Many studies have highlighted the consequences of the exclusion of irregular (‘undocumented’) migrants from essential services, not least COMPAS’ own research on children (Sigona and Hughes, 2012). Perhaps, however, our surprise should be that, at a time when welfare states are being reined in and migrants most likely to feel the squeeze, those without permission to be here are granted entitlements to any services at all.

We are familiar of course with the idea that while irregular migrants are formally excluded from most services, they may in practice get access through the informal practices of local service providers: doctors who sympathise with their situation or head teachers who think the priority is to get all children into school. When the state itself grants those rights, however, what we see is formal exclusion versus formal inclusion; in effect the state is validating breaches of its own sovereignty (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas, 2012). Why would a state do that?

There is a stream of analysis in migration studies that explores the competing imperatives that states face when attempting to manage migration and the trade-offs implicit in the policy choices made (Spencer, 2011). Analysis of the politics of the migration policy-making process itself reveals another insight: that inclusive policies are more likely to be found where a low visibility reform can be made, minimising the risk of blame for an unpopular decision – characterised as ‘shadow politics’ in contrast to the ‘sunshine politics’ of popular measures to restrict immigration (Guiraudon 2004). This suggests that at least part of the explanation for granting entitlements to irregular migrants may be found in conflicting policy imperatives which in effect trump those of immigration control. These decisions may be more likely to be taken when the authorities can avoid the full glare of public debate, even a ‘non-decision’ where practice shifts with no debate at all (Bachrach and Baratz, 1970).

A COMPAS study1 on official responses to irregular migrants across Europe has found that this is indeed the case: national, regional and municipal authorities are driven by legal, economic and social imperatives to provide services, with those imperatives felt most keenly at the local level. European and domestic human rights legal obligations are among the constraints they face but there are also many pragmatic reasons cited for granting entitlements, including the need to achieve competing policy objectives like public health, social cohesion, crime prevention and a reduction in street sleeping. Furthermore, there is a need for effective management of public services: providing access for an undocumented child to a birth certificate means accurate population statistics, while access to primary health care reduces the pressure on emergency services. Where those decisions can be taken by adjusting the rules, reinterpreting the breadth of an exclusionary provision or by overlooking the fact that the clientele of a service has shifted over time from regular to irregular migrants, inclusion is more likely to be found.

Humanitarian and ethical concerns certainly play their part in the uneven geography of service provision to this section of Europe’s population, helping to explain why the vast majority of states, for instance, do allow access to school education and at least to emergency health care. Recognising the pragmatic necessity of inclusion if an authority’s broader objectives are to be achieved, however, brings us closer to explaining patterns of inclusion to be found at the municipal level.


1 Undertaken under the auspices of an Open Society Fellowship in 2012-2013 and ongoing at the time of writing.


Bachrach, P. and Baratz, M. (1970) Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice, New York: Oxford University Press.

Chauvin, S and Garcés-Marcareñas, B (2012) ‘Beyond Informal Citizenship: The New Moral Economy of Migrant Illegality’, International Political Sociology, 6: 241-259.

Sigona, N. and Hughes, V. (2012) ‘No Way Out, No Way In: Irregular migrant children and families in the UK’, COMPAS, University of Oxford.

Spencer, S. (2011) The Migration Debate, Bristol: Policy Press.

Spencer, S (2013) ‘City Responses to Migrants with Irregular Status’, COMPAS briefing B 13-32

In this analysis I acknowledge the contribution of COMPAS researcher Vanessa Hughes to the study on which this draws.

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