Irregular migrants in Europe: Why national institutions matter for conditions and policy  

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In recent years, few public policy issues have created more heated public and political debates across European countries than irregular migration. National governments and the European Union as a whole have been under pressure from their voters to come up with “more effective” policies—with some defining effective as stronger immigration controls and exclusions and others calling for more fundamental rights protections and greater inclusion of irregular migrants. As a consequence, we have seen a flurry of immigration policy changes in recent years, both at national and EU levels.

But more effective policies vis-à-vis irregular migrants require thinking beyond immigration policies. This is because the scale and conditions of irregular migrants in a particular country – and the politics of immigration policy-making itself – are affected in important ways by national labour market regulations, welfare states, legal frameworks, and political systems. Any attempt to develop more effective policies vis-à-vis irregular migrants is likely to fail if it does not take into account the role of these broader national institutions of host countries.

Our work on the Protecting Irregular Migrants in Europe (PRIME) project identifies the crucial role that national institutions play in shaping the lives of, and policies concerning, irregular migrants in Europe. In our new research paper, we provide a theoretical analysis of this.

Below, we explain why national institutions matter and the need for contextualized policy-making that considers the diversity of national institutions across Europe.

Heated debates with limited understanding

In addition to political conflicts about policy goals, policy-making and public debates about irregular migrants are hampered by long-standing disagreements even on aspects such as what terminology to use (irregular? illegal? undocumented?) and basic definitions and measures (who counts as an irregular migrant?). Crucially, there are also considerable gaps in our understanding of the characteristics, conditions, and effects of irregular migrants on host economies and societies. While perhaps not surprising, these knowledge gaps naturally leave a lot of room for misperceptions, make a reasoned debate difficult, and create challenges for policy-makers.

Institutions matter – also for irregular migrants

In PRIME, we define ‘irregular migrants’ as migrants without legal residence status. We also pay attention to those with what’s been called semi-compliant or semi-irregular migration statuses. Most existing research on the conditions of irregular migrants has focused on the effects and interactions of (ir)regular migration status and the inherent characteristics of migrants, especially their gender, age, and nationality. At the same time, much of the research on the host country politics and politicisation of migration in general, and of irregular migration in particular, has been focused on the roles and interests of actors, especially radical right and other political parties. What has been missing and is critical to understanding the conditions of irregular migrants, is a systematic analysis of the role and effects of national institutions.

European countries are characterised by great diversity in national legal, political, labour, and welfare institutions. We know from an extensive body of existing research that this institutional diversity has important consequences for the economic and social outcomes of citizens and migrants with a regular status across Europe. Yet, we know little about how these same institutions shape the conditions of, and politics about, one of the most vulnerable groups: migrants with an irregular status.

Direct and indirect effects of national institutions on irregular migrants 

In our new PRIME research paper, we suggest and analyse theoretically how national institutions may have direct and indirect effects on the conditions of irregular migrants.

Direct institutional effect refers to the ways in which irregular migrants’ conditions are shaped by the national institutions that determine the legal, political, economic, and social rights of citizens and long-term legal residents. For example, if a country’s national constitution protects access to a particular right for all people (not just citizens and legal residents) on that country’s territory, this will have direct effect on irregular migrants’ conditions and lives.

Indirect institutional effects refers to the ways in which national institutional settings can shape specific government policies vis-à-vis irregular migrants, which, in turn, can affect irregular migrants’ experiences. National institutions can constrain government policy-making vis-à-vis irregular migrants and they can also influence how conflicting policy objectives are balanced and weighed against each other in policy-making.

Fundamental goal conflicts

We argue that regardless of whether they are aimed at greater inclusions or exclusions, all government responses to irregular migrants require the management of a fundamental goal conflict between, on the one hand, controlling immigration and, on the other hand, protecting the fundamental rights of all people on the country’s territory.

The settings of key national institutions – legal, political, labour market, and welfare institutions – can weigh in by favouring different sides of this goal conflict and thereby shape host country policies and outcomes for irregular migrants. For example, certain political settings can make it more likely that the interests of marginalised groups, such as irregular migrants, will be represented and impact policy-making. Similarly, certain types of welfare states and programmes can make it more likely that there will be a public and/or political preference for restricting the access of irregular migrants to particular social rights enjoyed by citizens and other legal residents.

Contextualised policy-making

Studying these effects of institutional variations empirically, as PRIME will do over the next two and a half years, is not a purely academic exercise. Understanding why and how the conditions of irregular migrants vary across institutional contexts is critical for both public debates and policy-making. The role of national institutions matters for national-level policymaking and also for transnational policies: common EU policies that take a one-size-fits-all approach and ignore important cross-country variations in national institutions will fail.

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Martin Ruhs is Professor of Migration Studies and Deputy Director of the Migration Policy Centre at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. Martin is the  Principal Investigator of PRIME.