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Normalisation of the extreme 2020

The following report was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2020 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

Many policies, actions, and attitudes related to mixed migration—especially irregular migration—that were considered unacceptable a few years ago are now becoming normalised. The following list is not exhaustive but offers snapshots from 2020 providing an indication of the growing prevalence and range of such measures, as well as the role of Covid-19 to sometimes justify and legitimise extreme action.[1]

Many of the examples below show that some countries devised immigration policies and actions under the cover of Covid. As early as April, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned that “core principles of refugee protection are being put to the test” by countries’ responses to the pandemic and stated that securing public health and protecting refugees were “not mutually exclusive”. UNHCR was observing “a disproportionate use of immigration detention” as well as restrictions on access to health and social services and a dramatic loss of livelihoods driving many refugees deeper into poverty. As the pandemic took hold, migration policy experts were soon warning that some governments were taking advantage of the crisis to push through legally dubious, hard-line migration policies that couldn’t “be justified by public health concerns and that could stay in place long after the Covid-19 outbreaks subside—in particular, ending or curtailing access to asylum.”

1. Rounding up, segregating and isolating migrants and refugees

States’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic include numerous examples of migrants and refugees being rounded up, or segregated and isolated. In late March, in what some have described as a “cyclical regression in the treatment of people-on-the-move in western Bosnia-Herzegovina” the Bosnian authorities built a new camp to detain transferred migrants to reportedly halt the spread of the virus. In April, in Panama, migrants—including entire families, with children and pregnant women who were on their way from South America across the dangerous Darién jungle towards the United States (US)—were placed in an over-crowded and poorly provisioned jungle camp.

In May, authorities in Malaysia rounded up and detained hundreds of undocumented migrants, including Rohingya refugees, as part of efforts “to contain coronavirus”. While Southeast Asian governments were reportedly using the pandemic as an excuse to turn away maritime migrants and Rohingya refugees and leave hundreds of others adrift, Bangladesh sent Rohingya refugees believed to have spent weeks stranded on cramped boats at sea to the remote uninhabited island of Bhasan Char.

Starting in March, as part of their efforts to combat Covid-19, at least 21 municipalities in Lebanon introduced discriminatory restrictions, including curfews, on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese residents. The curfews are not being carried out under any law. Instead, municipalities arbitrarily implemented and enforced them.

2. Preventing or curtailing rescue at sea

During 2020 there were various cases of preventing, reducing, or curtailing the rescue of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in peril at sea, primarily in the Mediterranean and in the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean (off the coast of Malaysia, see below). In late May, in a joint statement, UNHCR and its sister agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said they were deeply concerned by reports that states had been “ignoring or delaying responses to distress calls”, noting that the obligation under international law to assist people in distress “cannot be traded away with the offer of fuel and aid” to those on board.

In April, European Union (EU) member states were accused of abandoning people at sea after failing to respond to information provided by NGOs that four boats, carrying 258 migrants between them, were in distress. In another case, the Libyan coast guard reportedly tried to prevent rescue efforts by the non-profit Sea-Eye’s Alan Kurdi vessel by firing shots and causing panic at the point of rescue.

Malta allegedly used clandestine private fleets to intercept, detain, and return migrants and asylum seekers back to Libya. Maltese authorities were also accused of sabotaging a migrant boat and letting it float without rescue, although in this case they later reluctantly rescued the passengers. “We´ve never seen states committing crimes of non-assistance in such a blatant light,” stated a researcher for Forensic Oceanography, which investigates abuses in migrant rescues. “They´ve done it before but in a more covert way. But now there´s a total disrespect of any kind of humanitarian or legal framework.”

In July, the Italian coast guard and cargo ships were filmed as they simply “ignored a stricken migrant boat” with approximately 60 passengers aboard.

At the multi-state level, the EU, after suspending the rescue efforts of Operation Sophia in March 2019 for six months and then closing it down in February 2020, replaced it with Operation Irini. The new naval operation launched on 31 March 2020 focuses on enforcing the arms embargo to Libya. Human Rights Watch contends Irini is specifically designed not to save lives and that its marine assets are deployed with the explicit goal of avoiding areas of the Mediterranean where they might have to respond to boats carrying migrants in distress. There is no mention in Irini’s mandate of migrant rescue and although its naval assets are—like any other sea-going vessel—obliged under maritime law to rescue boats in distress, data on where those on board are disembarked will reportedly remain confidential, raising fears that refugees, migrants and asylum seekers may be returned to Libya.

