The concept of irregular or ‘illegal’ migration dates back to the 1930s; it was occasionally applied during the 1970s before becoming popular from the late 1980s. It is related to the emergence of the modern nation state, but its current version is associated with the social transformation from modernity to liquid modernity, from Fordism and Keynesianism to neoliberalism and globalisation, resulting in the new flexibility, mobility and precarity in risk societies. These changes have given rise to new forms of geographic mobility; nation states conventionally perceive these as challenges if not threats to their sovereignty, and continue to tightly regulate mobility and migration. But often tensions arise between demands for labour and immigration restrictions, between institutional goals and individual aspirations, between state definitions of persecution and individual perceptions, and between flexible lives and inflexible immigration rules and bureaucracies. These tensions bring about irregular migration.

Irregular migration only exists because policies determine which types and levels of migration are permitted and which are not. Thus, irregular migration is a social, political and legal construct. This is not a mere intellectual statement, for legal constructs can be deconstructed, meaning that what was once declared illegal can also be declared legal. For instance, in 2004, ten states joined the European Union. The borders of the EU shifted east, and irregular migration from states such as Poland and the Czech Republic became regular. Regularization programmes have given some 4 million irregular migrants legal status. When, in 2010, Greece abolished visa requirements for Albanians, illegal entries dropped dramatically. Thus, irregular migration can be reduced or prevented by changing, or reconstructing, the political status of the citizens of another country (as with EU enlargement), or the political status of foreign nationals already (irregularly) residing in a country (regularisation), or immigration modalities.

Irregular migration is typically perceived to be a major and increasing problem. However, irregular immigrants only account for around 0.5 per cent of the global population of 7.1 billion. Globally, there are an estimated 30-40 million irregular immigrants, around one fifth of all international migrants. In the EU, however, research has found not only that numbers are lower than previously estimated, but also evidence that they are decreasing from an estimated 3.1-5.3 million in 2002 to 1.9-3.8 million in 2008, around 10 per cent of the EU’s immigrant population. Estimated annual inflow decreased from its peak of 151,000 in 2008 to 73,000 in 2012. This decrease in stocks and flows is due to EU enlargement, large scale regularisations, improved entry and border controls, intensified law enforcement and the economic crisis. In contrast, in the US in 2008, the stock of irregular immigrants was 3.6 per cent of the total population, and over 25 per cent of the immigrant population were irregular. Over time, stocks have increased from 9 million (2000) to almost 12 million (2012) whilst inflows seem stable with around 550,000 annual apprehensions. Tighter border controls and lack of regularisation policies result in this population accumulating.

Hence, the overwhelming majority of migrants move, reside and return within the conditions set by law. This suggests that current policies are rather effective, though the EU is faring significantly better than the US, calling into question the level of attention and resources allocated to repressive measures.

Conventional discourses and media reports suggest that irregular migration is a border control and border security issue. But research has found that clandestine entry – often of individuals who subsequently successfully apply for asylum – only accounts for around 10 per cent of irregular migrants in the EU (in contrast to around 40 per cent in the US). In the EU, legal entry and overstaying or working in breach of visa conditions are the main paths into irregularity. Another important path is related to refused asylum seekers who either do not return, are not removed and/or are de facto non-removable. Equally relevant are overly bureaucratic or inefficient visa, residence renewal and appeal procedures, and withdrawal or loss of status. Impractical legislation and laissez faire practices also facilitate irregular immigration.

Migration is inherent to fluid modernity but current polities are ill-equipped and unwilling to accept mobile populations. As a consequence, irregular migration is constructed. Numerically, irregular migration is a minor phenomenon; however, normatively it is a major social problem. For the individual it can be a disaster. Irregular migration illustrates some of the shortcomings of our society, and the exclusion of certain mobile populations represents a major injustice at the beginning of the 21st century.

Policy options such as introducing legal migration channels, including refugee resettlement programmes, improving legal and administrative practices and (re-) regularisation combined with border controls and law enforcement could efficiently prevent, reverse and reduce irregular migration.

This article is based on a paper presented at the Metropolis conference on 12 September 2013.

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