Top 10 Migration Issues of 2019
In 2019, long-running and emerging crises forced significant new displacement in places such as Venezuela, Syria, Iraq, and Africa's Sahel region. Elsewhere in the world, migrants and asylum seekers faced increased barriers to reaching international destinations; in places such as the United States, access to asylum was further narrowed. While gains made by far-right, populists in Europe and elsewhere faced some reversals in 2019, hardening attitudes about migrants and refugees spurred violent attacks in New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. Learn more about these issues—and many others—by diving into our annual countdown of the Top 10 migration issues of the year.
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With no end in sight to the profound economic and political crisis that has destabilized Venezuela, Venezuelans continued to leave in staggering numbers in 2019, with 1 million refugees and migrants flowing out of the country over just a seven-month period. As of November, 4.6 million had fled abroad over the past several years, marking the largest recorded refugee crisis in the Americas. And millions more who remained in Venezuela were in difficult circumstances, facing hunger, lack of access to health care and potable water, or the threat of reprisal.
While the vast majority of Venezuelans migrate to neighboring Latin American and Caribbean countries, in particular Colombia and Peru, efforts to cooperate regionally and keep in place low entry requirements—both of which were lauded in past years—have seemingly weakened as frustration and fatigue grow in host communities.
Outside of the region, calls for greater support to address the humanitarian crisis grew louder in 2019. A solidarity conference held in Brussels in October raised around $133 million. In November, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched the 2020 Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan (RMRP) to raise $1.35 billion, which will be funneled to more than 130 organizations assisting Venezuelan migrants and host communities. With estimates that as many as 6.5 million Venezuelans could be living abroad by the end of 2020, targeted, long-term support will be increasingly vital. As Eduardo Stein, Joint Special Representative of UNHCR and IOM emphasized, “A good amount of those who left are not going to want to return… [t]he entire region won’t be the same.”
During a few short weeks in October, more than 215,000 Syrians were internally displaced as Turkish forces launched air and ground strikes in Kurdish-held areas. The newly displaced joined 819,000 other Syrians forced from their homes during the first half of 2019, bringing overall internal displacement since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to more than 6 million.
The Turkish invasion of northeast Syria triggered a “catastrophic civilian displacement,” in a region that has experienced mass displacement within and beyond the country’s borders since the beginning of the civil war; more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled abroad. Further, Turkey’s threats to allow refugees to flood into Europe and reports of deportations of Syrians have stoked fears of further mass movements.
While some European observers lobbied to return migrants in view of diminished conflict at the beginning of 2019, the new displacements underscore shifting ground in Syria—and the precarious situations civilians are often caught up in. Moreover, about 12,000 Syrians fled to neighboring Iraq, a country struggling with its own new wave of internal displacement: 59,000 Iraqis were displaced in the first half of 2019 amid long-term insecurity.
Syria and Iraq have contended with years-long unrest, violence, and population movements, but with the geopolitical shifts in 2019, both countries will be confronted with new displacement. They may also face difficult migrant returns in the period ahead, as countries of first asylum and other destinations increasingly chafe at the long-term presence of the arrivals.
Issue No 3. Using Aid and Trade Threats as Leverage, United States Pushes Through Controversial Migration Management Deals
With 2019 witnessing more apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border than had been seen in a decade, the Trump administration threatened trade tariffs and cancelled foreign aid to pressure Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to take more active roles in helping the United States manage flows of asylum seekers and other migrants.
In the case of Mexico, the threatened imposition of tariffs caused the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to deploy 27,000 National Guard troops to block Central Americans and other transiting migrants as well as accept expansion of the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (informally known as Remain in Mexico). Some accused Mexico of becoming Donald Trump’s much-desired border wall.
After President Trump announced the cancellation of hundreds of millions of dollars of intended foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the countries one by one signed controversial “asylum cooperation agreements” permitting the United States to turn back certain asylum seekers even though those countries themselves have only the most embryonic asylum systems.
“We don't have asylum capacities, but we can build them,” Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele said. To date, two dozen asylum seekers have been sent to Guatemala, and returns to El Salvador and Honduras under the deals have yet to begin. In October, the U.S. government announced the resumption of some of the aid, citing progress in reducing migration flows to the United States.
Migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped significantly in the latter months of 2019, with administration officials touting Remain in Mexico, in particular, as responsible for the drop. The question is at what cost, however. Humanitarian groups have deplored conditions in the makeshift camps for the estimated 60,000 asylum seekers sent back to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program, and noted that migrants have reported kidnappings, sexual assaults, and other violence.
