The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
The essay’s author Chris Horwood is a migration specialist and co-director of Ravenstone Consult. Some of the text in this section has been drawn from Keeping Track, Section 1 of the Review.
Many policies, actions, and attitudes related to mixed migration—especially irregular migration—that were until recently considered unacceptable are fast becoming normalised. Equally, practices that would be unacceptable if implemented in a national domestic setting appear to be tolerated when implemented externally or at the outer limits of a nation’s territory, particularly when non-citizens are at the receiving end.
Previous years’ Mixed Migration Reviews have detailed these practices and they continue, so to avoid repetition only noteworthy new policies and activities will be detailed below, but some overlap with past situations is inevitable. The aim of this presentation of examples from late 2021 and 2022 is to provoke the reader to question whether such policies and practices should be normalised and tolerated. These examples are not exhaustive but highlight events and developments that received some coverage in official reports and the media in the last year.
Although extreme reactions to mixed migration are common and arguably becoming a general global norm, a companion presentation titled ‘Resisting the extreme’ follows this report in order to offer a counterbalance to what is otherwise a dismal record.
1. Rounding up, detaining, and criminalising migrants and refugees
In many countries, refugees and migrants continued to be segregated, isolated, and detained in 2022. Some more publicised examples are given below but globally, hundreds of thousands of migrants, including children, continue to be routinely detained in all continents. In Mexico, for example, over 115,000 migrants were detained in the first four months of the year. Meanwhile, in the United States, as federal authorities made a record number of migration arrests along the border with Mexico this fiscal year (ending September)—a staggering 2.3 million—25,000 migrants were held in detention as of the end of September.
Examples could be chosen from across the world. The Global Detention Project estimates that there have been at least 2,000 formal detention facilities used for immigration-related purposes in approximately 100 different countries over the last decade. Their website offers country profiles and lists 150 specific centres recently in use, and the organisation launched its Global Immigration Detention Observatory during 2022.
Sometimes migrants continue to be treated differently because of putative health fears related to Covid-19. In Singapore, an estimated 280,000 migrant workers continue to have strict restrictions on movement despite the easing of restrictions for Singapore nationals from June 2022. 25,000 of Singapore’s estimated 280,000 migrant workers (or almost 9 percent) were permitted to leave their workplaces or designated recreation centres at any one time, with the quota rising to 50,000 on the weekends. Any excursions required approval by the authorities in advance and could not exceed eight hours. Migrants are required to check in to their dormitory rooms twice a day and their whereabouts can be tracked by their employers through an app called DormWatch.
In Malaysia, illegal entry and stay (including by asylum seekers) is criminalised and migrants can serve prison sentences before being transferred to “immigration depots” while awaiting deportation or processing. In April 2022, during a “riot” at one such depot, six asylum seekers including two children died as over 500 detained Rohingya asylum-seekers escaped from the depot, attracting condemnation from UNHCR.
Rohingya refugees also bear the brunt of harsh treatment and are criminalised, detained, pushed back, and deported (see sub-section below) elsewhere. Thailand has been repeatedly criticised for treating Rohingya as illegal immigrants and summarily transferring them on arrival into detention centres. On 4 June 2022, 59 Rohingya (including 23 women and five children) who were picked up by authorities on Koh Dong island after being abandoned by smugglers were detained and now face criminal charges of illegal entry. Those arriving by boat in Indonesia have been initially refused disembarkation and then detained with certain limitations and restrictions on the ability of refugees to remain there in the long term. In March 2022, 114 Rohingya were found on a beach in Aceh, in a weakened state after weeks at sea. Renewed crackdowns in India have forced some of the estimated 40,000 Rohingya into hiding as the community have been targeted against a broader backdrop of rising Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim policies implemented by the government, marginalising Muslim citizens and refugees alike. In 2022, the increasing frequency of violent attacks and detentions prompted thousands of Rohingya to flee parts of India, with many attempting to cross into Bangladesh.
Elsewhere, in the wake of a new cooperation agreement in relation to migration between Spain and Morocco, Moroccan authorities conducted sweeping mass detentions and forced relocations of sub-Saharan refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in towns and cities across the country, particularly in areas near the border with Ceuta and Melilla as well as Laayoune, a settlement within Western Sahara widely used as an embarkation point for the Canary Islands. While many have been arrested and detained, others have reportedly been abandoned in the desert near the Algerian border—a practice reported and condemned by the UNHCR in previous years. Besides pushing back many refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers to Belarus during 2021 and 2022, Polish authorities are also reportedly detaining close to 2,000 others in squalid and dehumanising conditions in detention centres.
2. Deaths and violence at borders
Often, borders are in remote and geographically inaccessible areas where events that occur can be unclear, go unreported, or covered up. What we learn from media and witness accounts or official enquiries is likely just the tip of an iceberg characterised by callous and violent treatment of migrants and asylum seekers often leading to death. In 2022, the full scale of deaths at borders by misadventure, malice, heavy handedness, neglect, or deliberate intent is not known, but some examples illustrate the extent of the phenomenon as well as apparent subsequent international indifference.
