Migration Immobility that Does Not Discriminate: Perspective of an Aspiring Migrant with High Migration Ability and Desirable Background

Amanda Goh, Arino Ang, Ankita Ragam, Singapore Management University

What does the Covid-19 crisis mean for aspiring migrants with high migration potential planning to migrate?

In September 2020, we decided to document the experiences of a highly qualified Singaporean professional who wanted to move to Switzerland to further her education and to be with her fiancé. Initially, we thought our interview would help in understanding the different experiences that people of higher and lower migration potential experience in trying to migrate during this pandemic. However, we seem to have uncovered that the process is confusing and frustrating even for those who have a very high migration ability.

Jane, a 26-year-old Singaporean, first began to worry about her impending migration to Switzerland in March, when Singapore went into its “circuit-breaker” phase, where most non-essential businesses were forced to shut down or work from home by the Singapore government. As the agency contracted by the embassy had been badly affected by the pandemic, they did not entertain queries, let alone process any documents. It remained completely uncertain whether Jane would be able to move to Switzerland for her Master’s program.

Prior to the pandemic, aspiring Singaporean students did not require any type of visa to enter and live in Switzerland because of Singapore’s involvement in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Singaporeans only needed a residence permit to live in their chosen town after entering the country. Jane had planned to do the same, and was not expecting the many obstacles that had cropped up. First, due to the pandemic, and Singapore’s high number of cases in April 2020, it seemed as if Switzerland was not accepting any foreign visitors without a visa. However, given that Singaporeans, by virtue of their inclusion in the EFTA, did not require visas to enter the country, the Singapore Swiss embassy was unfamiliar with the processes necessary to allow Jane to enter.

Jane’s fiancé emailed, called, and translated on Jane’s behalf to enquire about the various paperwork needed for her to settle in St. Gallen, a town in Switzerland. Without the help of her fiancé, Jane related to us that it might have been impossible to obtain the information she needed. She was incredibly annoyed at the embassy especially since her university, the Swiss government’s immigration department and even the authorities of the town she was supposed to be moving to, had said that the Swiss embassy should have been helping her with these issues, and not them.

Eventually, after several angry calls to the Swiss embassy in Singapore and with the assistance of her German-speaking fiancé, who lived and worked in Zurich, she was able to figure out the necessary steps to migrate to Switzerland. Jane prepared her university acceptance letter as proof that she had legitimate reasons to be travelling to Switzerland and steeled herself to face any errant bureaucrats.

At the eleventh hour, however, she was dealt with another blow – Jane would have to serve a 14-day quarantine upon arrival in Switzerland. As she had planned her travel such that she would be able to spend as much time in Singapore as possible before her classes started at the end of August, she realised that she had to move her departure date 2 weeks earlier than planned. Jane was extremely upset upon realising this, as it meant 2 weeks less to be spent with her family and friends whom she was already leaving behind. Despite this, she went ahead, said her goodbyes, and got on the flight to Switzerland.

Outside of this last-minute change in plans, things mostly went her way once Jane arrived in Switzerland and completed her quarantine.

From Jane’s story, we can relate her experience to Carling and Schewel’s (2018) migration aspiration-ability model of international migration. Conceptualising Jane’s migration aspiration as a comparison of places, she evaluates the destination, which is shaped by her preferences and needs.

Given that her fiancé is a German, Jane’s preference can be observed in her comparison of Singapore to Germany, particularly in terms of the work culture. She did not like the working culture in Singapore as too much emphasis is placed on face-value than the quality of work done. On top of that, her experience in interacting with colleagues led her to see them as “small-minded”. Jane’s idea of the German work culture is also constructed by her fiancé’s sharing which she then attaches these notions and meanings to.

Following the simple logic of push-pull models, linking migration aspirations to the idea of the destination, the attractiveness of moving out of Singapore was hence further reinforced as Jane already desires to improve her relationship with her fiancé by moving closer to where he is.

Jane’s high migration ability is attributed to her nationality, a Singaporean, her high level of education and working experience in a multinational corporation (MNC), and her relatively high-income status. However, she faced temporary involuntary immobility due to the lack of proper migration policies as well as migration-facilitating agencies being shut down, which were all brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Beyond the pandemic

Even though Switzerland was not in a dire situation when the pandemic hit, the government became concerned and established tighter border controls, restricting the inflow of non-citizens and those who did not hold the necessary permits. Furthermore, despite Jane’s well-furnished background, which makes her highly compatible for moving abroad in a relatively fuss-free manner, the pandemic not only rendered her immobile like everyone else, but also uncovered the actual way of gaining access to and staying in Switzerland. Interestingly, it is only with such a crisis did proper border procedures become reinforced and acted upon. The inefficiencies of the government and embassies can also be observed in Jane’s experience as there was a lack of communication and clear instructions for those who were planning for travels to Switzerland, while they were made temporarily immobile.


Carling, J and Schewel, K. (2018). Revisiting aspiration and ability in international migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6), 945–963.