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Nomad visas and economic resurgence: Lessons from Estonia | Christiana Sagay

Friday, June 26, 2020 @ 2:52 PM | By Christiana Sagay

Christiana Sagay %>
Christiana Sagay
Undoubtedly the COVID-19 pandemic has come at a great human and economic cost while also creating an immigration shortfall — a dip in the admission of economic migrants. With the spread of the virus, while applications for permanent residency were still accepted, the ability to review the applications was significantly skewed, as applications of Canadians returning to the country, vulnerable groups and people performing or supporting essential services took precedence. In addition to the processing lapse, admission of landed migrants into Canada was put on hold from March 16, 2020, creating a 30 per cent decline in economic migrants in March alone.

The Canadian immigration policy has undoubtedly taken centre stage in the growth and prosperity of the country. Canada boasts of an immigrant-friendly immigration policy ranked seventh worldwide among 28 countries that host 75 per cent of all international migrants.

According to the 2019 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration, in the year 2019, Canada admitted over 321,000 new permanent residents — the highest number since 1931 — 186,352 of whom represented admission under the economic class. In 2020, admission projection was pegged at 360,000; an expectation now derailed by the pandemic.

With an aging population, Canadian immigration policy aims predominately at fostering population growth scenarios that alter the demographic composition of the country over the next decades, increase the labour force and enhance economic and fiscal gains from net migration. This Canada does by selecting foreign nationals whose skills contribute to Canadian prosperity by strengthening the social, cultural and economic fabric of the society. The impetus for this vibrant immigrant-friendly policy hinges on the immigration objectives encapsulated in s. 3 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (S.C. 2001, c. 27).

While the economic migration policy plan is aimed at shoring up the declining labour force, the COVID-19 pandemic which has brought in its trail a tornado of unemployment and a shrinking job market, creates a potential challenge for the current immigration scheme. Paradoxically while the number of landed immigrants has shrunk in the year 2020, the employment gaps arising out of the pandemic create an uncertain atmosphere for the current migration scheme. In this stead, there are some lessons to be gleaned from Estonia and its “Digital Nomad Visa.”

Earlier in June 2020, Estonia’s Parliament approved amendments to its Alien Act to allow for the creation of a digital nomad visa regime. These visas are aimed at attracting remote workers to live in Estonia, while potentially working for companies situated in other parts of the world, capitalizing on a mode of work not requiring physical presence. The influx of remote workers would create an influx of migrants who would spend their income in Estonia while unburdening the Estonian government from the pressure of job creation or fear of job loss by Estonians. The digital nomad visas provide residency status for up to a year for remote workers.

The infusion of similar digital nomad visas within the Canadian immigration policy makes for an excellent case. Following the pandemic, many employers bent on staying afloat transitioned staff to a work-from-home (WFH) scenario; with nearly five million employees working remotely. These WFH scenarios are likely to remain the trend for many businesses, especially in tech, information technology and customer service industries all over the world. This trend grafts with the remote requirement of the digital nomad visas, providing some leeway for liberalizing migration policies.

A digital nomad scenario caters to the economic objective encapsulated in s. 3(1)(a) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which while simultaneously hosting a range of highly educated migrants also alters the country’s demographic composition. Ultimately enriching the social fabric of the society and countering the challenge of the aging population, even with the shrinking of jobs in the labour market, this target population does not have to worry about job opportunities in Canada.

Undoubtedly large immigration waves raise output and productivity in advanced economies like Canada in the short, medium and long term and create significant, dynamic gains for the whole economy. But, immigration is also subject to uncertainties, including those stemming from world events, climate change and global health challenges. It then behooves countries to respond to these dynamic scenarios, and liberalization trends become particularly crucial in developing immigration policies that evolve to maximize the yields of economic migration.

The nomad visa addresses possible concerns in the labour market, furnishes and enriches the social fabrics of society and addresses potential economic frictions, including adjustments in the labour market. There is the need to transform — to respond to increased demands and the uncertainty the world offers. Perhaps Estonia offers lessons in migration that cushion Canadian economic difficulties and aid economic resurgence post-COVID-19.

Christiana Sagay is a researcher and analyst in the field of gender, international law and development. She has worked at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, New York, where she worked on an array of international law issues. She has also assisted in drafting international codes, including the supplement to the Istanbul Protocol. She can be reached directly at

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