Normalising the extreme (2021)

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2021 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.

Many policies, actions, and attitudes related to mixed migration—especially irregular migration—that were considered unacceptable just a few years ago are now becoming normalised. The following list is not exhaustive but offers snapshots from 2021 that illustrate the growing prevalence and range of such measures, as well as the ways Covid-19 has been used to justify and legitimise extreme action.

1. Roundups, segregation, isolation, and detention

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. In many countries, refugees and migrants continue to be segregated, isolated, and detained in 2021, sometimes because of putative health fears related to Covid-19. In some destination states, migrant workers have been “trapped (…) facing heightened risks of human rights violations and health risks, as well as expulsion and work permit denial or revocation.”

In Singapore, up to 300,000 migrant workers have been confined to dormitories and not allowed to move freely after work for the last 18 months, even though Covid restrictions on Singapore nationals have long been relaxed. Only in September 2021 did the authorities start to ease restrictions for some groups of migrants.

Thousands of Ethiopian migrants held in harsh conditions in Saudi Arabia in 2020 started to be repatriated in 2021. At an initially planned rate of 1,000 persons per week, the returns took place in response to mounting international pressure following a Human Rights Watch report in late 2020 concerning indefinite and harsh detention. In the event, 40,000 people were deported back to Ethiopia in just two months. It is not clear how long repatriations took or if all detained Ethiopians have now been returned. Meanwhile, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said that an estimated 6,000 migrants (mostly Ethiopian) were held in detention across Yemen in 2021. Reportedly, smugglers hold hundreds, if not thousands, more. Illustrating the precariousness and vulnerability they face, scores of migrants burned to death and many more were injured in Yemen on 7 March after Houthi security forces launched what some witnesses said were tear gas cannisters into a Sanaa detention centre.

On the Spanish Canary Islands, thousands of irregular migrants and asylum seekers spent 2020 and  2021 in limbo in specialised detention camps amid reports of hunger strikes, protests, and growing despair and international criticism of conditions.

In Greece, as policies against irregular arrivals hardened, a new camp was built on the island of Samos with multi-layered fencing to detain asylum seekers in highly regulated and “prison-like” conditions criticised as “dystopian” by some. At the start of 2021, over 14,000 people were detained in five island camps as part of the continuation of the “hotspot approach” of detaining migrants and asylum seekers as a form of control and deterrence first introduced in 2015 by the European Commission. After a fire destroyed the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in September 2020, authorities moved its residents to a temporary site that has been criticised for its inadequate shelter, lack of services, and limited food supplies. A promised permanent facility on Lesbos is not expected to be completed until mid-2022.

In Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya refugees have been moved from Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char, an island formed from silt around 30 kilometres from the coast, with around 18,000 in place by June 2021. Despite the government’s claims that these resettlements were voluntary, dozens of refugees who have subsequently attempted to leave the island have been arrested and returned. Reports emerged during the year of torture, physical abuse, and intimidation by security forces of refugees on the island, while at the end of May 2021 around 4,000 people staged protests against living conditions during a visit by UN representatives. In Malaysia, irregular migrants have been held for long periods in detention with over 1,000 subjected to deportation to Myanmar in February in violation of a court order (see below).

In an alleged breach of its own policies on data collection, consent, and sharing that has the potential to harm Rohingya refugees, the UNHCR gave Bangladesh personal data of some refugees, apparently to verify people for possible repatriation, data that was then shared with authorities in Myanmar. The UNHCR denies any wrongdoing and claims it obtained consent. Between 2018 and 2021, the Bangladesh government submitted at least 830,000 names of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar along with their biometric data and other details, for repatriation eligibility assessments.

Australia continued to use the notorious and re-opened Christmas Island Detention Centre in 2021, to hold some 225 people, mostly migrants who have had their visas cancelled due to criminal activity. Riots broke out among detainees in January in protest against the abusive conditions in which they were held.