Between October 2021 and September 2022 (FY2022), nearly 750 migrants were known to have died at the US’s southern border with Mexico. This was a record that surpasses 2021’s total by more than 200 people, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In a single case in Texas in June 2022, an abandoned truck was discovered to contain the bodies of 53 Mexican and Central American irregular migrants.
In June 2022, at the Spanish enclave of Melilla bordering Morocco, approximately 2,000 migrants attempted to force entry by scaling the security fences en masse. The violent and reportedly excessive reaction of the Moroccan security forces and the crush of people involved left 37 refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers dead. The Moroccan forces subsequently attempted to cover up the deaths and injuries while gruesome film of the casual handling of the dead and injured circulated on social media.
In June 2022, the bodies of 18 people believed to be Chadian, and two Libyans, were reportedly recovered near the border area between Chad and Libya. Libyan emergency services reported that they had all died of dehydration. Typically, a story of this kind barely makes headlines beyond a brief mention in UN News or another minor outlet.
Travelling through the Darién Gap, connecting Colombia with Panama, is a hazardous route through deep jungle exposing travellers to a range of risks, from exhaustion and thirst to violent human rights abuses by armed gangs and attacks by wild animals. Migrants and asylum seekers from around the world transit through the Gap on their way through Panama and Costa Rica towards Mexico, mostly to attempt entry into the US. Officially, at least 136 deaths were recorded there between March and July 2022 alone. However, this is reckoned to be a conservative number given that many bodies are never found or recovered.
As an outcome of cynical border politics and “migration diplomacy”, at least 22 people died or went missing in 2021 at the Belarus-EU border, the majority freezing to death in sub-zero temperatures without adequate clothing, shelter, or medical care. The initial death toll has climbed further in 2022 as more bodies have been found in the forests. The situation has been exacerbated by the restriction of humanitarian assistance to these areas and the targeting of activists seeking to help injured or vulnerable arrivals. During 2022, amid continued violent pushbacks, other migrants and refugees died along the same border with EU member states (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia) acting with apparent impunity and without significant reprimand.
Extraordinary scenes of police and soldiers directly shooting at Afghan migrants and asylum seekers at Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Türkiye were reported by Amnesty International, which said nearly 100 Afghans had recently been shot dead by Iranian forces trying to cross into Iran. Amnesty claims they were able to verify 11 such killings that took place between April 2021 and January 2022 where the youngest identified case concerned a 16-year-old boy. They also reported Afghans being targeted by gunfire when crossing into Türkiye.
Türkiye and Iran are not alone in attempting to prevent irregular migration with gunfire. For example, similar actions have been reported in previous years by Egyptian and Saudi Arabian security forces. In May 2022, a “group of bodies” of Yemeni and Ethiopian migrants were reportedly found piled near an informal detention facility just inside the border in southern Saudi Arabia. Medical examination of seven of the Yemeni victims revealed that two of the bodies had gunshot wounds, and the remaining five bodies had marks of torture and are, along with a number of Ethiopians, presumed to have died from the violence perpetrated on them by border guards in the remote desert area. The doctors’ harrowing report said the bodies show signs of “extremely severe external violence using a hard tool or devices” and that “there were signs of vital and frequent injury with electric current. All are signs that are usually seen in cases of deaths resulting from exposure to torture.” This barbaric story was reported by a local NGO and is often typical of border deaths involving migrants that go barely noticed or commented on and which characteristically enjoy complete impunity from investigation or prosecution.
3. The absence of sea rescue and normalising migrant deaths at sea
Deaths and disappearances at sea are included as a sub section in this year’s report because they cannot be viewed only as the result of accidents, misadventure, bad weather or smuggler neglect. People take to the seas as other options are denied them in their bid to seek refuge or better livelihoods. An increasingly restrictive mobility context resulting from governments’ immigration policies and securitised responses to migration, compounded by a dearth of formal mechanisms to prevent death at sea or provide rescue, inevitably leads to more migrant deaths at sea. The normalisation of these lethal incidents, which often involve multiple fatalities and attract relatively low subsequent media coverage, needs to be challenged.
IOM’s missing migrants project estimates that over 25,000 migrants and refugees have lost their lives or gone permanently missing in the Mediterranean since 2014. According to UNHCR, one person died or went missing for every 265 refugees and migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015; by 2021, that rate had grown sevenfold to one death for every 38 crossings.
A significant change between 2015 and 2022 is the curtailment of the EU’s naval migrant rescue provision previously inherent in Operation Sophia, and now absent in its successor (Operation Irini). Alongside this change has been the continual harassment of NGO rescue interventions and personnel, and refusals or delays in allowing vessels with rescued migrants aboard to dock and disembark their passengers. Malta has systematically refused requests from private rescue organisations in the Mediterranean for a port of safety since 2020. In August 2022, Malta denied docking permission to the Sea-Eye 4, a vessel carrying 87 rescued migrants. Italy has previously been very obstructive towards rescue ships and has also prevented them from disembarking rescued migrants. It looks set to resume past practice with the September 2022 election of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which has repeatedly proposed a “naval blockade” to stop the departure of migrants towards Italy. Up until mid-October, just over 1,300 refugees and migrants were reported missing and presumed dead, in the Mediterranean in 2022.
