Top 10 Migration Issues of 2020
In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sweeping halt to global migration and mobility, leading to far-reaching consequences for migrants and countries at both ends of their journeys and through which they traveled. In many places the pandemic shaped other trends, including the erosion of humanitarian protection systems and the changing face of international movement. Major natural disasters also spurred displacement in 2020, and the U.S.-born Black Lives Matter movement evolved into a broader call for immigrant rights and justice in multiple countries. Explore how these issues and others shaped 2020, in our annual countdown of the Top 10 migration issues of the year.
Click the links below to navigate to each issue:
The COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world in 2020 prompted unprecedented global restrictions on international mobility and migration that could have long-term consequences. By late April, for the first time in history, every single country had imposed entry restrictions, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Many of those restrictions lasted for weeks or months; dozens were still in place in December. Movement to countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development plunged by 46 percent over the first six months of the year. International tourism declined by nearly two-thirds over the same period.
The pandemic brought about restrictions at borders that had previously existed mostly on paper, such as within Europe’s Schengen Zone, and between close allies such as the United States and Canada. Beyond disrupting travel and legal migration, the restrictions sparked changes to informal migration routes, such as pushing some Europe-bound migrants through the Canary Islands rather than via traditional transit countries such as Libya and Morocco, where difficult passage became even more restrictive following the outbreak.
Several governments seized on the pandemic to advance longstanding priorities to limit immigration and bolster nationalist agendas. For leaders of countries including the United States, Italy, Hungary, Greece, and Lebanon, the public-health crisis drove the implementation of historic limits on refugee resettlement, pushbacks of asylum seekers at the border, curfews in refugee camps, and the advance of broader anti-migrant rhetoric. Houthi rebels in Yemen allegedly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants and sent them to the Saudi border, where they were fired upon. Malaysian authorities raided migrant camps and arrested hundreds. Even while not official policy, the coronavirus outbreak bolstered anti-immigrant narratives in places such as China, while racism against East Asian migrants and their children has been on the rise in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere.
Like the aftereffects of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the wide-ranging repercussions of the pandemic’s impact on global movement may not be fully appreciated for years. New technologies being piloted at airports and border checkpoints, such as touchless baggage check-ins and greater automation, undoubtedly will be here to stay. It also seems a sure bet that health security will become an increasingly central pillar of migration and mobility management. Coronavirus tests, face masks, and quarantines have become components of much cross-border travel. Whether the unilateral imposition of external border controls, travel restrictions, and migration-limiting policies seen during the pandemic become easier to advance in the face of future crises remains to be seen. The year 2020 could well be a turning point for a new era of global mobility.
Globally, the humanitarian protection system has been fraying for years, buckling under unprecedented demand and hardening attitudes in some countries. In 2020 that trend escalated dramatically amid the COVID-19 pandemic and wider antagonism to norms of international burden-sharing. Outbreak-driven border closures halted asylum processing and refugee resettlement around the world for months, and in some places, politicians fulfilled their long-held ambitions to limit access to protection for asylum seekers and refugees. Meanwhile, global frameworks and regional cooperation showed their limitations. Two years after its adoption, the Global Compact on Refugees remains a work in progress. And the proposed EU migration pact all but resigned the bloc to the notion that Member States can side-step their shared humanitarian protection obligations by picking and choosing which responsibilities to uphold.
At the same time, amid sharp tensions between the European Union and Turkey over asylum, Greek officials were accused of pushing migrants and asylum seekers out of Greek territorial waters, detaining them in black sites, and using other measures of questionable legality. Cypriot authorities were similarly accused of pushing back migrants from Lebanon in the weeks following the August explosion at Beirut’s port. Hungary rejected a European Court of Justice ruling against its treatment of asylum seekers at the border, and in June issued new rules requiring asylum seekers to register themselves at embassies abroad rather than showing up at the country’s border.