In late 2020, Libya’s Directorate for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM), a department of the interior ministry, integrated into its jurisdiction detention centres previously run as informal entities by militias. It remains unclear how many refugees and migrants are detained as there is continued evidence of unofficial detention centres. According to official figures, 2,000–3,000 migrants and refugees were detained in Libya at the end of 2020—far lower than previous years—but analysts reckon the true number is far higher. In the first half of 2021, Amnesty International calculated that more than 7,000 people intercepted at sea off the Libyan coast were forcibly returned to a new “gathering and return centre”, where they reportedly face appalling conditions and violations.  (Libya’s egregious treatment of refugees and migrants and the EU’s complicity is discussed in more detail below.) In early October, a major crackdown in western Libya (in the town of Gargaresh, near Tripoli) resulted in the detention of over 5,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, including hundreds of women and children, and at least one death according to officials.

The United States government holds tens of thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants in detention under the control of Customs and Border Protection and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They are detained for unlawful entry to the United States, when their claims for asylum are received (and prior to release into the United States on one-year permits known as “parole”), and while in the process of deportation and removal from the country. Statistics for 2021 are not available but there are over 206 detention facilities in the US handling tens of thousands of cases every day throughout the year. The case of the US is mentioned here not because its management of irregular migrants and asylum seekers is extreme, but because of the high numbers involved and the controversial policies of separating families, detaining minors, and conducting expulsions without due process (especially through “Title 42”, as detailed below).

2. Prevention of rescue at sea and denial of access to safe harbour

In the Mediterranean, the absence of formal functioning search-and-rescue operations at sea continued in 2021. Unlike Operation Sophia before it (2015-2020), the European Union Naval Force- Mediterranean‘s current Operation Irini has not undertaken any rescue at sea in its first year. This reflects the EU’s tougher attitude to irregular maritime migration and its unsubstantiated reasoning that providing rescue operations may have acted as an incentive to smugglers and migrants. By contrast, Operation Sophia was credited with rescuing some 45,000 people, including many children. The primary missions of the current operation are to enforce a UN arms embargo, train the Libyan coastguard and navy, disrupt human trafficking, and impede the illicit exports of Libyan oil. Not only is there no mention of rescue in Irini’s mandate but there are reports and cases in 2021 of national authorities failing to respond promptly to those in distress or preventing NGOs from operating effectively to save lives. International organisations and human rights groups have condemned what they have variously described as a “lethal disregard for desperate people” and Europe’s “race to the bottom” to keep migrants and asylum seekers out, directly contributing to the high death toll on the Mediterranean. Rescue missions or responses to distress calls have also been repeatedly delayed or ignored.

Additionally, 2021 saw a significant rise in interceptions in the Central Mediterranean. Some 31,565  people were intercepted by North African coastguards (mainly in waters off Tunisia and Libya) between January and the end of June. Normally those intercepted were returned to mainland Africa and in the case of Libya these interceptions are often carried out in a violent or reckless manner, resulting at times in deaths, and upon disembarkation people are normally returned to much-condemned detention centres where violence and torture may await them. Some Mediterranean interceptions by national coast patrols have been violent, with migrant boats being rammed and shots being fired, in one case inside Maltese waters. In another case, condemned by both UNHCR and IOM (and set out in more detail below), a commercial vessel “rescued” 270 people only to return them to Libya where they were detained.

Furthermore, EU member states have actively undermined civilian rescue operations by restricting and even criminalising  NGOs and impounding their vessels. According to a leading rights watchdog, “Member states’ approaches still appear to focus on limiting NGOs’ life-saving work, rather than seeing them as filling a crucial gap left by the member states’ own disengagement.”37 For most of the first half of 2021, just one rescue boat was active at any moment as others continued to have their efforts restricted. Private rescue vessels frequently impounded include Sea-Watch 3, Sea-Watch 4, Alan Kurdi and Open Arms.

In line with the growing trend of criminalising not only refugees and migrants but also those helping them, in March 2021, Italian authorities formally charged dozens of NGO workers for their alleged complicity with human smugglers—with the possibility of prison sentences of up to 20 years if convicted. In September, after a highly politicised trial in Calabria, the much-lauded former mayor of Riace was given a 13-year prison sentence for “irregularities” committed while helping refugees and asylum seekers to integrate in his depopulated town.

