2020 in review: Migration and forced displacement

COVID-19 put an unprecedented dampener on global mobility this year, but it didn’t stop people being displaced from their homes or asylum seekers and migrants attempting dangerous journeys to cross borders and seas in search of safety and economic opportunity. 

At the beginning of the year, the number of people forcibly displaced by conflict, persecution, and human rights violations stood at around 79.5 million. By June, it had risen to over 80 million, despite restrictions on movement and calls from the UN for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. 

If anything, the coronavirus only exacerbated the factors pushing people to migrate, while rendering refugee and IDP camps more dangerous, increasing risks for people on the move, and providing governments with an excuse to implement hardline – often legally dubious – migration policies. 

There were some exceptions. Spurred by economic and medical necessity, some national and local governments took steps to include everyone – regardless of legal status – in their responses to the pandemic. 

Notably, Portugal temporarily extended residency rights to immigrants with pending applications and undocumented people within its borders, paving the way for them to access social services and medical care, and Italy adopted an ambitious – albeit flawed – regularisation programme for undocumented migrants working in certain sectors of the economy. 

But overall, the pandemic accelerated trends towards more restrictive migration policies and a disregard for the human rights of asylum seekers and migrants in 2020. 

In the Mediterranean, only around 90,000 asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe this year – compared to 123,000 last year and more than one million in 2015. More than 950 died attempting the journey, although the true number is likely significantly higher. 

Italy and Malta cited the virus when closing their ports to asylum seekers and migrants in April, and social distancing measures, travel restrictions, and government obstruction have hampered NGO search and rescue efforts. Without dedicated search and rescue boats and aircrafts monitoring the sea, it’s impossible to know how many shipwrecks have actually taken place. 

The pandemic accelerated trends towards more restrictive migration policies and a disregard for the human rights of asylum seekers and migrants in 2020.

The EU also continued to back the Libyan Coast Guard, which intercepted more than 10,000 people, dragging them back to detention centres where thousands disappeared from the official radar into a shadowy system of extortion and abuse.  

Following a politically induced refugee crisis at the Greek-Turkey border at the end of February, human rights groups documented a sharp increase in pushbacks carried out by Greek authorities at the country’s land and sea borders – including cases of people abandoned in floating tents in the Aegean Sea and of registered asylum seekers rounded up deep inside Greek territory and expelled to Turkey. 

At the beginning of September, the burning of Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos dramatically illustrated the shortcomings of EU migration policy as years of failure to address the humanitarian needs of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Greece collided with the coronavirus to create an untenable situation. The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, a package of proposals to guide how EU countries approach the topic in years to come, was launched shortly after the fires, but looks unlikely to reduce the suffering at Europe’s borders

In the United States, the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump, which has been hostile to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants since taking office in January 2017, effectively eliminated access to asylum at the US-Mexico border through a coronavirus public health order allowing anyone entering the country irregularly to be removed immediately without being able to apply for international protection. More than 315,000 people were expelled under the order between March and mid-December. 

Years of failure to address the humanitarian needs of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in Greece collided with the coronavirus to create an untenable situation.

In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic overlapped with a months-long internet and telecommunications ban imposed on the roughly 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in the region’s camps, which helped fuel the spread of false rumours and panic about the virus

Hundreds of refugees leaving Bangladesh were trapped at sea, some for months, as neighbouring countries shut their borders.

On land, the pandemic escalated tensions between Rohingya refugees and their Bangladeshi hosts, with refugees stigmatised as virus-spreaders and frustration directed towards aid groups perceived as privileging refugees over local communities. At the beginning of December, Bangladeshi authorities began transferring 1,600 Rohingya to a remote island on the Bay of Bengal, despite protests from refugees and rights groups.  

In Latin America, even before coronavirus, xenophobia was growing towards some five million Venezuelans who have fled to other countries in the region since 2015 to escape their country’s economic meltdown. The pandemic contributed to hardening attitudes toward Venezuelans and generally deepened the humanitarian crisis in the region.

The economic impact of lockdowns pushed more than 135,000 Venezuelans to return home – although many appeared to be leaving again by late 2020 – even as growing violence and conflict along the Colombia-Venezuela border made such journeys ever-more dangerous. Plunging remittances – a consequence of the pandemic seen around the world – also added to the economic difficulties faced by an estimated two million Venezuelan households (around 35 percent of all homes) that rely on payments from family members abroad. 

In Iran, an economic downturn fuelled by US sanctions was already pushing Afghans to return home before coronavirus reached the country. In February, Iran was one of the first countries outside of China to be hit hard by an outbreak, which pushed thousands more Afghans to re-enter Afghanistan, and imported the country’s first cases. As of mid-December, a record 817,000 undocumented Afghans have returned home this year from Iran, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. Even as the country struggled to cope with escalating infections and Taliban violence, the EU sought ways to more easily deport rejected Afghan asylum seekers to their home country. 

Capping off the year, the Ethiopian government’s military offensive in the northern Tigray region sparked a fresh displacement crisis, with more than 50,000 people crossing into neighbouring Sudan. While increased economic hardship and a combination of other factors led to the revival of the dangerous Atlantic maritime route from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands – numbers increased from under 2,700 in 2019 to more than 21,400 in 2020.