Resisting the extreme 2023

The following report was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The report’s author, Anthony Morland, is a journalist and editor based in Paris.

The aim of this section is to present a more optimistic counterpoint to the contents of Normalising the extreme. It does so by setting out some examples of policies and actions around the world that recognise that migrants merit support and protection, rather than stigmatisation, scapegoating and criminalisation, and that acknowledge the potential of migration as a positive driver of growth and prosperity for migrants themselves as well as societies in origin and destination countries. It is thanks to such attitudes, government policies and civil society initiatives that millions of migrants and refugees find sanctuary, success and pathways to citizenship and integration in their host countries. Like its sister section, Resisting the extreme offers a selection of snapshots to illustrate its point, and does not claim to be an exhaustive overview of relevant measures. (More extensive summaries of migration policy developments can be found in MMC’s regional quarterly updates).


Global attitudes to refugees remain strong

Asked whether they agreed in principle that people should be able to take refuge in other states to escape war or persecution in their own countries, 74 percent of almost 22,000 people surveyed this year in 29 countries said they did. While that represents a slight dip compared to last year’s 78 percent, it is still indicative that citizens across the world are supportive of one of the cornerstones of the Refugee Convention: the right to seek asylum. The organisers of the poll, conducted to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, suggested the decline may have been due to an erosion of the unusually positive attitudes towards people who had fled the conflict in Ukraine. More than eight in ten respondents said they were in favour of allowing refugees already living in their country to remain there, but responses were more mixed over accepting new refugees. Opinions were also divided over whether people seeking asylum should be allowed to work, with three-fifths saying this would help integration but half fearing it would attract people lacking a valid claim to asylum. Indeed, across the board, respondents’ chief concern involved the genuineness of people’s claims to be refugees. In a reflection of widespread global empathetic engagement, a third of respondents said they had personally taken some steps in support of refugees during the year leading up to the survey by, variously, donating money or goods, posting messages on social media, signing petitions and contacting their elected representatives.


Government and state initiatives

This section includes several examples of where various state entities—executive, judicial and legislative— stood up to others in an effort to protect the rights of migrants and refugees and to curb what they saw to be extreme measures.

At least seven provinces in Canada this year cancelled contracts under which the federal government uses their jails to detain migrants under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, joining Manitoba, which did so in 2022. The detention of migrants on administrative rather than criminal grounds has prompted criticism from human rights defenders and immigration lawyers in Canada who said it violated international law and unnecessarily separated detainees from their relatives and legal advisors. When Ontario became the eighth refusenik in June, one commentator said the province had joined “a rapidly growing provincial revolt against [Canada’s] prison immigration policy” and that its decision constituted “an important, human-rights affirming limitation” that would “fundamentally alter the landscape of immigration detention” in the country. In the five years leading up to the end of 2020, Canada detained an annual average of 8,000 migrants, a quarter of whom were held in provincial facilities.

A few weeks after Ontario’s defiant move and some 600 kilometres to the south, local and central branches of the United States government were also at odds with each other. But this time the dynamic was reversed, with the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) announcing plans to thwart Texas in the courts over the state’s installation of buoys along the Rio Grande (see Normalising the extreme). In a letter, the DOJ warned Texas Governor Greg Abbott that its actions on the river that marks the border with Mexico were “unlawful… raise humanitarian concerns [and] present serious risks to public safety and the environment.” The buoys rotate when climbed and are strung with underwater netting to maximise their impassability. In September, a federal court ordered Texas to remove the buoys, describing them as a “threat to human life”, but an appeals court put this ruling on hold the following day. Local authorities in various cities in the US have also stood up to the migrant-related actions of Abbott, and his Florida counterpart, Ron DeSantis. This year both governors transported migrants from their states on buses and planes to places such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Sacramento, New York and Washington D.C. in a bid to demonstrate that migrant-friendly policies in these so-called “sanctuary cities” were wrong-headed. Subsequent media coverage suggests their plan backfired, with one editorial declaring that the two governors were mistaken “if they think they are teaching cities with sanctuary polices any lessons with their inhumane political stunts or causing their leaders to rethink their commitment to not treating migrants as criminals.” With the help of church groups and NGOs, municipal authorities were on hand to greet the dozens of confused plane and bus passengers and offer them food, shelter and clothes.

