The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, an unprecedented influx of migrants in eastern Europe, an increase in deaths in the English Channel, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic – 2021 has been a tumultuous year for migrants and refugees on many fronts. We take a look at six of the most important developments of the year.
1 – The fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan
On August 15, just days after the withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital.
For several days, thousands of Afghans flocked to Kabul airport to try to flee the country and escape the Taliban. Amidst the chaos were scenes of incredible desperation, in which parents handed their children to foreign soldiers on the outskirts of the airport.
Read more: 'Please save us': InfoMigrants receives distressing messages from Afghanistan
Many countries have welcomed Afghan nationals and suspended deportations to Afghanistan. Since August, nearly 3,000 Afghans have been evacuated by France, more than 4,000 by Germany and about 8,000 by the United Kingdom.
Thousands more, still trapped in the country, fear Taliban reprisals and are seeking to reach Europe by any means necessary.
European Commissioner Ylva Johansson announced in December that 15 EU countries had pledged to receive a total of 40,000 Afghans. Germany will receive the largest contingent of refugees, with 25,000 people.
2 – Migrants trapped on the border between Poland and Belarus
This summer, fall and winter, thousands of migrants, mainly from the Middle East, crossed or attempted to cross the European Union's eastern border from Belarus to reach Latvia, Lithuania or Poland.
According to local media, 14 migrants died crossing the border between Poland and Belarus. On the Lithuanian side, one death was recorded, according to the Belarusian authorities.
The EU has accused Minsk of provoking this crisis by driving migrants to the border and issuing them visas with the promise of easy passage to Europe. This strategy was in retaliation for EU sanctions after Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s autocratic leader, repressed the Belarusian opposition movement in 2020.
According to the latest figures from the European Commission in December, just under 8,000 migrants arrived into the EU via Belarus this year: 4,285 in Lithuania, 3,255 in Poland and 426 in Latvia.
Read more: At the border, Belarusian soldiers only know three words: 'Go to Poland'
Hundreds of others have been waiting for weeks at the border of Poland and Belarus in the hope of reaching European soil.
In response to these migratory surges, Poland and Lithuania have begun building a wall in their regions bordering Belarus. Poland, for its part, has deployed 1,500 soldiers to patrol the common border with Lukashenko's country.
3 – A particularly deadly year in the English Channel
Despite the dangers of dense traffic, strong currents and freezing temperatures, the number of migrants trying to cross the English Channel has been on a steep increase since the end of 2018. In 2021, the number of crossings were twice as high as in the previous year.
When a dinghy deflated on November 24 causing the death of at least 27 migrants, it caused shockwaves across Europe and increased tensions between Paris and London on the migration issue.
Read more: Families wait for the truth after Channel tragedy
In total, at least 30 migrants have died in the Channel since the beginning of the year and four are still missing. In 2020, six migrants died trying to reach the UK by sea from France, and three others were reported missing.
Read more: Mounting criticism of UK government handling of Channel migrants
Since the beginning of the year, more than 34,000 people have either successfully crossed or attempted to cross. This compares to 9,551 in 2020, 2,300 in 2019 and 600 in 2018, according to figures from the Maritime Prefecture of the Channel and the North Sea. About 8,200 migrants have been rescued by French authorities.
The rise in attempted sea crossings can be explained by the lack of options regarding transport. For example, there are increasing risks for migrants to hide in the back of trucks due to reinforced controls due to Brexit and the pandemic, as well as higher prices charged for this mode of transport.
4 – Ceuta overwhelmed by 10,000 migrants in 48 hours
In mid-May, the Spanish enclave of Ceuta saw some 10,000 migrants land from neighboring Morocco in just two days. Heightened diplomatic tensions between Madrid and Rabat appear to have been behind the explosion in border-crossings. Relations between the two countries became strained at the end of April, when Spain allowed Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement Polisario Front, to seek medical treatment there.
Read more: Why nearly 6,000 migrants were able to enter Spain’s Ceuta enclave in a single day
The Spanish government responded by deploying troops to its border with Morocco and expelling thousands of migrants who had jumped over barbed wire fences or swam from Moroccan beaches to the nearby beaches of Ceuta.
During this crisis, several photos went viral on social networks, such as the one of a Spanish rescuer pulling an infant out of the water, the image of a Red Cross volunteer embracing a young migrant, or the photo of a Moroccan minor who arrived crying on a beach in Ceuta equipped with plastic bottles as floats.
5 – Atlantic and the Mediterranean are becoming maritime cemeteries
The number of deaths in the Mediterranean and Atlantic continued to rise again this year.
Since January, at least 1,508 people have died in the central Mediterranean Sea trying to reach European shores, up from 999 last year. Since the International Organization for Migration (IOM) starting keeping a record in 2014, nearly 19,000 exiles have lost their lives in these waters.
Read more: Determined to leave: 'Either I die at sea or I manage to get to Europe'
The IOM counted 937 deaths in the Atlantic Ocean this year of people trying to reach the Canary Islands. Last year, 874 people died or disappeared in the Atlantic.
This is a vastly underestimated figure, according to the NGO Caminando Fronteras, which monitors migratory flows in the area. For the first six months of the year, 1,851 deaths were recorded by these aid workers. Data for the second half will not be available until early next year. "It has been a horrible year," said the president of the Spanish association, Helena Maleno, when the report was released in early July.
The number of arrivals in the Canary Islands, meanwhile, has remained stable in 2021: 21,656 migrants have landed in the Spanish archipelago this year, compared to 19,566 last year.
6 – In Greece, more fenced in camps for asylum seekers
In 2021, Greece began building fences around several centers for asylum seekers. The first to be closed off was the Ritsona camp north of Athens in June. On the Aegean islands, Samos opened its closed center in September, followed by Kos and Leros the next month.
The Greek government has plans to open two more secure camps on the islands of Lesbos and Chios. This project is co-financed by the EU, which has invested €276 million in the construction of these new facilities.
This strategy of confinement has been denounced by NGOs, which warn of the psychological and mental consequences for asylum seekers. Compared to prisons, these centers are generally far from the city centers. An isolation that marginalizes the migrants and refugees even more, according to the humanitarians.
Read more: Migrant camps in Greece surrounded by concrete walls