Unique Challenges and Unimagined Opportunities

Danawa Roslee, Claris Kang, and Dharia Mallareddy, Singapore Management University

On the 15th of March 2020 in the Netherlands, Anna was having a delightful dinner with her parents, who had visited her as she was completing the final semester of her undergraduate studies, when she was told by the waiter that the country was going into lockdown the very next day. Anna was shocked. “I didn’t read anywhere about this!” The disseminated news was in Dutch, a language she barely knew. This served as a painful reminder that she was a migrant whose well-being fell second to that of the country’s own people.

Using Carling and Schewel’s aspiration-ability model, we analysed how Anna, a 24-year-old Malay Singaporean student, navigated through the changes in the emigration environment produced by the pandemic. The changing social, economic and political context produced very quick, anxiety-inducing shifts in how she felt about her status in the Netherlands (Carling and Schewel, 2018). We show how the pandemic has brought both struggles and opportunities, but the opportunities can only be realised if one has the capability to seize them. Anna’s journey was difficult, but her financial and social capital bolstered her ability to move back home and then to Germany later on. 

In the midst of the pandemic, Anna attended a Hamburg scholar’s event, where she was singled out to submit her travel history simply because she was Singaporean. At the time, Singapore was second to China in the number of Covid-19 cases. Unlike the welcoming environment she grew accustomed to when she first moved to Europe, she felt discriminated against, given that anyone could have travelled back to Singapore in the past 6 months. Suddenly, her identity as a Singaporean took on a very different meaning.

Her university also left her without clear instructions regarding her examination dates and failed to provide proper assistance should she decide to return home. Anna recalled how her university’s lack of response and the uncertainty surrounding the completion of her Bachelor’s programme left her at the peak of her anxiety during the pandemic. Desperate, Anna turned to her academic advisor to seek advice on what she should do as an international student. Hearing that her exams would probably be postponed to August, she knew it would be best for her to return home as the pandemic revealed the vagaries of her migrant status. At least she would be taken care of in Singapore. In 48 hours, she packed up and embarked on her journey back to Singapore. With Anna’s life in the Netherlands taking a drastic turn in just a few days, the journey home did not provide any relief as she soon faced her next obstacle.

As the Netherlands was discouraging inter-state movement during lockdown, trains between states were unavailable and she soon found herself stranded in the town of Nijmegen. The only option left for Anna was a €100 ride to the airport. Thankfully, her landlord, out of goodwill, offered to drive her to the airport and keep the remaining bulky items in her apartment for free – greatly aiding in her sudden journey back home. During this uncertain period, Anna’s social capital immensely helped her migration from the Netherlands back to Singapore. Based on social capital theory, her durable networks with her academic supervisor and her landlord shaped her aspiration and aided her ability to actualise the journey from Nijmegen to Singapore (Massey 1999).

During the pandemic, Anna seems to have found new opportunities that have shaped her long-term migration plans. When Anna first left Singapore for her Bachelor’s degree, she had imagined that she would follow the “typical Singaporean route” upon graduation: go back to Singapore, find full-time employment and pay her student loans. While she was in the Netherlands, she was offered several scholarships, specifically the LBKM Scholarship and the Airbus Young Talent Scholarship, which would pay for her tuition fees for as long as she studies. Yet, it was not until the pandemic happened that Anna actively considered the prospect of a postgraduate degree and began applying for her Master’s in early March.

Here, we use Schewel’s repel-retain framework to analyse what shaped her future migration decision-making (Schewel, 2019). Since she uprooted her life in Singapore to move to the Netherlands, her life has been embedded in both the Netherlands and Germany. She enjoyed the freedom of living alone so much that coming back home made her feel like she had “gone back to being a child.” In our conversation, she recounts how her German partner, with whom she spent every weekend within Germany during her undergraduate years, is a big reason why she chose to continue her studies there. Along with that, the opportunities offered to her in Germany, such as the Airbus scholarship and the potential career conversion, were “retain” factors that kept her wanting to go back there. Accordingly, the financial support provided by her scholarships also cemented her ability to migrate for the second time. More importantly, the poor economic outlook and the shrinking job market in Singapore were the biggest “repel” factors that gave her the final push she needed to continue her studies instead. In June, while Anna was still in Singapore, she accepted the offer for her Master’s degree programme at a German university.

On 10 August 2020, Germany reopened its borders to unmarried partners of German citizens and residents to enter the Federal territory. Fortunately for Anna, her partner, who is a German citizen, became her “sponsor” for her visa application to actualise her migration journey to Germany for her post-graduate degree. Again, the social capital available to Anna in Germany has enabled her to bypass tighter border restrictions during the pandemic and migrate successfully.

Undeniably, plans have been made and re-made numerous times during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet it is during this anxiety-inducing period that Anna was prompted to make the firm choice of starting her post-graduate degree in Germany. When asked if she foresees herself moving back to Singapore, Anna smiled and told us “it’s a possibility.” But for now, she seems settled in Germany.

While Carling and Schewel (2018) only focused on the “first move” migrants make, Anna’s story reminds us that the aspiration-ability model can be used to make sense of how migrants decide to return to their home countries and/or continue to harbour aspirations for their subsequent migration plans. In fact, this offers us reasons to be hopeful that the pandemic is not all doom and gloom for student migrants like Anna. The unique challenges presented by the pandemic could blossom into new opportunities that were previously unimagined.


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

Massey, D. S. (1999). Why Does Immigration Occur?: A Theoretical Synthesis. In C. Hirschman, P. Kasinitz, & J. DeWind (Eds.), Handbook of International Migration, The Russell Sage Foundation.

Schewel, K. (2019). Understanding immobility: Moving beyond the mobility bias in migration studies. International Migration Review, 54(2), 328–355.