On the other side of the Atlantic, steps taken by the United Kingdom government in its determination to “stop the boats” carrying thousands of migrants across the English Channel came up against opposition from a range of state-associated quarters. In June, the English Court of Appeal ruled that it would be unlawful for asylum seekers reaching the UK irregularly to be deported to Rwanda because judges had determined it was not a safe country. The appeal—against a lower court’s ruling that the Rwanda plan was legal—had been lodged by a group of asylum seekers selected for removal to Rwanda, who were supported by UNHCR. In granting the appeal on the ground of Rwanda’s safety (other grounds were not upheld), the judges dealt a major blow to a flagship component of the government’s migration policy. Earlier in the year, this policy’s legislative backbone, the Illegal Migration Act, faced vociferous resistance in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK parliament. The archbishop of Canterbury, who has a seat in the Lords, described the bill as “morally unacceptable”. He and other members managed to water down some of the bill’s more extreme provisions—relating to detaining minors and abolishing the right to claim asylum for those reaching the UK “illegally”—but their amendments were overturned by the lower house. As the legislation was still being debated in parliament, children’s charities wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, urging him to drop the bill’s “extreme and cruel” provisions for detaining minors, while faith leaders and medical organisations also spoke out publicly. Similar outrage also prevailed among asylum caseworkers at the UK’s Home Office—which is now facing a record backlog of more than 175,000 claims—where one staff member warned in April that there would be an “exodus” if case workers were obliged to act “illegally” under the new law’s provisions. Then in September, a local mayor filed a legal challenge against another high-profile aspect of the government’s policy: a plan to house hundreds of asylum seekers on a barge widely criticised over fire safety and public health concerns (see Normalising the extreme). The elected official said, “it’s just terrible to think that our country would do something like this to vulnerable people” but acknowledged that it was “a huge and daunting task to take on the whole mechanism of the state, the home secretary and the Home Office”.

In June, the Supreme Court of Estonia recently ruled against a ban on immigration detainees using their mobile phones and stated that access to the internet is a human right that must be maintained by detention centre management. The Rae Detention Centre, where immigration detainees are held, had been enforcing severe restrictions on communication with the outside world. Mobile phones were confiscated upon arrival and detainees received a monthly calling card worth just €5— sometimes enough for barely 10 minutes, depending on the country being called. Detainees were also limited in their internet access, as the centre’s computers only connect to a few select websites.

In April, the prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, spoke out against the practice of building fences on the European Union’s borders, calling such barriers “not only costly and politically questionable, [but] also not effective in stopping irregular migration.” He also underscored the legal obligation and moral duty of member states to provide international protection to those seeking it and called for greater respect of fundamental rights enshrined in international humanitarian law.

In May, members of the European Parliament took an important step to ensuring that the bloc’s proposed ground-breaking AI Act includes significant protections against the harmful use of artificial intelligence in the field of migration. This step took the form of a vote by the parliament’s civil liberties and internal market committees to ban the use of: so-called emotion recognition technologies that have been tested by some member states at Europe’s borders to assess the credibility of asylum claims; biometric categorisation systems that draw inferences about honesty from data about personal characteristics; and predictive policing systems that are used to make risk assessments about individuals. NGOs and advocacy groups welcomed the ban, saying such technologies “are based on unscientific and often biased, discriminatory assumptions, which then inform real-world decision-making that has a real and detrimental impact on people’s lives.”


Civil society initiatives

A German sea-rescue organisation defied new Italian legislation that obliges civilian rescue ships to return to shore—and often to distant ports—immediately after each rescue operation, a requirement that runs counter to all vessels’ duty under international law to respond to ships in distress and which has prompted warnings that the law would lead to more people drowning on the Mediterranean (see Normalising the extreme). After the Sea-Eye 4 opted to conduct two consecutive rescues during the same voyage in June, thereby saving 32 people from drowning, Italian authorities acting under the new law detained the ship for 20 days. This prompted the German NGO to file a lawsuit against the detention in an Italian civil court. Warning that the law “could bring civilian rescue to a complete standstill” the NGO pointed out that if the Sea-Eye 4 was again detained for violating it, the NGO could be fined up to €50,000 and see its ship confiscated for six months. The new law and the distant port policy was also the subject of a complaint submitted by five prominent NGOs to the European Commission that raised concerns about its compatibility with existing EU and international law. Instead of disrupting the work of SAR NGO’s, “EU member states should involve them in setting up a proper system for search and rescue activities,” said one of the signatory NGOs.