Although the Mediterranean is the most lethal sea route for migrants, other routes regularly used by refugees and migrants cause deaths and disappearance in a context where very few governments deploy assets geared to rescue those at risk. Between October 2021 and May 2022, at least 175 Haitians were reported dead or missing to the US coastal guard. Given that some shipwrecks are never officially identified, the true number is likely to be higher. Seventeen Haitians were reported to have died in July when their boat capsized off the Bahamas. In August, five Haitians died after they were abandoned by human smugglers with 68 others in waters near Puerto Rico. Over the course of FY2021, around 3,200 people were apprehended trying to reach the US by sea, with 1,968 apprehensions on the Southern California coast, and the rest along the Florida coast. Smugglers typically overload small vessels and do not provide life jackets to people making the perilous voyage across the Florida Straits from the Bahamas. A sole survivor was found clinging to an overturned vessel off Florida’s Atlantic coast early January 2022. He reported 39 others, who had boarded the boat four days earlier when it left the Bahamas’ Bimini islands, had died. Again, at least 11 died and 31 were rescued after a boat carrying migrants and asylum capsized off Puerto Rico in May 2022, having set off from the Dominican Republic. Most of those on board were from Haiti. Also in May, an abandoned boat with 842 Haitians on board was found drifting for some days before being rescued by Cuban authorities.
Deaths at sea between the African mainland and the Spanish Canary Islands are also common. A reported 4,400 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers died at sea on their way to Spain in 2021, with 90 percent (roughly 4,000) of these headed to the Canary Islands. This represents more than twice the number recorded in 2020 using the same route. At least 978 migrants were estimated to have lost their lives on this route in the first half of 2022.
Reports of deaths at sea of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar (and Bangladesh) have much reduced from 2020 (when 218 reportedly died), but in May 2022, 17 Rohingya died after their boat capsized in rough weather after leaving from Rakhine State, Myanmar.
4. Pushbacks on land and sea
Although mainly denied by relevant national authorities, in 2021 the UN’s Human Rights Council wrote, “The practice of ‘pushbacks’ is widespread and exists along most migration routes. Pushbacks manifest an entrenched prejudice against migrants and demonstrate a denial of States’ international obligations to protect the human rights of migrants at international borders.” This practice continued around the world throughout 2022. It may be presumed that in many cases pushbacks are not observed, recorded, or reported so what is known is a fraction of the true scale of this extreme phenomenon that continues to be an everyday but unacceptable event. IOM survivor reports indicate that at least 252 people died during alleged pushbacks by European authorities between the start of 2021 and October 2022.
Europe, some of the persistent and most recorded push back incidents implicate Greek and Turkish authorities, as well as those in Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Additionally, along the so-called Balkan route, Croatia and Hungary have been implicated. In late 2021, UNICEF reported its deep concern over the “instrumentalization and pushbacks of children on Europe’s borders”. Also, last year an independent analysis by The Guardian estimated that EU countries had carried out almost 40,000 pushbacks, linked to 2,000 deaths, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that such deaths continued into 2022.
The previous Mixed Migration Review and commentary in this edition document the 2021 “migration diplomacy” crisis where irregular migrants were used by Belarus as an alleged political weapon to put pressure on the EU because of the bloc’s sanctions on Minsk. As a result, the region saw multiple and often violent pushbacks from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia during 2021 and into 2022. In Lithuania, a law was introduced in July 2021 providing for the automatic detention of people who cross irregularly into the country and denying them the right to apply for asylum. In June 2022, the law was found to be incompatible with EU law by the European Court of Justice, but throughout the year pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants have characterised border activities. Soon, pushbacks may not be necessary between Belarus and Poland and Belarus and Lithuania as this year both countries constructed metal walls along their borders to prevent irregular entry and, by extension, subsequent asylum applications. Poland’s border barrier is more than 185 kilometres long, 5.5 metres high, topped with barbed wire, and equipped with motion detectors and thermal cameras.
Concerning the Greek-Türkiye border, testimonies collected by human rights groups highlight a recurrent pattern of abuse, with those aboard intercepted boats beaten, stripped, and robbed of their possessions before being forced into the Evros River to wade back to Türkiye. In mid-October 2022 Greece and Türkiye traded blame after 92 naked migrants were rescued at the border. Alongside the violence and humiliation, the treatment can prove fatal. In February 2022, the bodies of 12 people who had been pushed back from Greece were found on the Turkish border; they had frozen to death after being stripped of their clothes and shoes. Evidence also emerged of migrants themselves being forced to work with Greek authorities in effecting pushbacks, and in other cases those perpetrating violent pushbacks were masked. Reportedly, one reason Greek authorities are increasingly adopting this tactic of using proxies is to avoid direct confrontations with Turkish security guards. In one case, approximately 600 people in sailboats and dinghies were intercepted and prevented crossing the Aegean by Greek patrols. Despite UNHCR calling for an immediate end to such “legally and morally unacceptable” practices, and criticising European countries for largely failing to investigate these reports despite mounting evidence, the practices continued throughout the year.