Issue No. 4. Violence against Immigrant and Minority Communities Erupts Amid Rising Xenophobic, Anti-Migrant Discourse
Amid increased political and societal polarization and hardening attitudes in some countries towards immigration, 2019 was marked by deadly attacks against immigrant and minority communities. In March, an Australian white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people. In a 74-page manifesto, the gunman warned of “white genocide” sparked by mass immigration; the words “here’s your migration compact!” were painted on one of his guns.
Halfway across the world, a shooter stormed a southern California synagogue, killing one woman, on the last day of Passover and told police that he was inspired by the Christchurch attack. In August in Texas, a gunman who confessed he intended to target Mexicans drove 660 miles to shoot up an El Paso shopping complex, killing 22. Also in August, a Norwegian citizen attacked a mosque in Oslo. And in Johannesburg, waves of anti-migrant violence erupted in September, as South Africans looted migrant-owned businesses; at least 12 people died.
While xenophobia and anti-migrant discourse are nothing new, 2019 witnessed episodes that moved beyond rhetoric. In the United States, hate crimes have reached decades-high levels. The El Paso shooter professed anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment in an online manifesto. He, as well as the Christchurch and Poway, California gunmen, referenced the “great replacement” theory, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant screed that contends white people will be replaced by people of color.
Amid the spread of such speech in alt-right and white nationalist online forums, the episodes of violence incited deadly echoes elsewhere, with the El Paso and Poway, California gunmen saying they were inspired by the Christchurch shooter. “There’s no question these people are feeding off each other,” one expert said.
A humanitarian crisis in Africa’s Sahel region (including parts of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria), led to major increases in internal and cross-border displacement in 2019. Nearly half a million people were displaced in Burkina Faso during the year—about 300,000 over the span of just four months. During the year, the climate of insecurity reached new heights in a region marked by interwoven violence and instability since 2016.
The Sahel is combating conflict on several fronts, including changing climate and violent attacks by extremists, which have combined to displace nearly 1 million people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
Drought followed by intense, unpredictable rainfalls and extreme temperatures—rising 1.5 times faster than the global average—have limited crop production, degraded land, and reduced the water supply for humans and livestock alike. The result has been a spike in emergency levels of malnutrition. In November, the World Food Program warned that 2.4 million people in the Central Sahel faced severe food insecurity, putting “a whole generation” at risk.
The region is also battling surges of violence, erupting between local militants and Islamist extremists, with the jihadis, some with ties to the Islamic State and al Qaeda, extending their strength. Although localized conflict and attacks from militants were common, large-scale attacks were rare until last year. The geographic scope of violence has also increased: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned “about the continuing escalation of violence in the Sahel and its expansion to the Gulf of Guinea countries.”
While much of the displacement is internal, many have been forced across international borders, prompting the UN General Assembly to call for a “global response” to this under-reported crisis.
Issue No. 6. Countries Push Borders Outward, Preventing Migrants from Reaching Hoped-For Destinations
Amid hardening attitudes towards asylum seekers and other migrants seeking to reach desired destinations in Europe and North America, 2019 witnessed a number of steps taken by governments to implement “remote-control” policies or engage in informal practices to turn back arrivals.
Perhaps most notably, the United States implemented Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, informally known as Remain in Mexico), adding a formidable layer to a series of Trump administration policies designed to narrow access to the U.S. asylum system. Under MPP, more than 60,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico, where they remain in difficult conditions while awaiting a long-off date for a U.S. immigration court hearing.
Beyond MPP, the United States took new steps to sharply limit who can apply for asylum, including a July rule barring asylum for nearly all who transit through another country before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. And in November, U.S. authorities began sending a small number of asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala, under one of three controversial asylum cooperation deals struck with the three countries.
Across the Atlantic, word emerged of a secret deal Malta negotiated with Libya for the latter’s coast guard to intercept and return migrants before they reach Maltese territorial waters. Italy already has such a deal. The human cost of these and other policies, described by some as creating Fortress Europe, was thrown in stark relief in July when an airstrike on a Libyan migrant detention center killed more than 40 people.
Beyond overt policies, informal practices to thwart migrant arrivals also were seen, including reports of forced pushbacks of asylum seekers from Greece into Turkey.
Despite the controversial nature of offshoring policies, governments tout them as a success. Noting five months of declining apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border, a U.S. official called MPP and similar policies “a game changer.”
Issue No. 7. Difficulty of Returns Manifests Amid Resistance from Origin Governments and Migrants Themselves
Though migrant-destination countries are increasingly prioritizing policies to return failed asylum seekers and other migrants found not to have a reason to remain, 2019 offered some proof of the difficulty of actually carrying out such actions.
