Insights from our Brussels event

Last Friday we held a round-table event in Brussels, organised together with the International Centre for Migration Policy and Development (ICMPD). The event, entitled ‘State Monitoring of Irregular Migrants in the EU’ brought together officials from NGOs, the European Commission, European Parliament, and a number of local government officials from EU countries, to discuss challenges for EU countries in managing irregular migration.

One of the focuses of the discussion was on what we term ‘nodes of interaction’: the points at which public authorities identify or ‘see’ irregular migrants resident on their territory. Traditionally, the main node of interaction has been at ports of entry, where border guards, customs officers or police check the identity documents of non-nationals entering the territory of a country. But most EU countries have complemented such entry control techniques with forms of internal checks and controls.

Germany, for instance, has long had a registration system for all non-nationals residing in the country. Immigrants need to register with local authorities in order to obtain a work and residence permit. The police carry out regular spot checks, ensuring that this system of registration is fairly effectively enforced. The data is also entered in a central foreigners registry, which can be cross-checked by various different agencies and organizations.

This form of front-loaded, immediate registration can be contrasted with nodes of interaction that occur when immigrants access particular services, making employers responsible for checking documentation to ascertain whether immigrants have a right to work. Many countries have also rolled out other forms of ‘outsourcing’, requiring non-state organizations to control access to welfare, education, health, housing, and banking.

As argued in a previous blog, this form of outsourcing implies that states may only pick up on the presence of irregular migration further on in their stay, or at a later stage of their lifecourse – for example, when they need to access healthcare, or education for their children. This can be problematic, as people may have built up a strong connection to the host country by this stage, so return becomes challenging on humanitarian, and practical, grounds. Such outsourcing can also discourage people from accessing services that are crucial to their welfare.

Another main theme of discussion was the notion of protecting certain core rights of irregular migrants – even if their stay is not being regularised. On this argument, unauthorised migrants would have protected access to, for example, healthcare, education, housing, and have certain contractual rights upheld, regardless of their legal status. This idea was captured by the political theorist Joseph Carens when he argued for a ‘firewall’ protecting the fundamental rights of irregular migrants.

Many states accept the operation of this form of firewall in practice. For example, in Germany, attempts to require schools to report irregular migrant children to public authorities were abandoned after strong lobbying and political resistance. Most countries also allow immigrants to access essential and emergency healthcare. But beyond this explicit recognition of core rights, most countries tend to tolerate a more lenient approach in practice. Here the issue is not one of states formally recognising such rights, but a symptom of the fragmentation of legal systems (see an earlier discussion of this by Christina).

However, despite this being common practice in many social systems, most EU states are reluctant to formally subscribe to a ‘firewall’ approach: they are concerned about the political message it would send, both to voters who are keen to see rigorous control, and to migrants themselves. There remains a belief that immigrants are drawn to countries where immigration control practices are more lenient.

This brings us to a third point: the notion of a ‘pull factor’. It has long been assumed in EU discussions that regularisation programmes which legalise the status of irregular migrants encourage further irregular migration. Potential immigrants, so the argument runs, seek to enter countries where they are confident that their stay can eventually be regularised. Experts round the table largely agreed that there was little or no evidence of such a pull effect. Regularisation programmes typically impose robust conditions on applicants, linked to their length of stay/employment. So it is far from the case that immigrants can enter and have their status swiftly adjusted.

That said, it was also acknowledged that information about prospects for irregular stay, work and regularisation often flow through informal migrant networks. Indeed, there are interesting variations in patterns of information flows across different national/regional groups, with some typically relying on internet data on formal regulatory frameworks in countries of destination, and others relying on informal contacts. Given this, it may well be difficult to generalise about how reliably or accurately information about control practices in host countries are transmitted, and thus how far they influence mobility decisions.

These are all important insights, which we will reflect on as we further sift and analyse our data. Please watch this space for further information on our publications, which will be forthcoming over the coming months.

— Christina and Elisabeth