In 2022, Frontex, the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, was directly implicated in pushbacks in various statements and testimonies as well as the highly incriminating findings of the EU anti-fraud agency, OLAF, that led to the Frontex director’s resignation. The OLAF report was kept strictly confidential for eight months until it was leaked to FragDenStaat, Der Spiegel, and Lighthouse Reports. It revealed that Frontex was involved in systematic, unlawful pushbacks and in covering up illegal pushbacks of migrants from Greece to Türkiye in violation of their “fundamental rights.” Nevertheless, reports of continued pushbacks and implication of Frontex involvement by omission or commission continued during the year. Frontex repeatedly deny any wrongdoing in relation to Greek pushbacks.
According to the independent Aegean Boat Report Data Studio, between the start of 2017 and late October 2022, Turkish coast guard and police officers stopped 7,638 boats and 260,509 people from crossing the Aegean from Türkiye to Greece; over the same period, 1,710 boats carrying 45,850 people were pushed back from Greek islands into Turkish waters.
Not dissimilar to these “pullbacks” conducted by Türkiye in the Aegean at the behest of the EU, the EU arguably conducts de facto pushbacks through the pullbacks conducted off the coast of Libya through its partnership with authorities there. The critical difference is that intercepted and pulled back migrants and asylum seekers face potentially severe rights violations and even death in Libya’s formal and informal detention centres. Libya has been denounced through numerous human rights reports as well as previous Mixed Migration Reviews for its atrocious treatment of asylum seekers and migrants. Similarly, the EU has been widely criticised for its engagement and financing of Libyan authorities, especially the coast guard. According to a damning 2022 report by Médecins Sans Frontières, “thousands of women, children and men are trafficked, exploited, arbitrarily detained, tortured and have money extorted from them in Libya simply because they are migrants.” MSF said the agreement between the EU and Libya represents “five years of EU-sponsored abuse” and had led to the interception of 82,000 people over that period. According to IOM, while 31,556 people arrived in Italy from Libya by sea in 2021, 32,425 were intercepted by Libyan coast guards with those aboard being detained again in violent and abusive conditions. From the start of January up to August 2022, almost 13,000 migrants were intercepted and put into detention.
In what appears to be a vote of confidence in the EU’s much maligned partnership with Libya on migration management, the bloc has entered an agreement with Egypt in response to a rise in migration from Egypt of Egyptians and non-Egyptians. As a result, the EU will provide €80 million in financial assistance to strengthen Egypt’s maritime surveillance. Given Egypt’s poor human rights record, there are fears that the funding could enable similar pullback abuses by the Egyptian coast guard as have occurred in Libya.
As mentioned above, Amnesty International and others have also reported that Iranian and Turkish security forces have unlawfully used firearms against Afghan refugees trying to cross the border irregularly as a deterrent and a pushback method, “sometimes resulting in deaths or injuries”.
Mexico has pushed back thousands of asylum seekers and migrants as they tried to move northwards from the southern border zone. Pushbacks and heavy-handed dealings with migrants and asylum seekers accompany detentions and deportations as part of Mexico’s substantial militarisation of its migration policy—a policy widely understood to be influenced by pressure from the US to prevent people transiting Mexico from crossing into the US. Mexico’s refugee system has been overwhelmed by the enormous growth in applicants in recent years. A record 130,863 people applied for refugee status in Mexico in 2021 while another 307,569 were apprehended for undocumented entry and faced detention and deportation or were forced to wait months in squalid conditions before being able to apply for asylum or move on.
Further north, and concerning the Mexico/US border, the US Federal authorities conducted more than 2.3 million arrests during FY2022 (up to the end of September 2022), a significant increase over FY2021’s 1.7 million arrests. With detention facilities overwhelmed, most of those arrested are deported back to Mexico regardless of whether they are Mexican. In August 2022 alone, US Customs and Border Protection detained 203,598 migrants crossing from Mexico, many of whom are from countries outside of the traditional sources of migrants (i.e. Mexico and Central America).
Australia conducts pushbacks through maritime intervention as well as returns and long-term detentions as part of a “stop the boats” policy that began in 2013 under the official title of Operation Sovereign Borders. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, between 2013 and mid-2021, 873 people seeking asylum (including 123 children) travelling on 38 vessels were returned to their countries of departure “either with a very rudimentary assessment process, or no refugee status assessment at all.” During 2022, government data shows that 12 people were intercepted in May, 125 in June, and 46 in August.