3. Denying access to ports or safe harbour

Vessels carrying refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants were denied access to ports in various cases in the Mediterranean and Asia. In early April, in an unprecedented move, the Italian government declared its seaports “unsafe” due to the coronavirus pandemic and stated it would not authorise the landing of migrant rescue boats until the end of the emergency.

As noted above, Malta also stated it would not allow vessels to dock and refused to allow the disembarkation of asylum seekers and migrants. During the following weeks and months various cases emerged where Maltese authorities had either deterred vessels, refused to rescue stranded migrants, refused docking, or even reportedly sabotaged one boat off its coast. In one case, when a vessel was left floating close to Malta, five of the passengers died, seven were declared missing and eventually 51 passengers were picked up by a commercial boat and taken to Libya where they were handed over to Libyan authorities for detention.

In another case in June, approximately 400 asylum seekers and migrants were kept on board tourist boats while they waited for Malta to accept them. Malta only reluctantly conceded when migrants threatened to create a security incident on board.

NGO rescue boats such as Sea-Eye’s Alan Kurdi were initially inactive as they were quarantined at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some vessels were subsequently repeatedly frustrated by Italy and Malta during the summer, with disembarkations being prevented or resisted. However, some disembarkations did occur, after much political and inter-governmental discussion and NGO appeals. UNHCR and IOM said a clearly agreed system on relocations was urgently needed to end “a perpetual cycle of negotiations and ad-hoc arrangements” that put the lives and health of people at further risk.

Bangladesh refused several vessels laden with many hundreds of Rohingya refugees permission to dock at its ports, sometimes months after Malaysia had pushed them back to the high seas. Bangladesh’s foreign minister said in April that since the Covid-19 pandemic had increased the number of Bangladeshis returning to the country, “we have no room to shelter any foreign people or refugees.” International pressure led Bangladesh to relent and rescue stranded passengers in at least some cases, but not without considerable loss of life due to thirst, hunger, illness and the brutality of smugglers.

In early September, nearly 300 Rohingya refugees were allowed ashore in Aceh, on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra island, after more than 200 days at sea during which more than 30 people died—three after their arrival. The refugees told UNHCR that they repeatedly tried to land in several different countries in the region without success.

Also in September, 27 migrants and refugees remained stranded on a cargo ship over a month after rescue in the Central Mediterranean. Initially no EU country granted permission for the ship to disembark its passengers. Three of the migrants reportedly jumped overboard and had to be rescued by crew members. This was the third incident between January and September 2020 in which a merchant vessel had languished in the Mediterranean with rescued people aboard.

4. Scapegoating over Covid-19

By mid-May, and only weeks after the start of most states’ lockdowns in response to Covid-19, UN Secretary-General António Guterres claimed the virus had unleased a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering” across world. He appealed for an all-out effort to “end hate speech globally”, warning that anti-foreigner sentiment had surged online and on the streets. He highlighted the spread of antisemitic conspiracy theories and Covid-19-related anti-Muslim attacks and noted that migrants and refugees had been vilified as a source of the virus.

A stark example of this was seen in Yemen from April onwards, where a reported 14,500 predominantly Ethiopian migrants, blamed for spreading the virus, were rounded up from different locations and bussed to and then abandoned in different provinces. An IOM spokesperson said “migrants are scapegoated as carriers of the virus and as a result, suffer exclusion and violence.” This situation later turned out to be lethal for some of the 7,000 taken to Saada, the rebel stronghold in the north who faced gunfire from both Houthi rebels and Saudi border guards as they were forced across the border into Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere, amid rising xenophobia, Malaysia arrested hundreds of undocumented migrants, including Rohingya refugees, purportedly as an anti-Covid-19 measure. Members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government blamed Muslims for bringing the virus to India. Saudi Arabia expelled African migrants en masse claiming they were bringing the virus into their country and circulating it. Thousands of the deportees were first detained in dire conditions that attracted international condemnation. In China, landlords evicted Africans from their homes in the city of Guangzhou in what one media source called “a worldwide pandemic in scapegoating of migrants”.