Throughout 2021 there have been continued efforts by state authorities to sabotage private and NGO sea-rescue capabilities, through administrative and often spurious accusations of infractions resulting in vessels being impounded and captains or owners fined. Nevertheless, in a slight change from 2020—and earlier years when the anti-immigration Matteo Salvini served as Italy’s interior minister—Italian authorities permitted more rescue boats to dock and disembark passengers in 2021, albeit reluctantly, and with repeated calls for other EU countries to share the burden of new arrivals.

In the 10 months up to October 2021, over 17,000 migrants and asylum seekers used boats to cross the English Channel from France and Belgium to UK shores, more than double the total number for 2020. In response, the UK government has authorised Border Force officials to turn back boats in “limited circumstances” if personally approved by the home secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel. Draft UK legislation provides for long prison sentences to be handed down to people who help migrant boats to land on UK territory. This tougher “pushback” approach was criticised by the UNHCR, rights agencies, and the French government, on the ground that it breaches maritime law. Meanwhile, in a dramatic escalation of the use of force, police in France were reported to have fired rubber bullets at people to stop them from crossing the Channel to the UK in September, causing injuries.

UNHCR reported that last year (2020) was the “deadliest” year ever for Rohingyas’ journeys across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, where many face pushbacks and refusals to let their boats land. In 2021, between January and June, an estimated 633 people used boats to leave Bangladesh (including the island of Bhasan Char) and Myanmar, many of which become stranded at sea, or floated adrift for long periods without rescue, or were recorded as missing. While there is no direct evidence that such vessels were deliberately abandoned or that a no-rescue policy is in place, in the past Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia have been implicated in pushbacks and non-assistance of boats in distress at sea. However, it is known that the Covid-19 pandemic prompted many countries in the region to tighten their borders, leaving many migrants and refugees stranded at sea for months, amounting to their effective abandonment in dire conditions without shelter or adequate provisions.

3. 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 the territory they are departing. Both violate international and EU law. The UN’s Human Rights Council wrote in May 2021, “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.” The prevalence of pushbacks and pullbacks seen throughout the world in 2021 is very high and possibly unprecedented in terms of the numbers of people affected and the measures’ normalisation as a de facto official policy— even if this is commonly denied by authorities.

Through 2020 and into 2021, UNHCR said it received a “continuous stream of reports of some European states restricting access to asylum, returning people after they have reached territory or territorial waters, and using violence against them at borders.” The UN Refugee Agency said that pushbacks are being carried out in a violent and apparently systematic way: boats carrying refugees are being towed back, people are being rounded up after they land and then pushed back to sea, and “many have reported violence and abuse by state forces.” It added that people arriving by land are also being informally detained and forcibly returned to neighbouring countries without any consideration or assessment of their international protection needs.

In December 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network published The Black Book of Pushbacks, a vast compilation of first-hand accounts from many thousands of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers who had suffered or witnessed violence, rights violations, and degrading treatment at the hands of border officials along the Balkan route. The book particularly focused on “chain” pushbacks where, for example, people are forcibly repatriated to Slovenia, and then forced back to Croatia and from there to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).Throughout 2021, reports have emerged of many incidents of asylum seekers and migrants from multiple countries being pushed back into BiH from Croatia, often brutally. The recorded cases included men, women, children with guardians and unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Algeria, Kurdistan, and Lebanon.

In October 2021, a collaboration of journalists from some of Europe’s leading media houses published the results of an eight-month investigation which entailed gathering testimony and high-resolution visual evidence of pushbacks on the EU’s external borders, tracing chains of command, tracking social media and satellite imagery, and following money trails. This revealed that masked men in uniforms stripped of identifying details were carrying out violent pushbacks from Croatia, Romania, and Greece, and that the units involved are financed and equipped by national states using EU funds.

In September, as temperatures dropped across Europe, reports emerged of pushbacks of asylum-seekers and migrants transiting through Belarus to seek asylum in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. The three countries had all recently declared states of emergency at their borders with Belarus, effectively denying access to anyone besides border guards and security services. At least five people died in the border area between Poland and Belarus and many stranded families were denied access to assistance. Poland and Lithuania have taken steps to formalise their approaches into law (see below).

