As the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis continues to spread, the amount of money migrant workers send home is projected to decline 14 percent by 2021 compared to the pre COVID-19 levels in 2019, according to the latest estimates published in the World Bank’s Migration and Development Brief.
Remittance flows to low and middle-income countries (LMICs) are projected to fall by 7 percent, to $508 billion in 2020, followed by a further decline of 7.5 percent, to $470 billion in 2021. The foremost factors driving the decline in remittances include weak economic growth and employment levels in migrant-hosting countries, weak oil prices; and depreciation of the currencies of remittance-source countries against the US dollar.
“The impact of COVID-19 is pervasive when viewed through a migration lens as it affects migrants and their families who rely on remittances,” said Mamta Murthi, Vice President for Human Development and Chair of the Migration Steering Group of the World Bank. “The World Bank will continue working with partners and countries to keep the remittance lifeline flowing, and to help sustain human capital development.”
The declines in 2020 and 2021 will affect all regions, with the steepest drop expected in Europe and Central Asia (by 16 percent and 8 percent, respectively), followed by East Asia and the Pacific (11 percent and 4 percent), the Middle East and North Africa (8 percent and 8 percent), Sub-Saharan Africa (9 percent and 6 percent), South Asia (4 percent and 11 percent), and Latin America and the Caribbean (0.2 percent and 8 percent).
The importance of remittances as a source of external financing for LMICs is expected to amplify in 2020, even with the expected decline. Remittance flows to LMICs touched a record high of $548 billion in 2019, larger than foreign direct investment flows ($534 billion) and overseas development assistance (about $166 billion). The gap between remittance flows and FDI is expected to widen further as FDI is expected to decline more sharply.
“Migrants are suffering greater health risks and unemployment during this crisis,” said Dilip Ratha, lead author of the Brief and head of KNOMAD. “The underlying fundamentals driving remittances are weak and this is not the time to take our eyes off the downside risks to the remittance lifelines.”
This year, for the first time in recent history, the stock of international migrants is likely to decline as new migration has slowed and return migration has increased. Return migration has been reported in all parts of the world following the lifting of national lockdowns which left many migrant workers stranded in host countries. Rising unemployment in the face of tighter visa restrictions on migrants and refugees is likely to result in a further increase in return migration.
“Beyond humanitarian considerations, there is strong case to support migrants who work with host communities on the frontline in hospitals, labs, farms, and factories,” said Michal Rutkowski, Global Director of the Social Protection and Jobs Global Practice at the World Bank. “Supportive policy responses by host countries should include migrants, while origin or transit countries should consider measures to support migrants returning home.
Origin countries must find ways of supporting returning migrants in resettling, finding jobs or opening businesses. The surge in return migration is likely to prove burdensome for the communities (to which migrants return) as they must provide quarantine facilities in the immediate term and support housing, jobs, and reintegration efforts in the medium term.
According to the World Bank’s Remittance Prices Worldwide Database, the global average cost of sending $200 was 6.8 percent in the third quarter of 2020, largely unchanged since the first quarter of 2019. This is more than double the Sustainable Development Goal target of 3 percent by 2030. The cost was the lowest in South Asia (5 percent) and highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (8.5 percent). Banks are the costliest channel for sending remittances, averaging 10.9 percent, followed by post offices at 8.6 percent, money transfer operators at 5.8 percent, and mobile operators at 2.8 percent.
Despite being the cheapest, money transfer and mobile operators face increasing hurdles as banks close their accounts to reduce risk of non-compliance with anti-money laundering (AML) and combating terrorism financing (CFT) standards. To keep these channels open, especially for lower-income migrants, AML/CFT rules could be temporarily simplified for small remittances. Further, strengthening mobile money regulations and identity systems will improve transparency of transactions. Facilitating digital remittances would require improving access to bank accounts for mobile remittance service providers as well as senders and recipients of remittances.