5. Deportations, expulsions, and refoulement
Deportations, expulsions, and refoulement often occur in the context of pushbacks. While such actions may not always qualify as being “extreme” insofar as they may comply with states’ immigration policies, when they are carried out in the absence of internationally agreed procedures or status determinations of those in mixed migration flows they are more likely to lead to extreme rights violations. Across the world, the deportation, expulsion, and refoulement of refugees and migrants frequently occur in contexts of violence, coercion, and vulnerability.
Human Rights Watch reported in January 2022 that the Egyptian authorities had critically endangered the lives 24 Eritrean asylum seekers, including children, on Christmas Day 2021 by deporting them to Eritrea without assessing their asylum claims or allowing them to register with UNHCR. Previously, in late 2021, the UN condemned the forced return of 15 Eritreans from Egypt, noting that Eritreans who fled their country were often detained after being returned and then “tortured, held in extremely punitive conditions and disappeared”.
An example of a nationality treated in an explicitly discriminatory manner and where rights were denied was the US government’s treatment of Haitians during 2021 and the first half of 2022. From the start of 2021 up to the end of February 2022, 25,765 Haitians were forcibly returned home without having their asylum claim considered. Given the oppressive and endemically violent situation in Haiti, this amounted to the refoulement of a national group to which no country appears willing to offer refuge. Despite deteriorating conditions in their country of origin, US authorities continued to deport Haitians, with around 4,000 returned on flights in May 2022 alone. These deportations are particularly egregious in the light of the US’s and other nations’ own assessments that the situation in Haiti is so bad that they are considering responding to the Haitian prime minister’s request for a “specialized armed force” to tackle gangs and criminality. In June 2022, however, these deportations came to a halt when the government announced that Haitians would be exempt from Title 42, the provision previously used to enforce their removal.
The Dominican Republic (DR) also deported Haitians in 2022, reportedly expelling around 10,000 in February alone, continuing a decades-long trend. This year saw the militarisation of the Haiti-DR border amid DR government vows to prevent Haitian asylum seekers from entering the country, in violation of international law.
Periodically, Saudi Arabia implements mass expulsions of irregular migrants of various nationalities, the largest group normally being from Yemen, although hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have also been expelled in recent years. In March 2022, an agreement was reached between Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia to return some 100,000 Ethiopian nationals, with over 50,000 repatriated by mid-July. Ethiopians often face violent arrest and dire conditions while detained in formal and informal centres prior to their deportation, in some cases for up to six years and frequently without access to their belongings or money or even reunification or contact with family members in Saudia Arabia itself. Additionally in 2022, due to the conflict in Tigray, there are reports that Tigrayan deportees from Saudi Arabia were detained in various parts of Ethiopia, beaten, and subjected to forced labour and “forcibly disappeared”.
The 2021 edition of the Mixed Migration Review reported that the Malaysian government defied its own courts and deported more than 1,000 asylum seekers back to Myanmar, where they faced possible arrest or worse. In October 2022, Malaysia again deported 150 people to Myanmar, despite Malaysia’s condemnation of violence in Myanmar since the military ousted an elected government in 2021 and started to crack down on dissent.
In 2022, Thailand forced refugees from Myanmar to return across a river separating the two countries and prevented UNHCR and NGO representatives from visiting those entering Thailand. Of 19,000 Myanmar refugees that have sought safety in Thailand since the military takeover in February 2021, only 2,000 were reported to remain, the others having been forced to return, in contravention of international asylum and refugee norms.
In February 2022, Human Rights Watch released a report that traces what happened to the estimated 80 to 90 Cameroonians (many asylum seekers) deported from the United States on two flights in October and November 2020, and others deported in 2019 and 2021. The report documents, through detailed interviews, that people returned to Cameroon faced “arbitrary arrest and detention; enforced disappearances; torture, rape, and other violence; extortion; unfair prosecutions; confiscation of their national IDs; harassment; and abuses against their relatives”. Although no further deportations of Cameroonians were reported in 2022, the US violated the principle of nonrefoulement, a cornerstone of international refugee and human rights law, and continued to practice refoulement in 2022 by deporting vulnerable Haitian asylum seekers mentioned previously.
Still in the United States, despite President Biden having declared the Covid-19 pandemic officially over on September 18, a section of public health legislation known as Title 42 continues to be invoked to allow border authorities to immediately expel irregular migrants and asylum seekers who enter the US without documentation. Approximately two million Title 42 expulsions have occurred since March 2020, affecting people who would have otherwise been admitted to the United States for an assessment of their asylum claims or eventually deported in a more formal and time-consuming manner. Under Title 42, expulsions have reportedly been carried out over the land border with Mexico, and via deportation flights to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras. Expulsions were also carried out in conjunction with other border governance measures, such as the Migrant Protection Protocols (also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy) and the practice of “metering” or limiting the number of asylum seekers processed at official border ports of entry regardless of their protection needs. Many consider that Title 42 was and is being used as a tool to curb immigration, in violation of international law, rather than to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Rohingya refugees in India, estimated to number 40,000, face a heightened risk of forced return. In March 2022, India forced an ethnic Rohingya woman to return to Myanmar. That month, at least 240 Rohingya in India were reportedly being detained on charges of illegal entry with an additional 39 held in a shelter in Delhi and 235 others in a holding centre in Jammu. International law prohibits the forced return of refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
In September 2022, Iran’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation reported that in the preceding months it had deported over 50,000 Afghans. Iran’s response to Afghans fleeing their country reportedly involves “shooting on sight” along the border, beatings, and forced expulsions. Iran deports almost two-thirds of newly arriving Afghan nationals seeking asylum, according to UNHCR—a flagrant breach of the nonrefoulement rule. Türkiye also resumed deportation of Afghan asylum-seekers in 2022, sending some 18,000 back from its territory by mid-June.
