The tumultuousness caused by conflict, climate change, lack of opportunity and varied forms of persecution is compelling an ever-growing number of people in poorer countries to move. This movement of people either takes the form of internal displacement or else it implies crossing national borders in the search for a better life. While neighbouring countries often bear the bulk of refugee and migrant flows, the recent spike in desperate people trying to reach Europe from Africa and from war-torn countries like Syria and Afghanistan has received a lot of international attention. In response to this so-called ‘migrant crisis’, many rich countries have begun hardening borders which has had made migration less safe for people seeking sanctuary abroad.
The irregular movement of people across borders, often in the same group, and over the same routes, includes a range of people including not only economic migrants but asylum-seekers, refugees, stateless people, victims of trafficking, unaccompanied or separated children. Governments in countries averse to the unregulated inflow of migrants are increasingly relying on ‘push-backs’. Pushbacks are government sanctioned measures which enable refugees and migrants to be forced back over a national border without consideration of their individual circumstances, without any possibility to apply for asylum, or to even challenge the measures being taken against them.
Forcibly pushing back refugees and migrants is an inhumane practice that violates international law as it risks sending people back to face persecution, or even more dire threats. Yet, pushbacks are now being practised by many rich countries around the world. Infamously, Australia has been regularly pushing back migrant boats before they reach Australian shores. Australian authorities also try to actively resist transparency and oversight on how asylum seekers are intercepted and turned back at sea.
Australia is not the only country using brutal pushback tactics. The Guardian recently reported that nearly 40,000 asylum seekers have been prevented from crossing European borders. A Trump administration program forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico turned into a sweeping rejection of all forms of migrants, despite threats to the migrants’ safety. The extent to which the Biden administration will be able to undertake meaningful overhaul of such pushback policies remains to be seen.
The increasing reliance on militarisation, extraterritorial border control, and deterrence to try and control migration has dire consequences. The ongoing pandemic has made matters worse by severely disrupted global mobility, even stranding legal migrants, and severely reducing their earning, which has pushed millions of families to the brink of desperation. Covid-19 has not put an end to illegal border crossings into richer countries like the EU, but the circumstances of these already vulnerable people have become worse.
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights has documented a widespread pattern of human rights violations taking place due to migrant pushbacks amongst most migration routes around the world. The UN system must take appropriate action to address this problem by establishing an independent monitoring mechanism on pushbacks and collective expulsions and by taking countries which enact such policies to task.
There is an evident need for countries around the world to synchronise their domestic legislation with international human rights law which in turn will help prevent the forcible return of refugees. International pressure must also be applied to decriminalise irregular entry of vulnerable people across national borders. Moreover, states should not be allowed to use punitive measures to deter search and rescue of asylum seekers in peril, or preventing humanitarian assistance at borders, which is what we have been seeing of late in the US and across much of Europe.
In the absence of international scrutiny and lack of public awareness of migrant pushbacks, there is a climate of impunity under which migration authorities react, especially at the behest of populist and xenophobic leaders.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2021.
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