In January, the African Union sought to discourage cooperation with the European Union on returns, a troubling development for European policymakers eager to increase the paltry rate of return for sub-Saharan Africans ordered to leave the bloc. The overall return rate in 2018 stood at 36 percent—but fell to just 1.7 percent for Malians and 2.8 percent for nationals of Guinea. In March, the Gambia refused for several months to accept deportees from Europe.
The International Organization for Migration, which operates an assisted voluntary return and reintegration program, averaged fewer than 5,000 returns monthly during the first nine months of the year. Elsewhere, returns occurred at much higher rates: More than 470,000 Afghans living without authorization in Iran and Pakistan were returned during the year.
Despite friction between sending and receiving countries over returns, as well as the difficulty of actually effectuating them, their policy appeal was further demonstrated in 2019. The Trump administration negotiated immigration agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that would allow the United States to return transiting migrants to those countries, later restoring terminated aid. Elsewhere, the approach is less stick and more carrot, for example, EU partnership arrangements that include development assistance or other benefits.
Despite their allure, return agreements represent a contentious policy arena and one where implementation of the return objective under the Global Compact for Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration will be closely watched in 2020 and beyond.
The upward trajectory that far-right populist parties and leaders have been on in recent years, aided in part by anti-migration rhetoric and policy agendas, hit a patch of turbulence in some places in 2019, even as successes were racked up elsewhere.
In Italy, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini—known for harsh rhetoric and anti-immigration policies—overshot and inadvertently triggered his own ouster from the country’s governing coalition in September. The far-right Freedom Party of Austria, which campaigned hard on an anti-foreigner agenda, suffered a significant setback in October parliamentary elections amid scandal. In Canada, while liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s sails were trimmed in October national elections, the newly established far-right People’s Party failed to win a single seat.
Still, the year offered plenty of evidence of the weakness of centrist parties and governments. In EU parliamentary elections in May, the centrist coalition lost its majority amid gains by both far-right nationalist and liberal, pro-EU parties, though the populist gains were more ripple than anticipated wave. In Belgium, the far-right Vlaams Belang made key electoral inroads, while in Germany and Spain, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) beat Angela Merkel’s party to take second place in a state election in eastern Germany and Vox more than doubled its seats in the Spanish parliament.
Nonetheless, some observers suggest populism’s popularity may be waning among publics in Europe and North America, sustained by minority support. Amid mixed results for far-right nationalists in 2019, it remains to be seen if setbacks are anything more than temporary.
At its halfway mark, a decade-long UN campaign to end statelessness by 2024 suffered a setback in India. Nearly 2 million people in the Assam region face the real prospect of becoming stateless after their names were left off the government’s National Register of Citizens published in 2019.
While supporters maintain that the measure is meant to root out unauthorized Bangladeshi immigrants, many on the list have lived in the region for generations but did not meet documentation requirements reflecting their Indian citizenship. Efforts are underway to help some resolve their status. Some observers fear that beyond stripping people of citizenship, the register will be used to justify discrimination against Muslims.
Despite the expected swelling in 2019 of a global stateless population previously estimated at 10 million to 15 million people—including the Rohingya, migrant descendants in the Ivory Coast, and many Roma in Europe—some progress was made during the year. In July, Kyrgyzstan became the first country to eradicate statelessness. And Colombia granted citizenship to 24,000 babies born to Venezuelan mothers, setting an important precedent for children of the Venezuelan exodus.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates the #IBelong campaign, joined by dozens of governments, had assisted more than 220,000 people acquire a nationality at its midpoint. But officials acknowledge new displacement in Syria, Venezuela, and elsewhere could trigger new statelessness.
Issue No. 10. Amid Fears of Provoking Backlash, Governments Move Slowly and Softly on Global Compact for Migration Implementation
Coming on the heels of a contentious, but ultimately broad, endorsement by UN Member States in December 2018 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, 2019 was meant to be the year in which national governments began to demonstrate tangible commitments to advancing goals under the most substantive international agreement yet on international migration. Progress, however, has been slow, and trepidation among some states to ascribe new developments in migration and refugee policy to the compact suggests a lingering fear of reigniting backlash.
Still, 2019 witnessed action on some of the nonbinding compact’s 23 objectives—which include addressing drivers of migration, improving the quality of data gathering on migrants and migration trends, and providing basic services for immigrants. Among them: In Chile, a platform to monitor the compact’s progress was established; and the African Union in September unveiled efforts to strengthen data gathering. More quietly, some governments undertook actions, albeit without tying them to the compact.
One significant aspect remains in neutral: a lack of donor commitments to a start-up fund to help countries implement compact-related initiatives. With the first of the quadrennial Regional Migration Review Fora coming up in 2020, offering a showcase for governments to indicate the steps taken towards compact implementation, it will be interesting to see if countries become more visible about discussing a topic that for some this year verged on the taboo.