Libya and Algeria have been expelling people from mixed migration movements into Niger throughout 2022. The trend has been apparent for some years, with a peak in 2021 when an estimated 27,208 refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers were deported from Algeria into Niger. More than 14,000 were pushed back across the border into Niger from Algeria between January and May 2022 without any respect to their status. While Nigerien citizens are transported back into Niger, nationals of other countries—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa—are typically abandoned at ‘Point Zero’, on the border between Algeria and Niger. Dozens of people have reportedly died or gone missing near and around the border zone and en route to nearby towns.
6. Discriminatory and inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees and state toleration and/or instigation of violations
A full account of the extent of discrimination and poor treatment of refugees and migrants in mixed migration movements is far beyond the scope of this report. The previous sections have presented examples of events, attitudes, and policies that could also be included under this heading. Furthermore, discrimination and violations occur along a continuum from mild to extreme and affect different groups of people in different ways at different times. This sub-section will flag some of the more glaring examples from 2022 that give a sense of the global extent of these trends.
Countries that have previously been commended as welcoming to refugees and migrants showed clear signs of changing attitudes in 2022 with some developing an increasingly hostile environment. It appears that as societies around the world face rising inflation and cost-of-living crises their generosity towards refugees is being tested. For example, Türkiye is reportedly becoming an increasingly hostile environment for the 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees there. There are reports of increasing hate crimes and violent attacks on Syrian refugees, including incidents of young Syrians killed by mobs. In Lebanon, where almost 25 percent of the population consists of Syrian refugees and where anti-refugee sentiment has been rising in recent years, the UN urged ‘everyone’ to stop inciting xenophobia against Syrian refugees at a time in mid-2022 when the government announced plans to deport 15,000 refugees per month back into Syria.
In Chile, anti-Venezuelan sentiment appears to be growing in the country, as illustrated by large-scale protests against Venezuelans at the beginning of 2022. Chile’s previously open policy towards foreign arrivals has steadily shifted in recent years towards a more restrictive and securitised approach. In February 2022, Chilean authorities militarised the trench along the border with Venezuela to prevent their irregular entry. Brazil, under President Jair Bolsonaro, has also seen a steady uptick in anti-migrant sentiment and hate speech which is, according to some, another aspect of longstanding anti-black racism that is part of Brazil’s social structure. Brazil had previously enjoyed a long reputation of welcoming and absorbing migrants and refugees.
Anti-migrant violence in South Africa has been escalating through periodic eruptions against African migrants and refugees over the years. But in 2022, with a wave of xenophobic, or more precisely Afrophobic attacks, UN experts issued a joint statement warning that South Africa was “on the precipice of explosive violence”. There have been incidents of atrocities and social media posts and hashtags such as #OperationDudula (meaning “force out”) have played a prominent role in instigating the violence.
In stark contrast to the welcome and provisions with which people fleeing the war in Ukraine have been received in the EU, dozens of people from countries including Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Sri Lanka were unlawfully detained at Lithuania’s borders. According to Amnesty International, “many people reported being beaten, insulted and subjected to racially-motivated intimidation and harassment by guards in the heavily securitised detention centres, where there is insufficient access to sanitary facilities and healthcare”.
At an even more extreme level, the 2022 report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, (interviewed on page 99 of this Review) documented egregious abuses in Libya. He found that since the inception of boat pullbacks in the Mediterranean, Libyan authorities had been involved in “widespread and systematic, reckless interceptions at sea and in abuses within migrant detention centres”. Quoting an October 2021 fact-finding mission on Libya mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, González Morales wrote that abuses against migrants were evidence of “a State policy encouraging the deterrence of sea crossings, the extortion of migrants in detention, and subjection to violence and discrimination”. He also found that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that acts of murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts” were being committed against refugees and migrants. His report concluded that the extent of these abuses could amount to crimes against humanity. Another UN report in October 2022 detailed the “unconscionable” violations meted out to refugees and migrants in a “coercive” environment incompatible with free choice, one in which migrants are compelled to accept deportation and/or return as the only viable alternative to continued abuse and intercepted attempts to depart towards Europe.
