Resisting 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.


This section, included in the Mixed Migration Review for the first time this year, is designed as an uplifting and necessary counterpoint to our bleaker annual “Normalising the extreme” feature.  Conceptualising and researching this section were not straightforward because there are various psychological and practical obstacles to framing positive, progressive, rights-based, and even compassionate approaches to mixed migration. There is a tendency to identify and catalogue negative approaches ahead of positive ones both in research and in the news media, which famously thrives on “bad” news. While the “Normalising the extreme” section of the MMR is, sadly, rather easy to compile and is growing every year, assembling this sister feature has proven to be more of a challenge. It is unclear whether this difficulty reflects the preponderance of ever harsher and more restrictive approaches to mixed migration, or rather that more positive examples going against this trend are simply more difficult to find and are less publicised, perhaps because they constitute the status quo of migration policy rather than being noteworthy aberrations.

In compiling this section, we were unsure as to where to draw the line in terms of what to include and what to leave out; we also struggled to find source material on positive actions that challenged the normalisation of the extreme. Furthermore, some positive actions were immediately followed by negative ones; for example, ports allowing disembarkation of migrants and asylum seekers, only for authorities to subsequently detain them indefinitely or in poor conditions and even try to deport them without due process.

To mirror the format of “Normalising the extreme”, entries in this section have been grouped into several broad (and occasionally overlapping) themes.

1. Welcome and protection

States continued to accept refugees and asylum seekers around the world in 2021. Thousands of refugees were processed and resettled as part of the continuous UNHCR resettlement programme, while many more had their asylum applications received by states which they had entered irregularly. The UNHCR, other international organisations, and numerous NGOs supported, and international donors continued to fund, assistance to forcibly displaced people (internal and cross-border) in many countries. Although 2020’s Covid-driven slump in UNHCR resettlement submissions and actual departures continued into 2021, between January and  August 2021, almost 20,000 refugees were resettled from their states of asylum to third countries. In September 2021, US President Joe Biden announced plans to double his country’s refugee admissions cap for the fiscal year that began in October 2021 (FY2022) to 125,000—a dramatic increase on the record low cap of 15,000 that his predecessor Donald Trump had set for the previous fiscal year.

Meanwhile, many countries experienced a surge in asylum requests in 2021 while still dealing with a massive backlog of pending applications. European Union states, for example, received over 420,000 applications between mid-2020 and mid-2021. First-time asylum applicants in the EU were up by 115% in the second quarter of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020, (when numbers were severely reduced by pandemic movement restrictions). UNHCR planned to assist Mexico, where a sharp rise in asylum applications was seen in 2021. While a surge in asylum applications in itself is not a positive development, and notwithstanding the hardships many asylum seekers have to go through before they are able to even apply for asylum, these statistics show that despite myriad restrictive measures, many countries to a large extent still keep their borders open to asylum seekers and enable those in need to exercise their right to seek asylum.

South American states continued to accept and receive large numbers of migrants and refugees from the Venezuelan complex emergency in 2021. Some 5.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015. Although the United States and various European countries have welcomed many thousands of Venezuelan refugees, South American and Caribbean countries such as Chile, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Panama, Uruguay, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago have taken in the bulk of those in the exodus. Despite internal difficulties in receiving countries, Covid-19 fears, and sometimes changing public opinion resulting in some visa restrictions in 2021, millions of Venezuelans continue to find out-of-camp sanctuary, are offered integration, and have been given access to public services and protection.

Throughout 2021, neighbouring countries of Syria continued to host, protect, and integrate 5.6 million Syrian refugees both in and outside of camps. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt are the primary hosting countries with Turkey hosting over 65 percent of the cases. Covid-19 put considerable strain on hosting nations and refugees during 2020 and 2021 and many refugees survive in extremely depressed socio-economic conditions such as those in Lebanon, where they make up almost 20 percent of the population and which is going through its own deepening socioeconomic and political crisis. In all countries, the vast majority of refugees are in out-of-camp situations and to varying degrees benefit from access to public services.

Other countries hosting large numbers of refugees and migrants in 2021 and which offer sanctuary (mainly in-camp in contrast to other parts of the world where pushbacks occur and barriers are in place) are Pakistan (hosting 1.4 million Afghans), Uganda (1.1 million, mainly South Sudanese and DRC nationals), Germany (1 million, mostly Syrian), Bangladesh (900,000 Rohingya), Iran (970,000 mainly Afghans), Ethiopia (800,000 mainly Eritreans, Somali and South Sudanese)  and  Sudan (1.1 million, mainly South Sudanese and Eritrean). All these examples indicate the extent to which countries in the Global South—despite many challenges and notwithstanding occasional resistance against refugee hosting—continue to host large numbers of forcible displaced people, often for decades.

