The Future of Immigration and Global Human Mobility

Why we need smart policy and smart systems to fix how people move across borders.

Human capital is a major driving force of economic growth.

Yet red tape and outdated policies are a critical bottleneck in the movement of talent across borders. The notorious global talent shortage has only taken a turn for the worse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the most recent ManpowerGroup Talent Shortage survey, almost 7 in 10 (69%) of companies report talent shortages and difficulty hiring, representing a 15-year high.

Everyone hiring today knows that good people are hard enough to find on a good day. Frustratingly, they can be even harder to move across borders once you do find them. In Germany, for example, it can take up to a year to get an appointment with immigration authorities, while the country itself is experiencing a deepening talent crunch that looms over its economic growth.

Far from being the exception in this, Germany is just one of many countries shooting itself in the proverbial foot by setting hurdle after hurdle in the path of human mobility into its borders.

And most people don’t notice or mind—or they just accept it as a fact of life.

All too often, we think of the slow slog of bureaucratic busywork as little more than a nuisance. Red tape—when you’re buying real estate, changing your name, or moving to a new country—is a hassle and a headache, but it’s simply how things work, right? Paperwork goes in, gears turn, permits and certificates come out—eventually.

That’s how it’s always been done. 

But why? Why have we accepted the pain of paperwork as a reality of modern life, when the systems in place crumble under the slightest scrutiny?

When Raúl, a global mobility expert at Jobbatical, walked into the Philippines Overseas Labor Office in Madrid in July 2021, he might as well have stepped back in time. There to collect some documents for a client, Raúl was asked to take a seat at a table in a room decorated with a big Philippine flag, and an imposing portrait of Duterte staring down at him.

At this table, Raúl sat for about 35 minutes, watching the public servant analyze, stamp and sign, one by one, more than 70 pages of documents. For “security reasons”, he wasn’t allowed to use his phone while he waited. On the other end of that process, Raúl’s client later had to endure a similar situation when picking up the documents.

This slightly dystopian experience might strike you as somewhat bizarre and inconvenient, but—all in all—perhaps mostly harmless.

But let's take a look at another recent immigration case, where a divorced single mother working at a Malaysian tech company got an offer to transfer to the company’s European office. First, the immigration authorities asked her to travel 6,000 miles to the nearest embassy, leaving her kids behind, to apply for a visa and work permit. Then she had to fly back to Malaysia, wait three months for her permit to get approved, fly 6,000 miles to the embassy again (this time with her kids), and apply for visas for the children, before finally being able to move to Europe.

Is there any real reason why this process should be so drawn-out and disruptive? 

We know that human capital is distributed unevenly around the world. And we know that this is a major blocker for innovation, economic growth, and even something as crucial—yet oft-overlooked—as human happiness. So why are the barriers to global mobility so high? 

Because immigration is a dirty word. Because change is hard. And because in the grander scheme of things, “I had to wait a year for an appointment” or “I had to fly to a different country to do some paperwork” may not sound like high-priority, maximum-urgency issues.

But for economies, businesses, and people to thrive, fixing immigration is a must.

The good news is that there is some progress.

Last year, by implementing a relatively small but impactful digitalization in cooperation with Berlin immigration authorities, Jobbatical shortened a 90-day immigration process into 2 days. 

Then there are digital nomad visas, like those recently introduced by Estonia and Spain, which are becoming an increasingly normalized way of acknowledging and facilitating new ways of working and moving across borders. And this summer, Scale-Up Europe presented Emmanuel Macron with a report that highlighted the importance of easing the movement of global talent into Europe. 

At Jobbatical, we’re working towards creating a secure, universal digital identity for global cross-border movement that allows people to upload their information and documents only once. Our smart system matches that data to government forms in different countries and guides the user through the relocation process. Companies and individuals, from highly skilled professionals to refugees seeking safety, will be able to use this system to start and track seamless and paperless immigration processes. Over the next few years, we want to connect this digital identity to government systems around the world, to make human mobility as frictionless as possible.

By and large, the progress being made still amounts to a few drops in an ocean of bureaucratic dysfunction. Policy changes and small moves towards digitalization are great, but so far they’re little more than bandages on a gaping wound. 

The future of human mobility and immigration as we envision it relies on smart policies and technology coming together, and a deep reimagining of the way we think about borders, nationalities, and human mobility.



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