A court challenge was also the immediate—and successful—response to an announcement made by the government in Belgium that the state would no longer provide accommodation to single male asylum seekers. A temporary suspension of sheltering single men was declared on 29 August by the country’s secretary for asylum and migration, who said a shortage of accommodation meant that available places had to be reserved for families with children. Soon afterwards eight associations filed an appeal at the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, in a bid to obtain a temporary stop on the suspension, which one lawyer described as “illegal in several respects.” The following week, the court overturned the suspension, deeming it in contravention of Belgium’s migration laws. The ruling came in the wake of sustained criticism against Belgian authorities for their failure to provide adequate shelter to asylum seekers, and after the European Court of Human Rights highlighted their “systemic failure… to enforce final judicial decisions concerning the reception of applicants for international protection.”

In neighbouring France, the state’s failure to provide adequate accommodation for young migrants led hundreds of them to pitch tents in front of the Council of State, the supreme court for administrative justice. Co-organised by the Utopia 56 advocacy group, the sit-in was a protest to the living conditions endured by 700 youths who had been seeking shelter for more than two months in an abandoned Parisian school. Police later arrested 32 people as they forcibly cleared the tents.

In September, an appeal court in Greece’s Northern Aegean region awarded €16,000 in compensation to an Afghan man whom the same court had exonerated the previous December after he had served three years of a 50-year jail sentence imposed upon his conviction for people smuggling. When he arrived in Greece from Türkiye in 2020, Akif Rasuli was immediately arrested and charged with causing a shipwreck and, as the alleged driver of the stricken boat, with smuggling. He was found not guilty of causing the shipwreck but guilty of smuggling, even though, according to his lawyers, no evidence was presented against him. While welcoming the appeal court’s latest decision, Rasuli’s lawyers noted that it was a small and rare victory, given that people charged or convicted of smuggling offenses comprise the second largest category of prisoners in Greece and that few of them are acquitted, let alone compensated for wrongful imprisonment. Legal Centre Lesvos went on to call for Greek and European smuggling laws to be aligned with the UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants, so as to stop migrants who are themselves victims of smugglers being prosecuted.


Regularisation and inclusion

In April, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants reiterated that granting a regular migration status to migrants in an irregular situation can effectively safeguard the human rights of vulnerable migrants. This measure is particularly important for those who have faced human rights violations and abuses in their home countries or during their migration journey through transit and destination countries. The implementation of regularisation mechanisms can benefit both human development and national development. As the following examples illustrate, destination countries sometimes take steps to counter the exclusion of irregular migrants other than granting them full residency rights.

Authorities in several US states took significant steps towards integrating their migrant residents. Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety announced in September that some 81,000 undocumented migrants living in the state would soon be allowed to apply for a driver’s licence without presenting proof of legal presence in the country. This is important not so much because it will allow migrants to drive, but because such licences facilitate access to employment and a range of public services such as healthcare. As he signed the bill that formalised the change, state governor Tim Walz said it “makes sure that our children and families can come out of the shadows and that all Minnesotans have opportunities to thrive, succeed, grow and live their fullest lives in our state.” Earlier in 2023, the same state introduced a college tuition facility for low-income families, with no restrictions related to immigration status. Utah took a similar step, extending tuition support to various immigration categories. Currently, at least 23 US states, along with the District of Columbia, offer in-state tuition regardless of immigration status. Also in 2023, Maryland opted to allow qualified but undocumented immigrants to work in the field of occupational health, while California is working on extending state-funded health insurance to all immigrants who do not qualify for federal public insurance.

In February, the government in Australia announced that almost 20,000 refugees would become eligible to apply for permanent residency, a move refugee advocates described as “a victory of unity and compassion over division and fear”. The move applies to people currently holding temporary protection and safe haven enterprise visas and will mean beneficiaries enjoy the same rights as all other permanent residents, including with regard to social security, educational loans, and pathways to full citizenship.

