Is there a gap in migration policy and practice? Yes, but also so much more.

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Most debate on migration policies in Europe pay little attention to the ways that day-to-day practices shape the reality of migration control. The notion of ‘a gap’ typically describes the relationship between migration policies on paper and in practice, implying that something simply goes wrong when policies are put into action. But is that what happens?

Our recently published edited book Migration Control in Practice: Before and within the Borders of the State brings together empirical research taken from the perspective of implementers and shows a more complex and nuanced understanding of what happens on the ground.

The black box of policy implementation

Our edited book expands the state of knowledge about the ‘black box’ of policy implementation in multiple areas of migration and border control. In it, we tackle

  • the potential legal-administrative paths that people on the move take, from visa issuing in countries of departure to border checks,
  • asylum seeking, including resettlement and gender- and sexuality-based asylum, and
  • access to residence (with a specific focus on marriage-based residence), healthcare, citizenship, detention, and deportation.

We shed light on several types of actors and organizations that partake in day-to-day migration and border control ranging from

  • border guards in airports, to
  • state officers who issue visas, decide upon the granting of asylum, assess the right to residency and citizenship, and grant social assistance and healthcare benefits, to
  • employees of international organizations that implement returns and resettlement, and to
  • front-line workers in detention centres.

Such a variety of case studies reveal a number of factors that shape the ways in which implementing personnel understand the objective of their job, make sense of regulations, convey practical meanings to broadly worded policies. Below we unpack some of the book’s findings which help make sense of the perceived gap between policy and practice and highlight the impact it can have.

Understanding ‘the gap’

Mismatch between policies and the population targeted by the policies

The ‘gap’ might derive from the mismatch between the policies and the population targeted by the policies. That is the case of the resettlement process for refugees in Malta, that Léa Lemaire has analysed. The US and EU’s requests for certain profiles of refugees contrasted with the reality on the ground and resulted in a ‘market’ of refugees in which the UNHCR was actively looking for one kind of refugee, while giving no options to the rest. The populations targeted by the policies can shape the policies themselves. This was the case in Anissa Mâa’s study of migrants who ‘voluntarily’ opt for assisted return migration from Morocco in absence of other prospects, a factor that sustains the return policies implemented by the International Organization for Migration.

Actors that shape policy making on the ground

Looking at the implementation dimension can help identify the actors that shape policymaking on the ground. Ahmed Hamila’s study shows how key personnel in the Belgian asylum institution and LGBT+ associations were essential in ensuring that gender- and sexuality-based asylum principles were consolidated in asylum procedures. Carla Mascia’s study shows how local politicians can also be active in street-level policies; Her comparison of the management of marriage-based residence permits in two Belgian municipalities found that with the alderman intervening personally in the procedure, one municipality was significantly more restrictive in authorising marriages in which one spouse lacked permanent residence. Andrew Crosby shows how the non-custodial staff in immigration detention participate in the exercise of institutional power that shapes detention policy while producing forms of depersonalization of detainees.

The role of informal exchange and practical knowledge

Rather than the reading of instructions and laws, the informal exchange with colleagues and the development of local practical knowledge can shape how decisions are made in migration and border control.  This was the case both in the study by Federica Infantino and Andrea Rea on Schengen visa applications and in Andrea Rea and Morgane Giladi’s study of student visas in the Belgian consulate in Casablanca. At a French airport, Andrew Crosby and Andrea Rea reveal that the access to the territory is shaped by border guards that construct ‘inadmissible passengers’ according to rules of conduct which are hidden from the public.

Variations on restrictiveness

By comparing nationality policies in Belgium and the UK, Djordje Sredanovic shows how, while Belgian municipalities were very active in filtering out applications for nationality, going beyond the mandate of the law, the closest equivalent in the UK, the local Nationality Checking Services (NCS), abstained almost entirely from the practice. Analysing the access to emergency healthcare for undocumented migrants in Belgium, Morgane Giladi and Sophie Andreetta show a rare case in which public agents involved in migration policies not only did not limit the access to rights beyond the letter of the law but also supported migrants actively.

Is the gap by design?

In many cases the ‘gap’ in implementation is included by design in the policies. Agents on the ‘frontline’ might be assigned explicitly extensive discretion. This is both because policymakers are aware that most procedures are difficult to codify in full detail, and regularly need margins of discretion, and in some cases because it is politically preferable to pursue (often restrictive) outcomes through the discretion of the agents, rather than through explicitly codified policy.

The variety of factors that shape migration control in practice are numerous and complex and deserve analytical scrutiny. Our edited volume provides this.

Do you want to better understand ‘the gap’ between migration policy and practice?

Get your copy of the book here or read more about migration policy in practice here.