Dr. Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data-and scenario-based strategic advisory firm headquartered in Singapore, and author of numerous books including Connectography, The Future is Asian.
One year on from the commencement of the global lockdown of 2020, we can more clearly than ever before measure and track the origin, destination, and motivation of the world’s migrants. For decades, those interested in residence- and citizenship-by-investment (RCBI) have evaluated their options on the basis of ease of establishing residency, access offered by passports, property regulations, tax rates, and other factors. But now one feature of livability has leapfrogged above many other considerations and is likely to remain front of mind for years to come: health security. As investors weigh healthcare systems alongside investment promotion policies, we are likely to see new demographic patterns emerge.
One already noticeable trend is the extent to which geographies previously considered as short-term locations are gaining favor as long-term residences. The motivations for this include the permanence of remote digital work in the services sector as well as the unpredictability of when future travel lockdowns may occur. You may have thought of a place as only temporary, but it might (un)intentionally become your new home.
Singapore, for example, has witnessed a surge in existing residents who hold employment passes applying for permanent residency. Furthermore, it has taken in many Americans, Europeans, and Indonesians who want to enjoy its Covid-free normalcy, and indeed gain access to its world-class health system. Prior to the pandemic, Singapore had been diversifying its residency offerings to include categories for investors, entrepreneurs, and technologists. Now it has also allowed for more flexibility among them as people’s circumstances change. Many countries have cleverly amended their visa policies on the fly during the pandemic, allowing tourists to become classified as nomads, nomads to convert into entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs into residents.
I have labeled Singapore, Taiwan, and New Zealand as “islands of immunity” both for their geographic blessing of being able to control migration but also because of their sensible paranoia about containing virus outbreaks while maintaining economic vibrancy. Other islands such as Malta and Ireland have similarly intensified efforts to become long-term residential hubs on the back of strong Covid controls. There are also countries that one may regard as “geopolitical islands” such as South Korea and Israel, both of which have impressed the world with their rapid Covid testing and vaccination policies. The tech investment that has accelerated in Israel and digital and media relocation from Hong Kong and Taiwan to Korea may also gain steam in the wake of Covid.
These are reminders that geopolitical, technological, and epidemiological disruptions are all playing out simultaneously, impacting both migration drivers and policies. The investment migration industry has come under pressure from the EU and other bodies, but regulators need to rethink their approaches in light of the valid desire migrants have to live in “green zones” with better healthcare, and the proliferation of nomad visa programs that offer effectively indefinite residency to digital professionals.
There are also seismic demographic and economic transitions underway, owing to which societies need to cope with aging populations by importing young investors and taxpayers while pursuing diversification by attracting talent to new industries. All of this requires that countries facing fiscal pressures as well as skilled labor and investment shortages are well within their rights to seek to attract and recruit everyone from start-up entrepreneurs who can stimulate innovation to doctors and nurses who can upgrade public health services.
There are no surprises towards the top of the Investment Migration Programs Health Risk Assessment of 31 countries that host RCBI programs, with countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand mirroring their high positions in Henley & Partners’ Global Residence Programs Index (GRPI). Italy is an important example of a country that has both revised immigration rules to attract investor migrants and also rebounded well from its early Covid tragedies.
There are also surprising entrants in the upper echelons, however, based on their governments’ capacities to manage quarantines, monitor and detect new virus strains, and balance the load of essential and non-essential medical procedures in their hospital systems. In this regard, the UAE and Turkey perform extremely well in the Investment Migration Programs Health Risk Assessment, although they are in the bottom halves of the GRPI and Global Citizenship Program Index, respectively.
Thailand is a RBI host country that also ticks many of the boxes now considered essential for holistic investor migration. The sought-after Southeast Asian country has gone out of its way to offer long-term visas with special healthcare screenings and other perks for new residents, attracting retirees from Australia, Russia, and the US especially. Thailand is spacious and wealthy enough to devote fresh fiscal resources to buttressing its property market and medical system to cater to foreign arrivals.
The shifting patterns of migration in the post-Covid world will be non-linear and perhaps unpredictable. This mimics the reality of a world in which there are multiple unfolding crises, from pandemics to climate change to political polarization. Many countries may learn from the Covid experience and improve their health security while also undertaking other reforms that could attract from the next wave of investor migrants. The options in the future may well grow rather than recede.