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2021 in review: Migration and forced displacement

From the pandemic to climate change, revisit the trends and events that shaped the year.

Kylee Pedersen/TNH

For the second year in a row, global mobility was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic in unprecedented ways in 2021. 

Cross-border travel by people with passports and visas isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024. Meanwhile, the number of those forcibly displaced due to climate disasters, conflicts, and violence – both within their countries and internationally – has continued to climb, from 82.4 million at the end of 2020 to more than 84 million by June 2021, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR. 

Numbers for the second half of the year are not yet available, but climate crisis-linked flooding has displaced hundreds of thousands in China, Malaysia, South Sudan, and elsewhere across the globe since the beginning of October, and the second-order effects of the pandemic are exacerbating factors – from economic stagnation to political instability – that push people to migrate. 

The inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is likely contributing to the dynamic by paving the way for poorer countries to be left behind while the economies of wealthier countries with higher vaccination rates rebound more quickly. 

At the end of the first full year of the global vaccination effort, about 73 percent of shots administered so far have gone into arms in upper and upper-middle income countries while less than one percent of doses have been given to people in low-income countries. 

Faced with supply issues and other complications, the UN-backed initiative that was meant to ensure equitable COVID vaccine access has delivered only around 800 million out of the two billion doses it had pledged to lower and lower-middle income countries by the end of the year. 

It’s perhaps no surprise then that migration routes – from the US-Mexico border to the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama and the Mediterranean – have seen increased movement compared to last year. 

The uptick is coinciding with the intensification of efforts by Western countries to limit access to asylum and the ability of those seeking safety and opportunity to reach their territory. Countries – such as Belarus – are capitalising on this desire to keep people out by leveraging migration as a political tool to exert pressure and extract concessions from their Western neighbours, while asylum seekers and migrants suffer the consequences

Finally, the chaotic airlift that accompanied the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan as the Taliban retook power in Kabul in August provided perhaps the most indelible images of global mobility inequality of the year – with people clinging to US military planes as they took off. 

Around 113,000 Afghans were able to leave Afghanistan during the two-week evacuation. But options for countless others who fear Taliban persecution and were left behind are slim. After the withdrawal – amid donor funding freezes and sanctions – the Afghan economy has collapsed, and around half the country’s population of 39 million could face emergency levels of hunger this winter. 

Thousands fleeing the fallout are crossing into neighbouring Iran every day. But restrictive policies have a domino effect, and Iran – which along with Pakistan has hosted the vast majority of Afghan refugees for decades – has deported around 360,000 since August. 

Displacement and migration are consequences of the crises we report on at The New Humanitarian. And often, the governance – or mismanagement – of migration creates additional negative humanitarian and human rights consequences for those compelled to move. Stay tuned in 2022 for more coverage of these dynamics and reporting that gives more space to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to challenge Global North-led narratives about their lives. 

(Compiled by TNH Migration Editor-at-large Eric Reidy.)

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