Outside Europe, the Trump administration invoked public-health authorities to cap a series of policies effectively shutting down the asylum process at the U.S.-Mexico border; President Donald Trump also set the ceiling on fiscal 2021 refugee admissions to its lowest level ever. Algeria expelled thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, including some who had registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In South Africa, a new refugee law was criticized for winnowing protections for foreign political dissidents and a consolidation of border authorities was derided as an effort to militarize the border, contributing to what analysts have said is part of a larger xenophobic trend in one of Africa’s most popular migrant destinations. In the Middle East, Jordan deported dozens of Syrian refugees to a desolate camp in the no-man’s land called Rukban, in what has been widely denounced as a violation of their rights. And Bangladesh began carrying out a plan to relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees to an isolated, flood-prone island that advocates have said was akin to mass detention.
In many ways, the challenges to humanitarian protection in 2020 were a continuation of those of previous years. The pandemic brought about new complications, but often these merely exacerbated underlying stresses.
Issue No. 3: The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Exacerbated Disparities for Immigrant-Origin Populations and Frayed Supports
The impact of COVID-19 at public-health, economic, and societal levels during 2020 has been stunning, but not evenly felt. In many countries, immigrants have been among the worst hit by the virus and the accompanying disruptions to work, education, and social services.
Migrant workers have generally been at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus; in Saudi Arabia, for instance, migrants are 38 percent of the population but accounted for roughly three-quarters of new infections as of early May. In Singapore, residents of foreign worker dormitories represented 85 percent of all cases reported by late April. Part of this is a result of migrants’ disproportionate presence in frontline industries with high virus exposure, such as health care, transportation, and food service. Part of it is due to cramped camps, meager housing, and unsanitary conditions that can be common for poorly paid workers and other migrants in the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere. And part of it can be chalked up to the inability of immigrants, in particular those with precarious legal status, to access testing and other health-care services in some countries—or their anxieties about doing so in the United States, given possible immigration consequences.
Even if they escape the virus itself, migrants have often suffered disproportionately from lockdowns, economic dislocation, and the profound fraying of the social safety net. In India, a rapid lockdown left millions of internal migrant workers stranded in cities without jobs or means of support; some walked for hundreds of miles to return to their native villages. In Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, immigrants often have fewer resources to assist children in the absence of formal in-person education and less ability to work remotely.
Impacts have been especially acute in the United States, large parts of which halted in-person education for most of the year and seem likely to maintain restrictions into 2021. English Learners have fallen through the cracks of many government assistance efforts and in some cases literally disappeared from classrooms. Due in part to difficulties accessing digital tools, many immigrant families have been unable to keep up as school, health care, and social services moved online. Many noncitizens, especially those who are unauthorized and their families, were also left out of U.S. pandemic relief funds.
Often, the disparate impacts on migrants and refugees reflected deeper structural inequalities that had been percolating for years. Yet as governments scrambled to respond to the public-health crisis, the differing realities and conditions for migrants sometimes were not taken into consideration. How governments manage the pandemic and its aftermath, for native- and foreign-born residents alike, remains a story in the telling.
Issue No. 4: The Role of Migrants as “Essential Workers” Is Spotlighted During Global Public-Health Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the extent to which the global economy relies on migrant labor in certain job sectors. In wealthy countries, many immigrants were declared essential workers as the public-health crisis raged in 2020, in both low- and high-skilled jobs.
For low-skilled work, migrants often form the foundation for construction, agriculture, hospitality, and other critical but less visible sectors of the economy. In the United States, immigrants—including those who are unauthorized—are over-represented among “essential workers” in frontline industries by as much as a factor of three. In Europe, the European Commission in March announced guidelines to ensure that migrant workers, often from Central and Eastern Europe, could move between countries to prevent lags to EU supply chains. Germany allowed farmers to airlift in thousands of workers from the East; the United Kingdom did the same with Romanian fruit pickers.
A similar picture emerged for certain high-skill sectors, especially health care. More than half of Australia’s doctors are immigrants; recognizing the need for health-care workers, the country lifted restrictions on 20,00 international nursing students in March. In the United States, immigrants account for 17 percent of the U.S. civilian workforce but 28 percent of physicians. Immigration is central to some of the key responses to the pandemic. A co-founder of BioNTech, a German pharmaceutical company with a leading COVID-19 vaccine, moved from Turkey to Germany as a child (his wife, another co-founder, is the German-born child of a Turkish immigrant); Moderna, another coronavirus vaccine developer, was founded by a Lebanese immigrant to the United States and its CEO is a French immigrant. And some technologies that have become a hallmark of the pandemic also have immigrant roots: Eric Yuan, the founder of Zoom, is a Chinese immigrant to the United States.