5. Pushbacks and pullbacks

“Pushback” and “pullback” are terms used to describe the practice by authorities of preventing people from seeking protection by forcibly returning them to another country or forcing them to return to their own territory against their will. Both violate international and EU law.

During 2020, extreme examples of pullbacks continued off the coast of Libya, where the coast guard—sometimes with the alleged cooperation of Italian and Maltese authorities—repeatedly intercepted many hundreds of migrants heading to Europe. They returned them to the Libyan mainland, where they are routinely detained in abusive conditions.

As early as May, the UN human rights office said it was “deeply concerned about recent reports of failure to assist and coordinated pushbacks of migrant boats in the Central Mediterranean, which continues to be one of the deadliest migration routes in the world.” Many more pushbacks and pullbacks were to follow and not only in the Mediterranean.

In repeated and frequent cases too numerous to list in more detail here, Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Tunisian, French, Greek, Maltese, and Turkish sea patrols were amongst various authorities that intercepted fleeing or pushed back arriving migrants and refugees in 2020.

In one case in June, video footage emerged of masked men intercepting a boat in the Aegean Sea and removing its outboard motor. According to other reports, migrants landing on the Greek islands from Turkey were “frequently” forced onto sometimes leaky, inflatable life rafts, dropped at the boundary between Turkish and Greek waters and left to drift until being spotted and rescued by the Turkish coast guard.

Pushbacks also occurred at land borders. In Mexico, police kitted out with shields and batons pushed back hundreds of US-bound migrants, mainly from Central America trying to enter Mexico from Guatemala. Croatia was criticised during the year for pushbacks along its borders with Bosnia. Some claimed pushbacks had become systemic in Croatia and often involved beatings, robbery and sometimes spay-painting people’s heads.

6. Deportations and refoulements

Deportations of migrants and asylum seekers have also continued in 2020, adding to the numerous cases documented in 2019’s Mixed Migration Review. Cases in Central America, Europe and in the Gulf are again particularly prominent as ongoing de facto practices for some states, while many have redoubled—and newly justified as necessary for public health—security responses during the pandemic.

The government of Mexico, under considerable economic and diplomatic pressure from Washington to stop migrants reaching the United States’ southern border, reportedly deported hundreds back to Honduras. According to reports, for the first time since the US asylum system was created in 1980, new rules mean that Mexicans and Central Americans who cross the border illegally no longer even get the chance to apply for asylum. Instead, they are speedily returned to Mexico within hours. In April alone, approximately 10,000 Mexicans and Central Americans were “expelled” to Mexico. US Customs and Border Protection stated the decision was not about immigration but about public health amid fears of Covid-19. Later reports (in August) suggested over 40,000 were expelled from the US. Reportedly, some people have been sent directly back to their country of origin via plane, while “the majority were sent back to Mexico by plane to Mexico City, or by bus and left just south of the US border, often in remote areas, without any access to shelter or any other form of support.”

In Europe, Spain won support from the European Court of Human Rights to uphold its long-standing practice of rapid migrant deportations (so called “hot returns”) from its North African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta without allowing asylum applications. For some the decision was a case of effectively legalising refoulement and permitting immediate deportation irrespective of the details of individual cases. It’s a practice also used in the Canary Islands where Spanish authorities expel maritime arrivals (irregularly) through deportation flights to Mauritania carried out with the support of Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency.

In March, a report surfaced accusing the Greek government of “detaining migrants incommunicado at a secret extrajudicial location before expelling them to Turkey without due process”. Several interviewed migrants claimed they had been “captured, stripped of their belongings, beaten and expelled from Greece without being given a chance to claim asylum or speak to a lawyer”.

Possibly the most harrowing cases of detention preceding deportation were in Saudi Arabia, where “hundreds if not thousands” of Ethiopian migrants, including women and children, were locked in “heinous conditions reminiscent of Libya’s slave camps” as part of an alleged “drive to stop the spread of Covid-19”. Migrant workers were also reportedly deported or “repatriated”, from the United Arab Emirates, often having been sacked from their jobs and reportedly without receiving their last pay packets.

Despite announcing that such deportations would end, Algeria has continued to expel migrants and asylum seekers, normally abandoning them in the deserts of Niger. At the end of March, according to IOM figures, more than 800 people arrived in Niger in a single expulsion. Thousands ended up stranded there, “unable to return home or anywhere else.”