Some states in northeast India have pushed back against central government pressure to stem the “illegal influx” of people fleeing neighbouring Myanmar since that country’s 2021 coup d’état by restricting the refugees to specific locations and initiating deportation proceedings. Unlike more compliant leaders of other states in the region, the chief minister of Mizoram urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide the refugees with asylum, saying that deporting them was “unacceptable”. Rather than adhering to Delhi’s harsh entreaties, the government in Mizoram has instead assisted those fleeing Myanmar and allowed them to work. Estimates of the number of refugees living in India range from 20,000 to 50,000.

Five years after Brazil began voluntarily relocating Venezuelans who had taken refuge in the border state of Roraima to over 900 cities elsewhere in Brazil, the government announced that more than 100,000 people had benefitted from the policy. The programme’s beneficiaries, around 80 percent of whom are women and children, make up about a quarter of the total number of Venezuelans living in Brazil. The aim of the policy is to enhance protection and inclusion. To that end, those who willingly relocate receive work permits and other essential documentation. The first three months of this year saw almost 52,000 Venezuelans enter Brazil, a record for the first quarter of any year since 2020. Under the Operação Acolhida (Operation Shelter), run by the federal government in partnership with a range of NGOs and UN agencies, people arriving from Venezuela are provided with humanitarian and integration services.

Prospects for regular migration between Kenya and Germany grew considerably in August when the two countries signed a strategic partnership that could see more than 400,000 jobseekers from the East African country find work opportunities abroad. Developing such regular migration pathways to promote labour mobility is one of the 23 objectives of the Global Compact for Migration. The scheme, conceived by a leading Kenyan parliamentarian and Germany’s ambassador to Kenya, will focus on improving the quality of dozens of Kenya’s technical, vocational, educational and training centres as a step towards filling some 250,000 unfilled positions in Germany. The previous month, the government in Italy said it planned to issue 425,000 work permits to non-EU nationals by 2025 in order to plug gaps in the labour market and promote legal migration. Opposition politicians were quick to accuse the ruling right-wing coalition of hypocrisy, saying its leading lights had “built their political careers by demonising immigration as a national security threat”, with the use of terms such as “ethnic replacement” and “invasion.” Also in 2023, new pathways for work-related regular migration were created for Indian nations in Finland, Germany, Italy, the UK and Norway, while Malaysia made it easier for nationals of 15 countries to immigrate so as to fill gaps in its labour market.


Investigative journalism

According to the Washington Post’s catch phrase, “democracy dies in darkness”. When it comes to states’ responses to mixed migration (and especially irregular migration), the upshot of this aphorism is that the extreme thrives on ignorance, on the lack of awareness by citizens about what is going at borders or on the high seas, or on a failure to grasp the importance of such events, both at the micro level of the individuals affected, and at the macro level: the implications of the fact that extreme actions and policies are being carried out in the name of those who voted the authors of such actions into office. Us, in other words. Resisting the extreme thus first entails shedding light and holding power to account—the very definition of good journalism. Effective journalism also needs to recognise the truth of another aphorism: the devil is in the details. Details such as timelines, witness statements, photographic and video imagery, geolocation, and so on. Details that persuasively clarify the classic four “W”s of journalism: Who did what, when and why? Without the work of journalists and media organisations, Normalising the extreme would be a much shorter document, as a lot of relevant material would not have come to light. One news organisation in particular that has dedicated considerable time and resources to exposing extreme responses to irregular migration is Lighthouse Reports, in which several of the world’s leading media houses collaborate on in-depth investigations. Subjects covered this year include alleged cover-ups over their role in shipwrecks by authorities in Greece and Italy; the use of ethnic profiling in the Netherlands; and the secret below deck detention of migrants on ferries travelling between Greece and Italy. As evidenced by Normalising the extreme’s footnotes, many mainstream non-specialist media houses also cover similar subjects and events, and the more relevant ones in Europe and beyond are helpfully collated into weekly digests published by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. InfoMigrants, a collaboration by media houses in France, Germany and Italy, provides a similar service, covering topics such as international law, asylum law, deaths at sea and sea rescue, and the refugee convention.