Greece also continued to practice systematic pushbacks on land and sea. These have been extensively reported in grey literature and were detailed in last year’s Mixed Migration Review; they continued unabated in 2021, with the use of deterrents such as drones, sound cannons, thermal cameras, and lie detector tests to monitor and prevent migration.

A renewal of the 2016 -2020 EU-Turkey statement— the controversial agreement that permitted   Greece to return refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers to Turkey in exchange for financial assistance to Turkey and resettlement quotas—was all but agreed during 2021. The arrangement’s supporters say it substantially reduced the numbers of Syrians entering Europe from 2016. To others, the deal formalises and legitimises systematic push/pullbacks. The EU has signalled its willingness to renew the agreement with another €3.5 billion set to be given to Turkey over the next three years.6 Additional plans discussed in 2021 between the EU and Turkey would enable Turkey to conduct forced returns and pushbacks of new arrivals to Iran, Iraq, and Syria rather than offer them protection.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, EU member states have reportedly “used illegal operations to push back at least 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders (…) methods being linked to the death of more than 2,000 people”. During 2021 the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency (also known as Frontex) faced various accusations and charges of effecting pushbacks and was forced to suspend its operations in Hungary over violations allegedly committed against asylum seekers. But the intentions are clear: the EU has earmarked €34.9 billion for border management between 2021 and 2027 and systematic pushbacks appear to be an increasingly normalised tool to prevent irregular entry to the bloc.

In July, a commercial supply ship, Vos Triton, found 270 people adrift with a broken engine in international waters off the coast of Libya. Despite having picked up migrants and refugees in a previous incident in February and transporting them to Italy, in this incident Vos Triton returned the rescued passengers to Libyan coast guards—effectively amounting to an illegal pushback.

As previously mentioned, thousands of departing migrants and refugees have been intercepted and pulled back to Libya, ending up in detention in centres that have been repeatedly condemned as unsafe and dangerous. Between January and September 2021, this happened to 23,583 refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Many were sent to detention centres run by the DCIM. In June, Libyan coastguards were filmed using live rounds in an alleged attempt to shipwreck a boat carrying migrants and force it to return to Libya. The EU as an entity and some of its member states assist and support the Libyan coastguard in various ways and despite repeated calls for the EU policy to change in relation to Libyan pullbacks, Brussels turns a blind eye and allows the practice to continue— sometimes, reportedly, with the direct collusion of or coordination by Italian and Maltese authorities as well as Frontex, effectively practising pushbacks by proxy.

In the Americas, pushbacks are increasingly common at various points in main transit countries on the northward migratory route from South America through Central America and Mexico and into the United States. The closer to the US border the more intense and prolific are pushbacks and expulsions. Government data indicate that over 400,000 migrants and asylum seekers were expelled in systematic pushbacks from the US from February through December 2020 under the Migrant Protection Protocols and Title 42 provisions. The latter, first invoked as a pandemic control measure during Donald Trump’s administration and continued after Joe Biden took office, permit the immediate deportation of undocumented migrants, including those who arrive seeking asylum. Title 42 continued to be used throughout 2021 as a key tool to legalise pushbacks that would otherwise be deemed illegal under international law. In some cases, these pushbacks involved flying non-Mexican irregular migrants and asylum seekers deep into Mexico.

In September, authorities from Mexico and the US pushed back thousands of Haitians from the border between the two countries where they had been gathering in cities like Ciudad Acuña and Tijuana, while others were prevented from moving north from Tapachula. Some were trapped where they were while others were pushed back to southern parts of Mexico, others into Guatemala, and others deported on flights to Haiti. Many had left Haiti years ago, in some case after the 2010 earthquake, and have since been on the move from country to country responding to changing (often harsher) policy environments in states such as Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Panama. As a result of a regional “controlled flow” policy, more than 19,000 mostly Haitian migrants were waiting to travel into Panama (and thence further north) in the northern Colombian town of Necoclí as of the end of September 2021.

In late September, US authorities began flying many of the thousands of Haitians who had managed to cross into Texas from Mexico back to Haiti without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum, signalling “the beginning of what could be one of America’s swiftest, large-scale expulsions of migrants or refugees in decades”. Thousands of the Haitians in Texas subsequently returned to Mexico.

