Fewer irregular migrants in Europe than previously thought

The actual number of irregular immigrants entering and staying in the European Union is largely unknown, and the reliability of figures varies considerably. However, a new country-by-country analysis estimates that in early 2008, 1.9 to 3.8 million irregular immigrants were living in the 27 EU Member States, lower than previous estimates of between 4 and 8 million. The robust review, carried out by the CLANDESTINO project, provides a database and a critical appraisal of the reliability of available data and estimates.

It is unsurprising that figures are either downplayed or exaggerated. A realistic assessment of the size and structure of irregular migrant populations is vital both for policies aiming at their inclusion in health care, schooling or legal assistance, and for border and visa control policies seeking to prevent irregular entries.

CLANDESTINO assessed the different methods used to estimate irregular migrant populations in Europe and makes recommendations regarding the ethical aspects of research on irregular migrants. It provides a database on irregular migration in Europe supported by twelve country reports and policy briefs on 12 EU Member States - Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain and the UK. It also produced three country reports and three policy briefs for three EU neighbouring countries - Morocco, Turkey and Ukraine. Among the comparative analyses produced by the project is one on the links between irregular migration and informal work in Central Eastern and Southern EU member states.

CLANDESTINO found that there is no commonly agreed upon definition of irregular migration in the legislation of the European Union’s Member States. The CLANDESTINO project uses the term irregular foreign residents (IFR), defined as foreign nationals without any legal residence status in the country they are residing in, and persons violating the terms of their status, which basically concerns ‘irregularly working tourists’ from third countries. Asylum seekers and similar groups as well as regular residents working in the shadow economy were explicitly excluded from this definition.

The research shows that irregular migrants face risks of poverty and social exclusion, are vulnerable and often marginalised from society. Their situation is exacerbated by restricted access to basic social services.

The researchers conclude that there is no single explanation for irregular migration. Rather, it results from a complex interplay of individual migrants, economic forces and employer practices, politics and law. Despite the political objective of managing, preventing and reducing irregular migration, some legislation has, in fact, contributed to the emergence of irregular migration through unintended side-effects, policy gaps, such as an absence of implementation and enforcement, and unrealistic policy goals.

Key messages for policy makers

Size of irregular migrant populations residing in the EU:

The database created by CLANDESTINO provides reliable and transparent estimates of irregular migrant populations in the EU27 in 2008. The database can be updated as estimates or data for specific countries become available. The revision of available country estimates and enhancing the quality of data will result in more robust estimates for the entire EU.

A realistic assessment of the size and structure of irregular migrant populations is particularly relevant for policies focusing on inclusion of irregular migrants. Political actors and NGOs who lobby for effective inclusion of undocumented migrants in basic social systems, such as health care, schooling or legal assistance, are confronted with the question of how many people are affected, as this has major implications on costs and organisation. When new regularisation policies are introduced, it will be even more important to have a realistic assessment of how many people may apply and may be eligible, both to administer regularisation adequately and to get an indication of the impact on labour markets and social systems.

Impact of regularisation:

The effects of regularisation on the size of irregular migrant populations seem to be highly dependent on internal and external circumstances. If national policies fail to address the circumstances that lead to irregular migration in the first place, irregular migration will continue to grow, and perhaps even surpass prior levels. If they are accompanied by major changes in other policies, as has recently been the case in Spain, it could result in a reduction in the level of irregular residence.

Regularisation through EU enlargement and effects on informal work

The EU accession of new Member States has also led to a substantial legalisation effect in many old Member States. However, only the residence status (and not the work status) of migrants from these countries has been regularised. Instead, migrants continue to work in the shadow economy.

Irregularity can be prevented by:

  • Introducing more legal migration channels, including access to legal representation for family members and asylum seekers.
  • Allocating adequate resources to and monitoring of immigration/permit issuing/appeal authorities.
  • Addressing the phenomenon of the informal economy by eliminating unduly legal, bureaucratic and fiscal regulations; increasing incentives for regular employment; eliminating barriers for foreign workers and monitoring and enforcing the rules.

Border controls

For control and enforcement policies seeking to prevent irregular entries, such as border control and visa policies, a realistic assessment of the size of undocumented migrant populations is much less important since policies are concerned with those who plan to enter rather than those who are already resident. However, declining trends in irregular residents suggest that there is no need for hasty ‘emergency’ interventions and budget increases for control agencies. Whether or not this tendency will prevail, it is a good time to evaluate entrance control policies and to consider well-observed experiments, liberalising selected practices.

The need for better data to support policy making

Self-evaluation and internal research is not sufficient for such purposes. Even if research departments within organisations like FRONTEX were increased to the size of universities, they cannot avoid an institutional viewpoint. On the other hand, external academic research, as presented here, often suffers from a lack of data access or data understanding. Collaborative research between research institutes and research departments in authorities, with clearly defined roles, is probably the best way forward to understand the size, characteristics, causes and consequences of irregular migration.

CLANDESTINO - Undocumented Migration: Counting the Uncountable. Data and Trends Across Europe (duration: 1/9/2007 – 31/8/2009) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 8 – Scientific support to policies.

See: http://clandestino.eliamep.gr/

Contact: Anna Triandafyllidou, anna@eliamep.gr