In Libya, officials in the migrant detention centre in Kufra expelled nearly 900 men and women in mid-April. They were taken by vehicles across hundreds of miles of desert and left in a remote town in Chad and at a border post in Sudan. Apparently dozens of Egyptians were also deported from Libya and were “abandoned in the desolate border zone because they lacked identity papers” and Egypt would not let them enter.

7. Suspending asylum or access to claiming asylum

Subsections in this report cover overlapping themes. Of course, pushbacks and pullbacks, closed borders, detention and deportation, and preventing asylum seekers from docking all conspire to hinder asylum claims and curtail access to application procedures. The pandemic emergency offered further opportunities for governments to justify their actions, even if they had no basis in international law. However, in some cases the suspension of asylum claims or preventing access to claiming was explicit.

In March, Greece suspended asylum applications for 30 days for anyone who had entered irregularly, which prompted the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants to urge the country to “immediately reverse its decision.” This followed an earlier (January) announcement, before Covid-19 fears, that Greece was planning to install a floating barrier in the Aegean Sea to help stop migrant boats reaching its islands from Turkey. Also in March, Hungary suspended the admission of migrants to its so-called “transit zones”.

Reports emerged in August that the government of Malta intended to charter a ferry to house migrants offshore, suggesting that its practice of detention at sea would continue.

As mentioned, authorities in Spain have increasingly been undertaking “hot returns” of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers arriving in Ceuta or Melilla, effectively returning them to Moroccan territory immediately without allowing them the opportunity to claim asylum.

In the United States, the Trump administration imposed new policies in March that aimed to block ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ immigration, with the stated objective of limiting the spread of Covid-19. The new policies stipulate that asylum seekers, or anyone arriving into the US without authorisation, , including unaccompanied minors, can be expelled immediately without legal process. By August, 40,000 migrants had reportedly been expelled, “including people who have been in US detention centres for some months, and others who have only been on US soil for a matter of hours.” By late May the US administration indefinitely extended border restrictions, citing concerns about the continued spread of Covid-19 and allowing authorities at the border to restrict the entry of asylum-seekers and other migrants while also denying asylum to people traveling from “disease-stricken” countries.

In September, in the space of 48 hours, five boats carrying a total of 183 migrants arrived on or near the coast of Cyprus from Syria and Lebanon. While some were allowed to disembark, others were sent back to Lebanon in a boat chartered by Cypriot authorities, without being allowed to claim asylum. Cyprus and Lebanon, have an agreement to prevent large numbers of small boats from reaching Cypriot waters.

8. Inhuman treatment of migrants and refugees and (state) toleration and/or instigation of violations

Negligence and deliberate violations of rights or simply rough treatment continued to characterise the experience of millions of migrants and refugees in 2020, particularly but not only of those on the move. Some publicised cases appear particularly egregious and deserve inclusion here, although many of the cases referenced in previous sections above also involve hardship and, not uncommonly, death.

The discovery of 64 asphyxiated Ethiopians in a shipping container in Mozambique in March is not untypical of the treatment migrants and asylum seekers face when engaging unscrupulous smugglers to assist their movement. In other cases state and non-state authorities were directly responsible for fatalities and abuse. For example, border guards in Iran were reported to have beaten and tortured Afghan migrants. Survivors reported that at least 23 of 57 people thrown into the Harirud River drowned.

In April in Yemen, using Covid-19 as a pretext, Houthi forces forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from the north of the country, killing dozens and forcing them to border with Saudi Arabia, where border guards opened fire, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area. Those rounded up by Saudi forces were kept in “unsanitary and abusive facilities without the ability to legally challenge their detention or eventual deportation to Ethiopia.”

Libya continued to be extremely dangerous for migrants and refugees. Reports suggest that 2020 saw an “increase in this industry of torture for ransom” by militia groups, in new “off-the-grid detention centres” that have mushroomed in the wake of the closure of many official detention facilities in previous months. In July, IOM reported that more than 3,000 people intercepted at sea by the Libyan coast guard had either disappeared into unofficial facilities or were unaccounted for. Reportedly, others are rounded up on land and taken to warehouses or repurposed factories where they can suffer worse abuses than those that have been documented in government detention centres.