In August, authorities in southern Mexico pushed back hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers from various countries including Haiti, Cuba, and countries of the Northern Triangle who were trying to leave an area on the border with Guatemala to head north to the US. The reportedly often brutal interceptions were carried out by personnel from the National Migration Institute and the National Guard, a militarized police force created in 2019 and placed under army control. Throughout the year, Mexican troops on the Guatemala border repeatedly deployed shields and batons to stop multinational groups of asylum seekers and migrants entering Mexico. Many originated from Honduras and other Northern Triangle states, from where people are fleeing a lethal combination of poverty, the impact of climate change, and gang violence.

4. Deportation, expulsion, and refoulement

Overlapping and closely related to pushback and pullbacks, deportations, expulsions, and refoulement continued on a large scale in 2021 around the world. (To avoid repetition, selected cases are mentioned here in brief.) Deportations per se are not necessarily “extreme” insofar as they are a part of states’ immigration policies and procedures. Germany, for example, carried out almost 6,000 deportations in the first half of 2021 and the US carries out tens of thousands every year. Below are examples of more extreme cases, often occurring in contravention of national or international norms and with disregard for due process.

In May 2021, more than 10,000 migrants surged through Morocco’s border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. Spanish authorities immediately deported over 6,000 and focused on expelling others in the subsequent months without determining their status and assuming they were irregular economic migrants from Morocco. In August, Spain started to deport some 740 minors from the May mass entry, prompting the public prosecutor to open an investigation and creating fresh divisions within Spain’s ruling coalition as human rights groups said the deportations violated Spanish and international law.

Anti-Muslim policies in India have been put in place that impact not only on the country’s own Muslim minority, but also certain groups of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, including Rohingya. With around 16,000 officially registered in India—the actual numbers may be as high as 40,000—the Rohingya have been specifically targeted for arrest and deportation by authorities despite international condemnation. In March 2021, more than 150 Rohingya lost their appeals to remain in the country, despite the clear protection risks they would face back in Myanmar. By October 2021, it is not clear how many had already been deported.

In February, despite a court order blocking the action, Malaysia deported 1,086 Myanmar nationals back to their country by handing them over to three Myanmar navy vessels sent for that purpose. Malaysia claimed no refugees were among these deportees, although UNHCR disagreed. Malaysia does not formally recognise refugees and UNHCR has had no access to immigration detention centres to determine if detainees are in need of international protection.

Algeria continued to deport thousands of asylum seekers and migrants to Niger following roundups and detention of those found in their country. A total of 23,175 people were expelled across the border in 2020, with almost 19,000 deported between January and 1 October 2021. Previously, thousands were taken to an area in the middle of the desert known as “Point Zero”, then abandoned to make their way 15 kilometres to Assamaka, the nearest settlement. In April 2021 Algerian authorities announced the construction of a new migrant reception centre near its border with Niger.

As widely documented, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly deported thousands of Ethiopian migrants from its territory, often using violence and indefinite detention prior to deportation. Having detained thousands during the pandemic, in 2021 Riyadh started deporting them to Ethiopia. Over 30,000 Ethiopian nationals were repatriated in the space of just two weeks between 26 June and 9 July 2021. In total, some 376,640 Ethiopian migrants were deported from Saudi Arabia between March 2017 and June 2021.

As mentioned above, the US continues to practice mass expulsions and deportations, using a controversial section of Title 42 health legislation and other policies in cooperation with Mexico and other Central American states. Mexican authorities have closed the country’s southern border and have been forcibly returning refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers intercepted there, including minors. Hundreds of Central Americans flown to southern Mexico were reportedly forced by Mexican authorities into a remote part of Guatemala, leaving them stranded them with no place to stay or any way to return to their home countries. UNHCR warned of the risk of “chain refoulement”, whereby vulnerable people could be pushed back by successive countries.

In early 2021, Guatemala violently prevented a caravan of migrants from Nicaragua entering its territory. In March, the Guatemalan government issued a “state of prevention” along the border with Honduras to forestall the entry of further migrant caravans.