This reality could bring about an unexpected consequence of the pandemic: wider acknowledgment of immigrants’ importance in the workforce and broader society, as well as the need to better recognize academic and professional credentials acquired abroad. In May, Italy approved legislation granting temporary work permits to thousands of irregular migrants. In countries including Germany and Ireland, carve-outs have been created to license migrant and refugee health-care workers. Similar efforts have been undertaken by several U.S. states. Elsewhere, the governments of Chile and Canada, among others, have taken steps to retain and integrate foreign-born professionals into their health sectors.
Global public attention—and, more importantly, aid and assistance—while rarely intently focused on enduring and simmering refugee and humanitarian crises across the globe, was even more diffuse as the coronavirus outbreak and response dominated in 2020.
Yemen, for instance, has for years been home to one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with nearly 4 million people displaced by ongoing war and dire conditions. At the same time, the country is host to more than 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are from Somalia. Lack of funding hindered humanitarian efforts in 2020 and led the country again to the brink of famine. Meanwhile, violence has finally abated in many parts of Syria, although more than 3 million of the 6.7 million internally displaced persons in the country required shelter, heating fuel, and other basic necessities heading into the winter. Millions more were food insecure.
In Venezuela, crisis continued even as Nicolás Maduro solidified his grip on the country’s government through National Assembly elections in December. Some of the country’s approximately 5 million migrants and refugees attempted to return amid the pandemic, after their livelihoods dried up during neighboring countries’ economic shutdowns—only to encounter hostility and opposition upon return.
In 2020, the long-running crisis in the Sahel gradually shifted eastward toward Burkina Faso, which in February saw several thousand people displaced daily. As of August, roughly one in 20 people in the country were displaced, a doubling from earlier in the year and a 1,000 percent increase over January 2019.
The year also saw the eruption of new crises in areas that had been mostly dormant. Renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh ended with a ceasefire in November, but not before half the disputed region’s population was displaced. It is unclear how many will return, especially after some ethnic Armenians lit their homes on fire before fleeing. Finally, the end of the year saw clashes between the government of Ethiopia and the former ruling party, the regional Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Humanitarian access to contested areas remained limited as of early December, making the situation unclear. But more than 47,000 people had crossed into neighboring Sudan by December 4.
Many of these situations were exacerbated by the pandemic, which crippled economies and hamstrung humanitarian efforts. COVID-19 cases were reported in some refugee camps and efforts to combat cholera, measles, and other infectious diseases were also reallocated to the coronavirus, disrupting immunization and treatment efforts.
Several of these crises are sure to continue into coming years, which will pose further challenges to humanitarian protection systems. As violence and instability persist, civillians will be caught in the crossfire and many will flee for safety elsewhere.
The halt to global movement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by July 2020 had stranded close to 3 million migrants who were outside their countries of residence and wanted to return home but were unable to do so due to pandemic-related mobility restrictions, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Many were left in perilous limbo and strained the capacities of countries to meet their needs. Nearly half of these migrants were in the Middle East, many of them laborers whose work dried up when the pandemic hit, and another 1 million were in Asia, according to IOM.
Migrants far outnumber the native born in the Persian Gulf, and many foreign construction, domestic services, and other workers lost their jobs amid pandemic-related disruptions beginning in March 2020. In Russia, many of the more than 5 million workers from former Soviet states languished, often jobless, while hoping for spots on government-chartered flights back to their countries of origin. Thousands of unemployed workers in Thailand returned to nearby Southeast Asian countries, and more than 200,000 Afghan refugees and other migrants in Iran rushed back after the disease spread, causing chaos at the border. Tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants made long journeys, often on foot, back to their country as opportunities elsewhere dried up. Upon reaching Venezuela, many faced pushback from the government, which called them “biological weapons” sent by regional opponents.