At the end of August, following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, 98 countries said they would assist and take in fleeing Afghans. Meanwhile, the EU braced itself against a possible large-scale arrival of refugees by pledging support to Afghanistan’s neighbours in what some have described as a cynical effort to renege on international protection commitments. By contrast, various mayors across Italy announced they would welcome Afghan refugees as a fiery right/left debate erupted around the issue. Likewise, over 70 mayors around the world announced they would welcome Afghan refugees in their communities and called for an expansion of safe pathways.

Much more could be written about the state of asylum and refugees globally and efforts to protect those on the move seeking refuge, but the cases listed above give testimony to a level of ongoing and important support that challenges the extreme actions taken by some states to deny protection or refuge.

2. Open ports and sea rescue

During 2021, maritime migrants and asylum seekers found ports that accepted their disembarkation—albeit sometimes reluctantly—in adherence to international maritime law and national regulations. By October 2021 over 86,000 maritime migrants had found receiving ports in Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta, and Cyprus. Despite some efforts to block them, most arrived in national waters and were managed by states’ border authorities to safely disembark for processing. Some were delivered by the few rescue ships such as those operated by Sea Eye who rescued hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in distress. In May, the crew of the commercial vessel, Maersk Etienne, were awarded a prize for saving migrants in a complicated and contentious incident involving Malta and Italy.

More than 18,000 migrants and asylum seekers crossed the English Channel between January – September 2021 (inclusive) despite British and French efforts to deter them. Hundreds of Rohingya maritime migrants arrived in different incidents on shores/ports in Indonesia and Malaysia and disembarked despite efforts to deter new arrivals. Although they often face an uncertain future after arrival, they were at least able to disembark in safe countries and did not face the same fate as thousands of others who have been pulled back by Libyan coastguards or experienced week-long disembarkation stand-offs in the Mediterranean or Andaman seas.

In October 2021, a court in Italy convicted a commercial ship’s captain of abandonment of minors and vulnerable people when in 2018 he intercepted and “rescued” 101 migrants in the Mediterranean only to sail them to Tripoli and hand them over to Libyan authorities for detention. Rights groups have long denounced the continued financial support provided to the Libyan coastguard by the EU and some member states and the interceptions and returns to Libya of migrants found in the Mediterranean. This practice is regularly cited as a normalisation of extreme actions in the annual Mixed Migration Reviews, including this edition. The criminal conviction, if upheld on appeal, could have broad political implications for Italy and the EU and possibly lead to the end of these practices and policies if by implication EU support for Libyan pullbacks also comes to be regarded as illegal. Amnesty International welcomed the verdict, saying it could establish a precedent and had already sent a message that “if other civilian or commercial ships do the same, they can be tried and convicted.

3. Regularisation and paths to citizenship

Although it is a contentious policy tool, there was strong evidence of a greater receptiveness to regularising irregular migrants across several jurisdictions in 2021. While mass regularisations have occurred from time to time in various countries in the past, those in 2021 are taking place in the context of Covid-19 and a new recognition of the key role migrant workers (both irregular and regular) play in society and economies, as well as the public health imperative of including as many people as possible in vaccination and tracing efforts.

Processes towards temporary regularisations were initiated in 2020 and continued in 2021 in Italy and Portugal. In Italy 220,000 people applied under the programme, just under a third of the official estimate of 690,000 undocumented migrants in the country. The possibility of regularisation was raised also in the UK’s new plans for immigration despite the country’s general hostile approach to irregular arrivals and post-Brexit immigration restrictions. The Irish government expects to adopt a regularisation scheme that will allow successful applicants to begin the path to citizenship for an estimated 17,000 irregular migrants.

Other countries have focused on preventing people from becoming undocumented by extending residence permits during the Covid-19 lockdowns, including Greece, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, and Finland. Even Bahrain and Kuwait, which are normally very restrictive, implemented partial measures to allow irregular migrants to work and be hired by employers. Concerns associated with public health fears have driven many positive programmes around the world to include undocumented migrants in national health schemes and to reduce their invisibility to state organs without fear of censure for their irregular status.

In a clear response to fears of Covid-19 spreading in Thailand, the government offered a new scheme to give two-year work permits to undocumented workers from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. An estimated 600,000 to 800,000 migrants could benefit. In Malaysia, 200,000 undocumented Bangladeshi workers were given the chance to become regularised in 2021. In late 2021, Colombia decided to give temporary (10-year) protective legal status to Venezuelan migrants, allowing most of the 966,000 Venezuelan migrants who live in Colombia without legal status to become regularised and acquire the right to work. In 2020 and 2021, Peru classified all migrants awaiting regularisation as regular during the Covid-19 pandemic and automatically renewed all Temporary Stay Permits, actions that together benefitted up to 782,000 people.

Meanwhile, President Biden sent the US Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress on his first day in office. If enacted, it would create a route to citizenship for the country’s almost 11 million unlawfully resident migrants but is likely to face obstacles before being accepted. If passed, it would create the largest regularisation program in US history.