Flouting a December 2020 ruling by the European Court of Justice that its deportations were illegal, Hungary has continued to deport thousands of people, mainly to Serbia. According to its own official statistics, 2,824 were deported in January 2021 alone. According to UNHCR, since 2016, the Hungarian authorities have forcibly removed more than 71,000 people and in March 2021 the refugee agency condemned a “recent decision of the Hungarian government to extend a decree that authorizes the police to automatically and summarily remove anyone intercepted for irregular entry and stay.”

5. Inhumane treatment

If inhumane is defined broadly as “lacking in pity or compassion for misery and suffering” the term could be applied to countless incidents and practices all over the world: negligence and the deliberate violation of rights— or simply rough treatment—continued to characterise the experience of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees in 2021, especially those on the move.

In late 2020 and early 2021, egregious abuses of refugees were reported in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, where Eritrean soldiers and Tigrayan militia forces occupied and attacked four camps that housed tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees, committing “horrific killings, rapes, and looting”. Months later, as many as 7,600 registered refugees were still missing and unaccounted for.

The harrowing plight of refugees and migrants in Libya have regularly featured in previous Mixed Migration Reviews. 2021 saw little change aside from a sharp rise the number of maritime interceptions coupled with an inability to track what happens to those forced to return to Libya. Widespread abduction, mistreatment, torture, and extortion by militias, traffickers and security personnel continues to be reported in established migrant detention centres and new camps across the country. Human rights groups have reported that as interceptions increase and detention facilities become ever more crowded, violence and sexual abuse of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers have increased. A discrepancy between the numbers of those intercepted at sea and those officially recorded as detainees on land suggests thousands have been forcibly disappeared and held in unknown locations for ransom, trafficking, or other purposes.For instance, more than half of the 6,200 people intercepted at sea by Libyan coastguards and brought back to Libya in the first seven months of 2021 were unaccounted for; instead of being taken to official detention centres, many likely disappeared into unofficial centres operated by militia.

In Yemen, Houthi militiamen reportedly kidnapped and forced hundreds of Ethiopian migrants out of Sanaa in early April 2021. The migrants, who had been peacefully protesting outside a UN office, were brutally attacked with live ammunition and made to cross into government-controlled areas. Some claim the Houthi wanted to suppress the migrants’ demands for an investigation into a deadly fire at a detention centre some days earlier for which the Houthi were assumed to be responsible. Some 6,000 migrants are thought to be held in detention centres across Yemen, where smugglers reportedly hold hundreds, if not thousands, more.

6. Policies and legislation

As detailed above, normalising the extreme often occurs through actions that are in clear violation of national or international laws, or that are permitted only under supposedly temporary emergency measures. This slope becomes much more slippery when such actions are formally adopted as government policy or incorporated into statute.

This is precisely what happened in Poland on 14 October, when parliament passed landmark legislative amendments under which people caught illegally crossing into the country can be ordered to leave, regardless of their aspirations for asylum. Rights groups have pointed out this contravenes Poland’s commitments under international law. For its part, Poland, together with Lithuania and Latvia, have reported sharp increases in the number of migrants entering their territories from Belarus, which stands accused of instrumentalising migration to pressure the EU over sanctions it has imposed on Minsk.  Lithuania has tabled a proposal to amend EU rules so as to permit pushbacks from the bloc. If passed, this would represent not only a normalization but a legalisation of extreme action against asylum seekers and migrants. While just a few years ago such a proposal would have been met with horror and disbelief, in 2021, it seems less outlandish and even worthy of consideration.

Meanwhile, as the so-called “frontline” southern European states of Greece, Italy, Spain, and Malta feel left alone in dealing with new mixed migration arrivals, some countries in northern Europe have adopted increasingly restrictive asylum policies.

In April, Denmark became the first country in Europe to revoke the residency of Syrian refugees, with more than 200 facing the prospect of being returned to Syria on the basis that parts of the country could now be considered safe—despite widespread concerns among refugee organisations and human rights groups that returnees could face imprisonment upon their return. Amendments to the Danish Aliens Act, adopted with a large majority in June, pave the way for the forcible removal of asylum-seekers for processing in third countries. The Danish prime minister has said her vision is to have zero asylum seeker arrivals in her country.

