Rethinking Migration Is a Security Imperative—Just Not How You Might Think

Covid-19 travel restrictions brought human mobility to a grinding halt and left millions of people stranded globally. While the focus must remain on the acute health crisis and equitable vaccine distribution, the unprecedented level of immobility offers an opportunity to rethink and reshape global migration systems increasingly overfocused on securitized responses.

Doing so could be the difference between economic rebound and stagnation. Not doing so could have grave strategic security consequences.

The pandemic is increasing migration-related pressures across the globe. For many former migrants who returned home during the pandemic or who are stranded in countries without jobs, the desperation to move grows with every passing week. Economic and social pressures are multiplying as job opportunities dwindle and savings are depleted. Many migrants still working are doing so as essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic, putting themselves, their families, and their communities at risk.

These pressures, underpinned by growing inequality, will need outlets that may not be readily available post-pandemic. Once vaccines are administered to a high-enough degree to allow for safe, large-scale movement of people once again, the world will see a historically high supply of migrant labor. Whether stranded abroad or unable to find a living at home, migrants will be ready to get back to work.

At the same time, some of the current barriers to human mobility will persist long after the acute health risks abate, especially in countries whose leaders have longed for such an opportunity to decrease immigration. These leaders will capitalize on lingering mistrust between countries and the economic protectionist impulses of their citizens post-pandemic. Governments that bolstered long-desired barriers to entry under the guise of the pandemic will be inclined to maintain such regimes.

A Security Imperative

The default answers to migration-related challenges for many leaders today involve higher walls and fewer pathways. The pandemic is being used as a further excuse to increase the securitization of migration. This puts the focus in the wrong place and is counterproductive to relieving Covid-19-related pressures, often forcing more would-be regular (legal) migrants into irregular pathways while distracting from the real security challenges that exist along such pathways.

If people compelled to leave their countries do not have regular and orderly ways to move, evidence shows that some will do so via irregular pathways. It is in these shadowy pathways where security concerns heighten, not because of a threat posed by migrants, but because of the strengthening of the increasingly sophisticated operators that move them: drug, arms, and human traffickers; cartels; smugglers; and other organized criminal networks. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the size of the global human smuggling business at $6.75 billion per year. Even if not historically involved in migrant smuggling, these illicit groups are increasingly seeing higher profitability for lower risk. If more migrants are compelled to move in this way post-pandemic, an unintended consequence of Covid-19 will be to strengthen illicit groups considered problematic the world over.

When There Is a Will

Even before Covid-19, few efforts to eradicate human smuggling were successful, primarily because of a lack of understanding of the key determinants underpinning migrant smuggling and how it evolves. Transnational challenges such as smuggling require transnational solutions. International cooperation and international action are critical to countering illicit practices. Covid-19 presents an opportunity to rethink the way we manage global migration in ways that protect people on the move and enable increased resilience while targeting the illicit groups posing the real security threat.

A better global migration system should also go beyond securitized approaches. The system should incentivize people to use regular pathways to move while also building the resilience of migrants and would-be migrants, enabling them to provide for their families. Many of these opportunities have already been recognized in the 2030 Agenda and the Global Compact for Migration (GCM), which provide frameworks for managing the balance between human development, equality, and global migration governance. Of critical importance is making remittances cheaper and easier so they can help support prosperity and peace in a practical way. Remittances are proving to be a lifeline during Covid-19; paradoxically, remittance inflows have increased during Covid-19 in many key countries despite diminished employment opportunities for international migrants. This highlights that in times of crises, migrants will, if they can, send money home to families and communities facing increased health costs and other uncertainties.

Covid-19 has shown that "where there is a will, there is a way." Governments have taken extraordinary steps to safeguard their populations during the pandemic. We have seen extraordinary immigration and mobility arrangements put in place to ensure crops are harvested, the healthcare sector is staffed, and retirement facilities are able to operate safely. Immigration detention facilities and undocumented migrant communities were a particular focus—to avoid them becoming hotspots for virus transmission. In these acute situations, flexible and agile responses have ensured access to healthcare for most who need it and have recognized the centrality of essential migrant workers. Governments have demonstrated what can be done when there is a will. The next step is to rethink global migration with the same level of urgency.

Rethinking Migration Post-Covid-19

The illicit groups that facilitated irregular pathways before Covid-19 remain and will continue to pose a security risk post-pandemic. Increased targeting of migrant smugglers and human traffickers must happen in tandem with increased opportunities for migrants and would-be migrants. If the former is done without the latter, migrants will still seek to move but at increased cost, increased vulnerability, and increased risk as smugglers themselves adapt to harsher and riskier operating environments.

Efforts to address global migration challenges will fail if not built upon international cooperation. Alongside the 2030 Agenda and the GCM, the focus should be on innovative regional solutions to pressing migration and displacement issues while addressing underlying systemic issues. A glance to the east highlights the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration process as a model that could be replicated elsewhere. The United States should also rejoin the GCM (and its sister compact on refugees) while continuing to lead by example with reformed U.S. domestic immigration policies. The Biden-Harris administration should be commended for increasing refugee resettlement caps, focusing on climate change-related migration, ending the previous administration’s “remain in Mexico” asylum policy, addressing family separation, distancing itself from the efforts to erect a securitized barrier on the southern border, and other human mobility-related decisions. However, these executive actions can be undone by a future administration, thus necessitating comprehensive immigration reform legislation in Congress, both for the sake of the long-overdue reforms themselves and because such legislative reforms will be closely watched by countries around the world.

Finally, migration should be reimagined through a human security lens focused on migrants and their host communities. Failure to adequately address human security will almost certainly result in catastrophic insecurity for all. A much greater focus on human rights and economic prosperity is needed.

Protecting vulnerable people—including many migrants—allows us to ensure our collective futures, as well as those of our children and our children's children. We must rethink global migration in these ways if we hope to leave them a peaceful, prosperous, and safe post-pandemic world.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Marie McAuliffe is head of the Migration Research Division and editor of the World Migration Report at the International Organization for Migration’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Head, Migration Research Division and Editor, World Migration Report, International Organization for Migration