When refugees and migrants attempted to demonstrate against their treatment in Libya in January 2022, some 600 were arrested and moved to detention camps. Protest leaders said police had used excessive force during the arrests and Médecins Sans Frontières said its teams had treated patients taken afterwards to Ain Zara detention centre for stab wounds, beatings, and trauma.
In early October the UN and the Libyan Red Crescent reported on the “heinous killing” of 15 migrants near the Mediterranean coastal city of Sabratha. Initial report suggest the dead were victims of clashes between rival smuggling/trafficking gangs. Most of the bodies were found burned inside a charred boat. Again, reports of such extreme and tragic event attract very little international interest and the perpetrators most commonly are not held to account, even if they are identified.
Not only at borders but also in transit, migrants are at risk from severe treatment including murder. In October 2022, for example, the bodies of at least 25 people believed to be migrants were found in a mass grave in Mzimba, Malawi. Although their cause of death is unknown, an investigation is said to be underway.
After the extraordinary attacks—involving gross violations and murder—on camps hosting refugees from Eritrea in northern Ethiopia in 2021, such facilities continued to be unsafe in 2022. In February, thousands of Eritrean refugees fled an attack on Barahle camp and surrounding areas in Ethiopia’s Afar region, in which at least five people were reported killed and a number of women kidnapped. This followed air strikes on Mai Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in January, where three Eritrean refugees, including two children, were killed and four other refugees injured. In January, another airstrike by drones reportedly killed 59 people with up to 138 wounded in Dedebit, a centre for recently displaced people in north-western Tigray, near the Eritrean border.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 50 people, including more than a dozen children, were killed in an attack on a site hosting internally displaced people in Plaine Savo, Ituri province by members of a non-state armed group using with guns and machetes. Only three months earlier in late 2021, 44 people were killed in similar massacres at nearby displacement sites in Drodro and Tche, which subsequently led tens of thousands of people to flee the area.
Refugees are vulnerable not only in war zones but also in peaceful host countries when authorities and the international community allow their welfare to deteriorate severely. Nine out of 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty and last winter the country’s economic crisis greatly exacerbated the hardship that came with freezing temperatures, according to UNHCR. More than 13 million displaced Syrians face deepening poverty and rising humanitarian needs, 11 years since the onset of what remains the world’s biggest displacement crisis.
In February, Trinidad and Tobago coast guard officers fired on a boat carrying people from Venezuela, wounding a mother and killing the baby in her arms. The shooting occurred as the officers attempted to intercept the boat after it entered the Caribbean nation’s territorial waters and prompted a multi-agency response of sorrow and condemnation.
Expelled asylum seekers and migrants face particular risks and vulnerabilities in Mexico. Human Rights First, a local NGO, has in recent years tracked and recorded publicly available information in relation to almost 9,000 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked from entering or expelled to Mexico by the United States. The ACAPS risk report of late October 2022 states that migrants and asylum seekers face recurrent abuses and violence across Mexico, especially in northern states. “Protection risks are of particular concern for women and children, especially those in transit, as they are at risk of sexual abuse and human trafficking during their journey”. Furthermore between January and August 2022, the US Customs and Border Protection registered more than 100,000 encounter events involving unaccompanied minors at the US southern border with Mexico, indicating the number of unprotected children making the journey.
Finally, the Vital Signs project estimated that as many as 10,000 labour migrants from South and Southeast Asia die in the Gulf every year. More than half of these deaths are attributed vaguely to “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest”, without any clear exploration of how living and working conditions may have contributed. The absence of accountability and transparency around such high numbers of deaths suggests an extreme lack or regard or value of labour migrants in the region.
7. Extreme policy and politics
Normalising the extreme often occurs in clear violation of national or international laws, or as a result of situations that are permitted only under supposedly temporary emergency measures, or when governments turn a blind eye. This could be described as de facto state policy. When extreme measures become de jure, then state policy extreme reactions to mixed migration have truly become normalised.
To some extent, this is already evident in the perennially low level of resettlement of the world’s refugee population. Just four percent of the 1.4 million refugees in need of resettlement were offered resettlement places in 2021. Denmark, which previously received many resettlement refugees, has barely received any since 2016 and since 2019 has publicly stated it wanted “zero asylum seekers”. Currently, it has a policy in place to return certain Syrian refugees who have lived in Denmark for years. Meanwhile, countries like India, China, and Russia grant a tiny number of refugees international refugee status and Malaysia and Indonesia have not signed the refugee convention and never resettle refugees. Equally, Gulf states and Japan are examples of wealthy countries that rarely take any refugees for resettlement. Sweden has famously been the most welcoming country for refugees in Europe, but now aims to pursue an anti-refugee and migration agenda with a new minority coalition government of three centre-right parties, with parliamentary support from the far-right Sweden Democrats.
