About the Project

Irregular immigration in Europe has attracted significant political attention recently, largely focused on unauthorised entry via sea borders. But just as striking are the omissions implied by this focus: the lack of codified knowledge about, or even ‘strategic ignorance’ of, unauthorized foreign nationals already resident in European countries. Few countries estimate stocks of irregular or ‘illegal’ residents in their territory. Governments tend to be just as reticent about collecting and publishing data on apprehensions or removals of illegal immigrants. And there is a dearth of analysis on the economic and social effects of illegal residence and employment. In the UK, for example, the Home Office has only published two research studies on illegal immigrants since 2000. And while illegal immigration is periodically the topic of high profile policy announcements and measures (including reporting ‘hotlines’, ‘go home’ vans, texts and tweets, and highly publicised raids), parliamentary committees have consistently identified problems with Home Office data in this area. These oversights raise important empirical and theoretical questions about the selections and omissions made by political actors in monitoring illegal immigrants.

Our project will examine how states ‘see’ illegal immigrants, addressing two sets of questions.

  • First, which forms of illegality do states monitor, and which are left unscrutinised? What sorts of techniques and technologies do public authorities use to produce knowledge about the kinds of illegal residents they choose to monitor? How do UK practices compare to those of European countries with similar populations? And how do EU, OECD and UN practices of data collection and harmonisation influence national monitoring practices? The project will be the first to systematically map, compare and explain the practices used by European countries to monitor illegal immigrants. Through historical and political scientific analysis of monitoring practices in the UK, France, Germany, the project will examine how states ‘render legible’ this difficult-to-observe population.
  • Second, what do monitoring choices and practices tell us about the type of political rationality informing state monitoring practices – what we term state logics of monitoring? The focus on how public authorities produce knowledge about illegal immigrants offers unique insight into the logics of political action and justification that underpin immigration control. Do monitoring practices suggest that states are attempting to maximise control over their populations? Or do public authorities cultivate strategic ignorance to sustain a pool of low cost labour? Alternatively, are such omissions an attempt to avoid liability in an area in which states have limited control? By analysing how states attempt to ‘see’ illegal immigrants we aim to reconstruct the logics underpinning decision-making on monitoring. As such, the project will make a broader contribution to theories of the state and political agency.

The project aims to stimulate debate amongst policy actors, NGOs, business and the media about the complex politics and ethics of monitoring illegal immigrants. This is an issue fraught with ambiguity and ambivalence, not just for public authorities, but also on the part of immigrant support and campaign groups, and those social and economic sectors that incorporate illegal immigrants through providing jobs, housing, health and education. While political rhetoric sets up expectations about rigorous control, states and various sectors of the economy and society prefer to maintain a degree of ‘fog’ around the issue. Through our impact strategy we aim to open up national and EU-level debates on the ethics and politics of monitoring illegal immigrants.

Further details about the project can be found on the Research Councils UK Gateway to Research page.