Large numbers of migrants around the world were in transit when borders closed in the early days of the outbreak, trapped in places they only intended to pass through. Approximately 2,000 people from Haiti and elsewhere were caught in the Panamanian jungle when their path north was blocked. Guatemala, which had previously largely ignored migrant caravans heading towards Mexico and the United States, halted thousands of people in October over virus concerns. Thousands more were reportedly expelled from Libya, Algeria, and Yemen.
In some cases there were legitimate concerns that migrants on the move could be carriers for the new coronavirus, raising ethical quandaries about countries’ responsibility for returning people from or to areas with high COVID-19 prevalence. In several instances, countries refused to accept their returning migrants, angering host countries such as the United Arab Emirates. Some migrants refused offers of free return travel, perhaps because it would have undermined the expensive and tiresome journeys they had already undertaken.
The stories are varied and complex. But what unites them is the disruption that was rapid, unexpected, and in unprecedented in its breadth.
In 2020, extreme weather and natural disaster events underscored the connection between a changing climate and human mobility. The year witnessed several instances of flooding in particular causing large-scale temporary displacement, most of it within territorial borders. In just the first six months of the year, people were displaced nearly 10 million times due to disasters around the planet.
In many cases the events were part of global changes to the climate. The global mean sea level in 2019 was more than three inches higher than in 1993, making it easier for storm surge and high tides to flood communities. Research has found that recent storms have a greater chance of developing into more severe hurricanes due to climate change. Combined, these gradual changes and fast-onset disaster events are increasingly having an impact on human movement that is only likely to accelerate in coming years.
Cyclone Amphan, the most powerful storm in Asia’s Bay of Bengal so far this century, ripped through the region in May, forcing the short-term evacuation of millions in Bangladesh and India, and the internal displacement of 100,000 people. Just weeks later, Cyclone Nisarga narrowly missed Mumbai but forced thousands in surrounding areas to move into temporary shelters. A few months after that, millions more in the region were displaced following a series of heavy seasonal rains that swelled rivers, spurred floods and landslides, and destroyed untold numbers of structures.
Meanwhile in Africa’s Sahel region, devastating flooding displaced tens of thousands of people in September, affecting countries from Sudan to Senegal. Governments in the area announced emergency measures and humanitarian organizations raced to support populations that in many cases were already affected by ongoing violence. Serious rains and flooding have also forced the displacement of an estimated 300,000 people in Yemen, where many had already left their homes to avoid conflict in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
In Central America, the one-two punch of Hurricanes Eta and Iota displaced an estimated 200,000 people, perhaps setting the stage for a new migration flow towards the United States. And in the United States, more than 500,000 people were displaced from their homes after wildfires ravaged the West Coast. More than 1.5 million U.S. residents were ordered to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful storms to ever make landfall in the country, as were more than 160,000 Cubans.
Disasters compelled millions of people to leave their homes in 2020. Much of the displacement was temporary, but severe events can also serve as factors for individuals, households, and entire communities to migrate permanently. The full impact of these and similar disasters on the migration decision-making calculus is difficult to calculate given the presence typically of multiple factors, but may become more clear-cut as conditions worsen.
In the United States, 2020 proved a year of significant new changes to further harden borders against immigration of all types. Some of the policies advanced by the Trump administration, including the shutdown of all nonessential travel across the Mexican and Canadian borders, came in the name of COVID-19 protections but fell in line with broader moves to inhibit immigration. A pair of proclamations from President Donald Trump in April and June prevent certain categories of immigrants from arriving on either a permanent or temporary basis, and a March order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allowing officials to expel people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border is serving as the final measure to all but end access to asylum there.
Not all restrictions came under the guise of pandemic response, and in many ways 2020 represented the culmination of the Trump administration’s focus on reshaping the immigration system to be narrower and even more enforcement-focused. In October, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it would expand fast-track deportations within the entire United States, abandoning prior administrations’ practice of limiting non-judicial removals to a 100-mile border zone. And while the president’s campaign promise to erect a massive wall across the southern border remains partly unfulfilled, approximately 400 miles of replacement and new fencing have been completed. Unlike the administration’s first three years, when the number of immigrant arrivals did not change dramatically across multiple categories, 2020 saw a dramatic drop, largely driven by pandemic-related travel limits imposed globally. Yet the administration’s policies, which it continued to pursue with vigor into its final weeks, hold the potential to significantly throttle future legal immigration.
