The migration surge is coming

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Whether you’re for it, against it or indifferent about it, the migration surge is coming. Millions of men, women and children in developing countries are desperately seeking to emigrate to escape poverty, hunger, unemployment, violence, crime, human rights abuse and environmental crises. 

With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, governments worldwide closed their borders, issued travel bans and limited human mobility. However, those measures have been ineffective in halting the virus’ spread. And the pandemic’s devastating impact has heightened people’s desire to migrate to wealthy countries that offer opportunities, freedoms and safety nets.

In addition to legal migration, other means are being used to gain entry and remain in another country. Those means include overstaying temporary visas, claiming asylum, blending in among refugees, arriving as families with children, sending an unaccompanied minor, entering clandestinely and turning to smugglers and traffickers

Once settled in the desired country, it is widely known that governments are unlikely to deport undocumented migrants unless they have committed a serious crime. And deferred action, amnesty or regularization is often offered to undocumented migrants, particularly after the passing of some years.  

Contributing to the de facto tolerance of illegal immigration is the recurrent labelling of those who wish to repatriate undocumented migrants, strengthen international borders, question the credibility of asylum claims or curtail immigration inflows as xenophobes, racists and heartless nativists. 

Nearly 80 million people, or about 1 percent of the world’s population, were displaced by the end of 2019, more than ever before. Among them were approximately 26 million refugees, 4 million asylum seekers and close to 4 million Venezuelans displaced abroad. 

The numbers of asylum claims have increased four-fold over the levels a decade earlier. Some countries have experienced even greater increases in the numbers seeking asylum. For example, between 2008 and 2018 the numbers of new asylum requests jumped six-fold in the United States, seven-fold in Germany and 12-fold in Spain. 

With a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, mobility restrictions are expected to be gradually lifted and social and economic conditions worsening in most developing countries, including dwindling flows of remittances, a surge in migration appears to be unavoidable. 

As hundreds of millions face increased poverty, hunger, unemployment, armed conflicts and ecological disasters, migration to a wealthy developed country is increasingly being transformed from a personal desire to a survival necessity. 

The World Food Program projects an 80 percent increase in the number of acutely food-insecure people from pre-COVID-19 levels of 149 million to 270 million by the end of the year. Also, remittances, which provide an essential lifeline for about 800 million, or one in nine people worldwide, are expected to drop by as much as 20 percent in 2020.

It is also estimated that as many as 650,000 desperate migrants are currently waiting in Libya, ready to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. U.S.-bound migrant caravans involving thousands of men, women and children fleeing grinding poverty and violent crime from Central American countries are expected to continue despite attempts to halt them at the borders. 

Opinion polls in developing countries conducted before the pandemic found that large proportions of their populations, totalling more than 750 million adults, would like to permanently migrate to another country. The most desired destination country, where one in five potential migrants would like to move, is the United States, followed by Canada, Germany, France, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Effectively addressing the coming migration surge poses major challenges for governments. As the supply of potential migrants greatly exceeds the demand in developed countries, growing numbers of people are resorting to unauthorized migration, which often involves taking life threatening risks, and increasingly relying on the costly and dicey services of smugglers and traffickers.

The clear signs of the coming migration surge are likely to be observed in the U.S. With the incoming government’s proposed changes to immigration policies, especially with respect to asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, migrating families and unaccompanied minors, a big migration inflow along the U.S southern border should not come as a surprise.

The coming surge of migrants can be expected to overwhelm immigration systems, including border control, security vetting, the courts, legal representation, medical clearance, shelter and quarantine facilities and operating costs. Particularly challenging for the authorities is deciding on how best to deal with migrating family units, unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers.

So, make no mistake about it; the migration surge is coming. And with it comes the divisive and contentious issue of how governments will choose to address it.

Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including international migration, fertility, mortality, growth, gender and aging.

Tags Amnesty asylum seekers border closures Central American migrant caravan coronavirus crisis COVID-19 migration migration surge Pandemic safety net travel bans Unaccompanied minor

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