The World Bank Group, one of the largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response. It is supporting public health interventions, working to ensure the flow of critical supplies and equipment, and helping the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. The WBG is making available up to $160 billion over a 15-month period ending June 2021 to help more than 100 countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery. This includes $50 billion of new IDA resources through grants and highly concessional loans and $12 billion for developing countries to finance the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Regional Remittance Trends
Remittance flows to the East Asia and Pacific region are projected to fall by 11 percent in 2020 to $131 billion due to the adverse impact of COVID-19. China and the Philippines are the region’s top recipients, while as a share of GDP, the top recipients are Tonga and Samoa. Remittance costs: The average cost of sending $200 to the region increased slightly to 7.1 percent in the third quarter of 2020. The five lowest-cost corridors in the region averaged 2.5 percent, while the five highest-cost corridors, excluding South Africa to China, which is an outlier, averaged 13.3 percent.
Remittances to countries in Europe and Central Asia are estimated to fall by 16 percent to $48 billion as the pandemic and fall in oil prices are likely to have wide-ranging impacts on economies, with nearly all countries in the region posting double-digit declines of remittances in 2020. The depreciation of the Russian ruble is also likely to weaken outward remittances from Russia. Remittance costs: The average cost of sending $200 to the region fell slightly to 6.5 percent in the third quarter of 2020 from 6.6 percent a year ago.
Remittance flows into Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to be about $96 billion in 2020, a decline of 0.2 percent over the previous year. Remittances to Colombia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic registered positive year-on-year growth between the months of June and September after falling sharply in April and May. Flows to the region’s top recipient, Mexico, held up in part because migrants were employed in essential services in the United States and eligible migrants also benefitted from U.S. stimulus programs. Remittance costs: The average cost of sending $200 to the region rose slightly to 5.8 percent in the third quarter. In many smaller remittance corridors, costs continue to be high. For example, the cost of sending money to Haiti and the Dominican Republic exceeds 8 percent.
Remittances to the Middle East and North Africa region are projected to fall by 8 percent in 2020 to $55 billion due to the projected persistence of the global slowdown. Remittances inflows to Egypt, the region’s largest recipient, have so far been countercyclical to the crisis, as Egyptian workers abroad increase one-off transfers to their families back home. Flows are likely to eventually decline due to lower oil prices and slower economic growth in the Gulf countries, with major remittance-receiving countries likely to register falls in remittances. Remittance costs: The cost of sending $200 to the region rose in the third quarter of 2020 to 7.5 percent, compared with 6.8 percent a year ago. Costs vary greatly across corridors: the cost of sending money from high-income OECD countries to Lebanon continues to be in the double digits.
Remittances to South Asia are projected to decline by around 4 percent in 2020 to $135 billion. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the impact of the global economic slowdown has been somewhat countered by the diversion of remittances from informal to formal channels due to the difficulty of carrying money by hand under travel restrictions. Pakistan also introduced a tax incentive whereby withholding tax was exempted from July 1, 2020, on cash withdrawals or on the issuance of banking instruments/transfers from a domestic bank account. Bangladesh registered a large increase in remittance inflows in July after the floods that inundated a quarter of its landmass. Remittance costs: At just under 5 percent in the third quarter of 2020, South Asia was the least costly region to send $200 to. But costs are well over 10 percent in some corridors (from Japan, South Africa and Thailand, and from Pakistan to Afghanistan).
Remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to decline by around 9 percent in 2020 to $44 billion. Within the region, remittances to Kenya have so far stayed positive, though flows are likely to eventually decline in 2021. All major remittance-receiving countries will likely see a decline of remittances. As the COVID-19 pandemic affects both destination and origin countries of Sub-Saharan migrants, the fall in remittances is expected to further lead to an increase in food insecurity and poverty. Remittance costs: Sending $200 remittances to the region cost on average 8.5 percent in the third quarter of 2020, representing a modest decrease compared with 9 percent a year ago. Sub-Saharan Africa is the costliest region to send remittances to. The promotion of digital technology, combined with a regulatory environment promoting competition in the remittances market and review of AML/CFT regulations, are essential to lowering remittances fees for the region.
Detailed regional and global analysis is available in the Migration and Development Brief 33 available on www.knomad.org and blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove. Brief 33 highlights developments related to migration-related Sustainable Development Goal indicators for which the World Bank is a custodian: increasing the volume of remittances as a percentage of gross domestic product (17.3.2), reducing remittance costs (10.c.1), and reducing recruitment costs for migrant workers (10.7.1).
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