Severe rights violations were also seen in different cases in the Indian Ocean where hundreds of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals engaged smugglers to sail them to Malaysia. Survivors frequently report that smugglers beat, cut, starved, sexually abused and sometimes killed their passengers during their journey. Typically, boats are eventually intercepted or allowed to disembark after months at sea during voyages where smugglers repeatedly used brutality to extort additional money from their paying passengers’ relatives and contacts.

9. Scandalous policy and politics

Not only are extreme events or actions becoming increasingly normalised through practice and repetition, but the politics and policies around mixed migration issues have, in places, also become scandalously extreme. The term scandalous is used here deliberately to denote how far some of these new de facto and de jure practices stray from the stated value systems of certain societies, but also how they directly contravene national and international law. A case in point, the “Mediterranean is the theatre where tensions between Europe’s ideas of human rights do battle with continental politicians’ anxiety about African migration.”[2]

This occurs in a context of diminished respect for migrants’ rights and reduced adherence to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Breaches of agreed rules on non-refoulement; pushbacks to unsafe countries of men, women and children, including unaccompanied children; separating families; reassigning unsafe countries as “safe” to permit deportation; detaining asylum seekers and migrants in at best unacceptable conditions and at worst in abusive brutal detention; funding or diplomatically coercing governments to prevent the movement of asylum seekers; denying access to asylum process; preventing rescue at sea and disembarkation; and discriminating against nationalities using the pretext of pandemic, are all policies that may be considered scandalous but have become increasingly common in 2020.

Human rights organisations and United Nations representatives repeatedly call out and challenge scandalous policy and practice where they see it, while investigative journalists continue to write condemnatory articles. But typically, governments are able to act with impunity, often ignoring legal censure or side-stepping processes designed to prevent actions that violate rights. For example, in May, Hungary ignored a European Court of Justice ruling that its detention of asylum-seekers at two transit zones near its border with Serbia was unlawful. In September, referring to pushbacks of Rohingya refugees on ships, UNHCR’s director for Asia and the Pacific said “the collective unwillingness of states to act for more than six months” had proved fatal. He noted that the Bali Process, which was created by countries in the region to prevent such tragedies, had failed to deliver coordinated action to rescue and disembark the refugees.

There are currently “four submissions before international courts and two in the Italian system, accusing Italy, the EU or both of funding and directing the Libyan coast guard.” One complaint accuses the EU of “breaking its own laws by funnelling €90 million earmarked for poverty reduction to the Libyan coastguard”—an entity notorious for its heavy handed tactics and for returning migrants and refugees to unacceptable and unsafe detention.

Elsewhere, the EU is reportedly “cynically” using its Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to pay for a construction project in Eritrea—as part of efforts designed to address the root causes of migration—whose workers included forced conscripts from national service, which is itself the major root cause of emigration from Eritrea. Also in 2020, Turkey “politicised” or “weaponised” refugees by reportedly transporting people to its border, antagonising Greece and putting pressure on the EU.

New agreements dismantling important elements of the United States’ asylum system signed in late 2019 with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras started to have an impact in 2020. The agreements effectively re-classify these Northern Triangle countries as “safe” and require migrants on their way to the US to apply for protections in those countries first—a bitter blow for those who fled them in the first place. If they fail to do so, US immigration authorities will send them back to those countries, where crime, violence, and lack of economic opportunity has driven hundreds of thousands to flee over the past year.

Finally, mirroring the more blatant anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies of the Trump administration in the US, the EU looks set to come clean on its intentions to restrict and prevent mobility through its much-delayed New Pact on Asylum and Migration. In September, EU Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life Margaritis Schinas said the pact would feature a “very strong external dimension with agreements with countries of origin and transit to keep people, for a better life, in their countries.”


[1] Despite the urban theme of this year’s Mixed Migration Review, this essay does not specifically to relate to cities. Nor does it include all of the extreme policy and practice measures already featured in MMR 2019 (p. 177), even if some of those measures continued into 2020. As recently documented by the Mixed Migration Centre, but beyond the scope of this section, there are also various examples of governments implementing positive policies and facilitating positive responses to refugees and migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic.

[2]Example of a joint statement on Libya from major human rights groups: Migreurop (2020) EU : Time to review and remedy cooperation policies facilitating abuse of refugees and migrants in Libya. In reference to the absence of search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean one UNHCR representative said in May, “If there is no help at sea and countries drag their feet to rescue and allow people to disembark, we’re going to end up with a fairly serious humanitarian situation.”