In this way, 2020 may be a high-water mark for restrictionist immigration policies in contemporary U.S. history. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to roll back some of the most significant and controversial of the more than 400 executive actions on immigration undertaken by Trump, including by reviving refugee resettlement from the historic lows to which it has plunged.
Still, the Trump administration’s effect will be felt for years, if not decades, both because of the slow-moving nature of the immigration process and because a successor administration is unlikely to put as much energy into unraveling the changes as the Trump team did in advancing its vision in ways large and small across the entire system.
Issue No. 9: Black Lives Matter Grows to Encompass a Movement for Immigrants’ Rights and International Colonial Reckoning
The Black Lives Matter movement began as a response to U.S. police violence and structural racism in the legal system. It quickly evolved into a broader movement targeting wide-ranging U.S. racial inequities in society and in 2020, as protests engulfed the United States following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, matured into a broad critique harnessed by immigrant communities, their descendants, and their advocates worldwide.
The immigrant-focused narrative was a small part of the broader conversation in the United States, where the Black Lives Matter movement was born. And calls to “defund the police” which rose in prominence amid the 2020 protests paralleled demands by some immigrant-rights activists to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose mission of carrying out arrests, detention, and deportations of removable noncitizens became even more contested during the Trump administration.
But the Black Lives Matter movement’s expansion was particularly visible in Europe in 2020, where a variety of demographic and historical factors have in recent decades led to an overlap between movements for racial and immigrant justice. In France, Floyd’s killing met an uneasy parallel in case of the 2016 death of Adama Traoré, the son of an immigrant from Mali. The case gained new prominence this year as thousands protested against French policies and police that disproportionately targeted minority and immigrant communities. In Italy, the September death of Willy Monteiro Duarte, a naturalized child of immigrants from Cabo Verde, sparked a reckoning over the definition of racially motivated violence. Even Hungary, which is home to just a few thousand African immigrants, witnessed a moment of solidarity among foreign-born university students critical of the government’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
At the same time, native- and foreign-born protesters alike demanded the tearing down of monuments and renaming of institutions dedicated to colonialists such as Belgium’s King Léopold II, British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and the trader of enslaved people Edward Colston. Amid a new moment of consciousness around racial injustice, the legacies of these men and others are being re-examined.
Issue No. 10: Health Checks and Increased Government Surveillance Become Routine During International Travel
The coronavirus pandemic ushered in a new era of government oversight of international movement in 2020, as health records and digital surveillance became integral parts of traveling from one country to another. Rules differed by travelers’ countries of origin and destination, but once national borders began to reopen in mid-2020, countries increasingly instituted medical requirements such as health records or negative COVID-19 tests.
In order to enforce some of these medical requirements, particularly quarantines demanded of new arrivals in several countries, governments turned to digital tools. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, travelers entering Hong Kong were required to wear a tracking bracelet and download the StayHomeSafe mobile app to ensure they were abiding by mandatory two-week quarantine procedures. People arriving at Thailand’s airports from certain high-risk countries similarly were made to download an app that tracked their location to enforce quarantines, as were arrivals in Taiwan. In Russia, authorities reportedly considered requiring foreign workers to download a phone app containing a range of biometric and personal information, including any police record.
Both health checks and surveillance have been praised by public-health experts as possible keys to reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Airports, such as the one in Vienna, have begun offering arriving passengers COVID-19 tests and quick results as a means of allowing those who test negative to bypass quarantine requirements. The approach is deemed one that could help allow countries to safely resume some level of business travel and tourism.
While the digital surveillance used did not apply only to arrivals at international borders and has been part of a broader strategy to enforce lockdowns and trace the virus’s spread, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, the surveillance tactics have raised concerns from some privacy advocates. They also fit into a broader pattern of governments using digital surveillance tools to monitor travelers and immigrants, potentially in order to police their activities, in ways that could persist long after the virus disappears. In 2020, reports emerged that the United States used commercially purchased cellphone location data to aid in immigration enforcement. As health records become a component of international mobility, individuals have been asked to relinquish control over more of their private information in order to cross borders. History has shown that those reforms are not easily undone.