focused efforts on new ways to present and communicate existing, Covid-related indicators, including those related to migration, in easy-to-find formats such as dedicated web pages on NSOs’ websites. Bulgaria, for example, has begun publishing monthly updates of international travel statistics covering trips abroad of Bulgarian citizens and arrivals of foreign citizens into the country.

A key finding of the study is that diversification of data sources and ability to use mixed methods for collection and processing increases resilience in statistical production. Adopting these new and varied approaches, however, requires additional training of staff, improved ICT provision and support and enhanced Internet and phone connectivity, all of which bring heightened costs for the NSOs. International support and collaboration—sharing methods and tools and building capacity—remain crucial to ensure that the phenomena of migration and remittances, which affect the entire UNECE region, can be accurately measured and understood as we continue to weather the storm of Covid-19.