More generally, the contrast between how the international community has welcomed and made provisions for Ukrainian refugees in 2022 and how it makes policies—enforced by security forces—to deter asylum seekers from other conflicts has attracted harsh criticism during the year. Even non-Ukrainians fleeing Ukraine were discriminated against. Also, discrimination was in evidence as far afield as the US-Mexico border where some thousands of Ukrainian sought entry to the US. There, border officials bent their own rules to admit Ukrainians, while denying entry to many, Mexicans, Central Americans, Haitians, and other refugees of colour. The blocking by a federal judge in May of 2022 moves to end the extraordinary migration- control powers exerted under Title 42 means that border authorities and security personnel can continue to expel undocumented migrants without due process indefinitely. Although the Department of Justice said it would challenge the ruling, the Biden administration has proceeded to implement other laws aimed at better managing new arrivals and speeding up processing of asylum claims. These include allowing US asylum officers to adjudicate claims directly instead of sending them to back-logged immigration courts.
In the UK during 2022, there were fears that the new Nationality and Borders Act would dramatically weaken refugee protection by deterring people from seeking asylum in the country and relegating most refugees to a new, lesser status with few rights and the constant threat of removal. UNHCR expressed concern at the UK government’s intention to externalise its obligation to protect refugees and asylum seekers after it announced plans to send some migrants to Rwanda for processing of their asylum claims. However, encountering legal challenges led by rights organisations and following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, the only flight with asylum seekers heading to Rwanda scheduled was cancelled in June. Although the UK was not able to implement any such flights in 2022, the law stands and the deal with Rwanda is maintained. The UK continues to struggle with how to address the rising number of channel crossings on small boats which the Rwanda policy was designed to deter. As of 26 October, 38,000 people had arrived in the UK on 936 boats since the start of the year, more than 90 percent of whom claimed asylum. The number for the whole of 2021 was 28,500.
Spotlight: Normalising the extreme in optima forma? Celebrating a global football festival where thousands of migrant workers died and were abused
The FIFA World Cup, ongoing at the time of the release of this Mixed Migration Review takes place in Qatar, amidst plausible reports on the deaths and abuse of thousands of migrant workers from various Asian countries. In late October, some weeks ahead of the football World Cup, Qatar emptied apartment blocks housing thousands of foreign workers in central areas where football fans are expected to want to stay. The forced evictions occurred at speed with some residents getting just two hours to leave and not being offered any alternative housing, resulting in some migrants sleeping on pavements. Furthermore, in an effort to reduce the number of foreign workers in Qatar, there are reports in September 2022 that thousands of workers have been sent back to their country of origin before the end of their contracts or without receiving their full salary or allowances— some will return to unemployment with significant debt to their recruiters. Because of the World Cup, in 2022, Qatar has come under the spotlight for its harsh treatment of migrants including the extraordinary revelation that since Qatar won the bid to host the Cup, approximately 6,750 migrant workers, mostly young and from India, may have died in Qatar while working on World Cup related infrastructure projects since 2010.
In many European countries, the prosecution of asylum seekers as smugglers as well as those assisting irregular arrivals is on the rise. A phenomenon that has been evident for some years continued into 2022 with thousands of migrants arrested, detained—often for lengthy periods—and prosecuted only to be eventually released when the cases against them collapse or convictions are overturned on appeal. Italy, Greece, and the UK have been particularly active prosecuting migrants in this respect. Often, they are arrested on the grounds that they assisted in the navigation or steering of vessels they were on while the actual smugglers are elsewhere and not aboard.
In South Africa, the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit (ZEP) programme was originally set up as a positive measure to allow Zimbabweans who had migrated to South Africa before 2009 to escape the protracted crisis in their home country to regularise their status in South Africa. In step with a rising anti-immigration and anti-migrant sentiment in the country, in late 2021 the ZEP was suspended with an intention that all permits would expire by the end of 2022. This announcement created uncertainty and insecurity for the country’s 178,000 ZEP holders. The majority, having lived in South Africa for many years, are now confronted by the prospect of having to leave the lives they have established over more than a decade to return to Zimbabwe or live without documentation in their adopted home.
Amid effort by states to keep asylum seekers and migrants away from their territory (and legal obligations) some ask in 2022 if pushbacks, off-shoring and externalising immigration policy is becoming a default response backed up by evolving legislation. Often, state policy is bolstered by heavily protected and monitored borders such as in Poland, Israel, or Mexico. Meanwhile, the rapid adoption of high-tech measures and AI in immigration and border control is raising concerns among rights organisations. In 2022, the EU-funded ITFlows research project faced calls to stop developing the EUMigraTool, which would use AI systems to forecast migration flows, and to “stop pursuing the use of any and all technologies that can be used to criminalise migration and target specific groups and individuals”.
In 2022, the average duration of migration detention in Australia rose to a record 689 days, much longer than comparable countries. Several individuals have spent more than 10 years in detention for arriving undocumented and seeking asylum—at huge cost to the government and to those detained.
This report is far from exhaustive but rather aims to offer glimpses of the slippery slope of ever-more extreme rules and practices that would have been unimaginable some years ago but which are now fast-becoming an everyday global characteristic of immigration policies and the inhumane treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.