Irregular Migration and Political Ignorance

It has become very fashionable in migration studies to see states as preoccupied with maximising surveillance and control of their populations. On these accounts, public authorities are keen to produce ever more data on their residents, with a view to steering and disciplining their activities. This resonates with mainstream accounts of state ‘rationality’. States are first and foremost concerned with controlling their borders, and monitoring their populations. The history of state consolidation is often depicted as the ineluctable rolling out of bureaucratic capacity to monitor and control the population.

I’ve long endorsed the less fashionable position that states are often keen to sustain opacity on tricky social problems. The ministries and agencies implementing immigration policy are all too aware of their deficiencies in monitoring and steering irregular migration. Faced with strong and often unfeasible public expectations, it may be more attractive to obfuscate, to retain some ‘fog’ around issues of irregular residence and employment, rather than risk being exposed as unable to control such transgressions.

This view is partly based on literature from new institutionalism. These theories suggest that organizations are not engaged in a straightforward bid to enhance their power. Instead, they are preoccupied with securing legitimacy, which they seek to do by meeting expectations from their environment about appropriate behaviour. Importantly, they also have to juggle these external demands with the need to retain loyalty and support from their own members. In many cases, this means trying to evade external pressure or responsibility – especially where the organization is aware it cannot meet expectations.

Doubts about the ‘maximizing control’ thesis are also supported by my research on the UK Home Office and Border Agency over the past 12 years or so. The Home Office is an embattled organization, struggling to retain legitimacy in the face of a constant stream of crises and scandals. Why expose itself to another line of attack, by producing more data on irregular migrants in the UK?

Indeed, when the Home Office’s failure to size its illegal population was revealed by a parliamentary committee in 2006, a senior official had to admit that the department ‘didn’t have the faintest idea’ how many immigrants were illegally resident in the UK. The response of his colleagues in the Home Office? A palpable sigh of relief. As one interviewee told me at the time, ‘most people in the IND [predecessor of the Border Agency] said, good on you Dave, you told it as it is. Of course we haven’t the faintest idea. Why are they asking this question? Don’t they know, we only know what we know? We know what we control. By definition, we don’t know who we don’t control’. The Home Office was well aware of its inability to monitor this population, and were happy to leave this particular stone unturned.

If this is the case – if there are issues over which states would rather retain opacity – then we need to rethink our notions of political rationality. It may be quite reasonable for public authorities to obfuscate or produce fog around certain social problems. Especially where they are pessimistic about their chances of meeting public expectations – and where they know they can get away with it, because of the general lack of reliable information on the problem.

Of course the UK Home Office and its Border Agency is just one example of a bureaucratic agency working in this area. We may see quite different dynamics in the case of public authorities in France and Germany. We may also discern different logics or rationalities at play in various of the agencies implicated in monitoring irregular migration, depending on which sector they work in (home affairs, justice, enforcement, social security, employment), or at different levels of governance. But we certainly expect our project will debunk more simplistic notions about state monitoring. Watch this space for more insights and findings over the coming months.