4. Changing visibility and appreciation of migrant workers during Covid-19

In contrast to continuing reports of discriminatory, xenophobic, and exclusionary   violations   against migrant workers (and refugees) due to putative public health fears, the Covid-19 pandemic has also led to a changing visibility and appreciation of migrants in the community. Globally, migrants make up only 4.7 percent of the workforce but the role they play in societies and economies was and is disproportionately important as “essential” and “frontline” workers during the pandemic.

Highly represented in the health, care, and delivery sectors, migrant workers’ heightened roles during the pandemic were unignorable. Also, in other sectors such as agriculture, shortages of farm workers hit many countries. In OECD countries in particular, the contradiction between migrants being “low-skilled” and “irregular” at the same time as being deemed “essential” became more evident, prompted some states to reflect on the future of their immigration policies, and to consider redefining skills-based categorisations and creating new legal pathways for essential occupations, including those that are low-paid. In the US, nearly three quarters of all undocumented migrants are working in sectors deemed essential to the nation’s critical infrastructure. However, these workers are simultaneously “essential” while also facing the daily risk of detention and deportation under current immigration policies.

In tandem with the expansion of regularisation programmes mentioned above, 2020 and 2021 saw numerous efforts to fast-track a range of new regulations. These variously included travel ban exemptions that allowed migrants to legitimately work in sectors where they were most needed, included migrants in public health and vaccination programmes, and improved migrants’ access to emergency financial support. In Germany, irregular migrants were permitted to work in farming for a six-month period. In the US, various cities, including New York, ran programmes to assist undocumented migrants, which gave undocumented immigrants unemployment insurance and stimulus payments similar to those offered to other citizens, benefiting an estimated 290,000 people. Egypt set up targeted support for irregular workers in sectors severely hit by Covid-19, providing monthly grants over three months to 1.6 million beneficiaries. South Africa reportedly provided 30 percent of its financial support targeting small convenience shops to kiosks owned by foreigners, including refugees. In many countries, medically qualified migrants, especially doctors previously barred from working, were given permits to work to support Covid-19 response efforts.

Although many of these actions may be temporary and be limited by the duration of the Covid pandemic, they show a willingness to recognise, value, support, and include—rather than exclude—undocumented foreign nationals, “regular” migrants, and refugees. They also show that alternative approaches can be successfully applied in different sectors and in different ways to create a more cooperative win-win outcome between states and irregular migrants and refugees.

5. Free movement in Africa and the GCM

Despite Covid-19 travel restrictions and other policy responses, January 2021 marked the official launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of participating countries since the creation of the World Trade Organisation. AfCFTA is said to have the potential to lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty. Initially the agreement focuses on trade, but subsequent phases will work towards continent-wide free movement of people. Africa already has several overlapping sub-regional agreements—such as the Economic Community of West African States’ Protocol on the Free Movement of People and Goods and the Southern Africa  Development  Community’s  Protocol on Facilitation of the Movement of Persons—but rules vary from region to region, while progress on the African Union’s continent-wide Protocol on Free Movement of Persons has been bogged down by logistical challenges and concerns over security and sovereignty.

Linkages between African states’ engagement with and commitment to the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) and the AfCFTA are set to accelerate progress towards continental free movement. The first continental GCM review conference was held in Morocco at the end of August; it called for greater collaboration among African states to implement the compact so as to “reap the benefits of migration for all.” Africa was also the first continent to develop a continental GCM implementation plan. Africa-wide free movement of people would offer huge financial and economic benefits to participating countries and massively expand legal channels for migration and, by extension, reduce irregular migration— with all its accompanying dangers and vulnerabilities.

6. Halting US externalisation

Just as many countries in the world are externalising— or planning to externalise—border controls, asylum processing, and even refugee resettlement, in February 2021 the US ended its Asylum Cooperation Agreements (also known as safe third-country agreements) with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Set up  under the Trump administration in 2019, these arrangements created a regional precedent allowing the US to send asylum-seekers arriving at its border to one of the Central American countries to request asylum. Although they were hardly implemented (except with Guatemala) they were criticised by rights groups and UNHCR, which welcomed the decision to abandon plans they feared would lead to “chain refoulement”.

7. Data privacy of refugees

After a lengthy investigation, in early 2021 the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner found that the Australian government must compensate almost 1,300 asylum seekers whose details were mistakenly exposed online on the then Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s website. Almost 10,000 asylum seekers’ personal details were exposed in 2014, contrary to the country’s data privacy regulations. The regulatory authority has left it to the government to decide what level of compensation will be paid. It is expected the sums will range from $500 to $20,000 and will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. This case highlights the need to respect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers whose data is not infrequently exposed or shared without informed consent and with possible harmful repercussions.