The United Kingdom’s Conservative government, through its Nationality and Borders Bill, is also proposing to send asylum seekers to third countries for processing and to criminalise unauthorised entry into the UK, with jail terms of up to four years for those convicted. The law would effectively establish a two-tier system—one for those who arrive regularly, another for those who arrive irregularly—even for those whose protection needs are recognised by granting them a shorter “temporary protection status” lasting up to 30 months. Not surprisingly, UNHCR and others are very opposed to such externalisation arrangements, which they feel “risk a gradual erosion of the international protection system”.

In Sweden, in a retreat from highly pro-migration and pro-refugee policies, legislation was passed in July 2021 imposing time-limited residency permits in the first instance for refugees in the country: previously, refugees had been granted permanent residency once their status was recognised.

Despite international condemnation of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, many European countries were swift to discourage any arrivals fleeing the violence and instability there. Turkey, for instance, has constructed a concrete barrier on its border with Iran while Greece has beefed up its surveillance and extended a wall along its border with Turkey and has said it does not intend to be a “gateway” for fleeing  Afghans. Although some countries offered to host special quotas of Afghans in the coming years to accommodate expected new arrivals, others have explicitly ruled out the possibility of any Afghans being resettled in their territory. Austria, for instance, contends that it already hosts a disproportionate share of Afghan refugees and would not welcome more. Just days before Kabul fell to the Taliban—but after the group had taken control of many provincial capitals— six European countries (the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Greece, and Belgium) asked the EU Commission not to halt deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers to their home country, because “stopping returns sends a wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their homes for the EU”. Overtaken by events, within days of their letter leaking, most of the six countries reversed their position and decided to suspend returns. Still, even if aborted, the initiative illustrates the extent to which countries, even in the face of a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, remain preoccupied with preventing migration towards the Europe.

Despite international condemnation of its “stop the boats” policy and its highly contentious offshoring of asylum processing, Australia continues to fortify its rulebook in dealing with unwanted irregular arrivals and refugees. In May 2021, the Migration Amendment (Clarifying International Obligations for Removal) Bill 2021 rapidly passed into law, further undermining the limited legal protections afforded refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. The new legislation allows the government to detain refugees indefinitely if their visa has been cancelled but they cannot be returned to their country of origin, and even to revoke recognition of a refugee’s status.

Finally, a case that illustrates most clearly a normalisation of extreme measures is that of the EU’s collaboration, support and reported collusion with Libyan authorities. Since 2017 the EU as a bloc and Italy have supported and funded training, equipment, and vessels for the Libyan coastguard to prevent asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Europe and risking a repeat of the high numbers that crossed the Mediterranean in 2014-16. There are reports that between 2017 and 2020 over 40,000 people were intercepted and returned to Libya. This has been well documented and often condemned but now in 2021, with the number of interceptions by Libyan coastguards reaching unprecedented levels, the normalisation appears to be almost complete—despite the well-known near-certainty that those returned to Libya face multiple deprivations and violations, whether they be men, women, or children.

In October 2021, the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya, established by the UN Human Rights Council, concluded that

The absence of accountability for abuses against migrants evidences a State policy encouraging the deterrence of sea crossings, the extortion of migrants in detention, and the subjection to violence and discrimination. (…) This provides reasonable grounds to believe that murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts committed against migrants form part of a systematic and widespread attack directed at this population, in furtherance of a State policy. (…)

This finding is made notwithstanding the responsibility that may be borne by third States and further investigations are required to establish the role of all those involved, directly or indirectly, in these crimes”.

However, the report did not name these “third states” or call upon the EU directly to cease all support that facilitates the interception and pullbacks of thousands of people to Libya. And for its part, the EU fully intends to continue this cooperation. It is hard to frame this policy as anything other than cynical and as an externalisation of border control with the added shame of turning a blind eye to the mountainous evidence of detention abuses in Libya. Even if human rights bodies continue to condemn the practice, at the policy level the practice which runs against professed EU values, ethics, and laws appears to barely raise an eyebrow.