Undocumented Migrants: without papers but not without rights
Migrants are considered as undocumented or in an irregular situation when they are not allowed to enter, stay or work following the law of the country.
The IOM reports that there are roughly 20 to 30 million irregular or undocumented migrants worldwide, which is about 10 to 15 per cent of the total number of international migrants.
Undocumented migration is an extremely emotional subject nowadays and is often used to stir up racial and cultural tensions. Some politicians and journalists play up fears of terrorism regularly linking migrants with criminality and talk about "invasion". This image is strengthened by the use of dramatic pictures of desperate people willing to risk everything to work abroad. Consequently, the words "illegal migrant" carry a connotation of criminality where the migrant is to blame for doing what human beings have always done: crossing borders or oceans in search of a better life. Yet "illegal migration" is an expression used on a daily basis and reference to "illegal migration" is pervasive in the media. For instance, in the USA, despite numerous calls from groups such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the words "illegal", when describing a migrant, is still more than five times more common than the more neutral and accurate "undocumented". In 309 stories collected over a period of two months, there were 381 uses of the word "illegal" compared to 73 uses of the word "undocumented" when referring to irregular migrants.
A little bit of history
The concept of "irregular migration" is relatively new. Until recently, global migration was not regulated and visas and registration authorities simply did not exist. Migration was not an offence and usually, employment was not prohibited. Indeed, migrants were instead labelled "spontaneous immigrants" and could often easily regularise their status once in the new country. First used when immigration laws were passed in the 1920s to cope with European immigration into the USA, the concept of "illegal immigrant" was also applied during the 1930s, when unwanted Jewish migration to Palestine was declared "illegal immigration" by the British authorities. It was applied again, especially in Europe, during the 1960s and 1970s, though only occasionally, and the term "illegal immigration" only became mainstreamed from the mid 1980s onward. Therefore the concept of irregular migration is a phenomenon that has been politically and legally created recently and over a short time
From regular folk to irregular migrant
There is very little critical assessment of how migrants become "irregular"; however "blame is usually attributed to the migrants". Whilst the term "irregular migrant" is the correct definition for a human being in an irregular situation, it does not reflect the varied motivations and ways by which people find themselves in an irregular situation.
Life as an undocumented migrant
Invisibility and silence
"Fear is the clandestine’s shadow. Fear of everything and everyone: of taking the bus, of working, of moving. One must take care not to be conspicuous, not to loiter in the shopping centres. Those who have nothing to buy, have no reason to loiter there ... Every action holds its own measure of risk."
Irregular migrants (especially people who have been trafficked or smuggled) rarely appear in official statistics. Often stripped of identity documents and fearful of contact with the authorities, irregular migrants are difficult to identify or trace. Sometimes migrants themselves seek invisibility to escape official attention or threats to themselves or their families. Sending money home (remittances) for instance, one of the main reasons for migrating, can be a very risky affair for undocumented migrants because a money transfer often requires proof of identity. Therefore, undocumented migrants tend to use less reliable and more expensive means of money transfer. This means that they send less back home or at times, nothing at all. This is sadly ironic considering that many left their countries to help sustain their families.
One of the greatest challenges faced by undocumented migrants is the risk of exploitation and abuse by:
* employers who often force migrants to work long hours in dangerous and/or unhealthy conditions, dismiss them without due notice, refuse to pay them or pay them less than what was agreed etc.;
* traffickers and irregular migration networks that often exploit or deceive them: lured with promises of work and a better life, migrants instead find themselves often in life threatening situations and many die before their arrival: since December 2002 3,713 migrants have died at the borders of Europe;
* members of their own communities who often take advantage of other migrants’ vulnerability: "Adama slept in a park along with dozens of other Africans. Finally, a man from Sierra Leone offered to give Adama his work permit. In return, Adama would pay him 100 euros each month. «And I said yes, because I didn't come here to do nothing». Thousands of immigrants in Spain are in similar situations; they are exploited by other immigrants who have papers."
"Clandestinity dissolves every life project." The life of undocumented migrants is usually a life without rights, with reduced or no access to public health systems, proper housing, education and financial systems. They are the "civic dead" . Yet all migrants (regardless of their status) have rights: not only those established through the UN Migrant Workers Convention but also as every human being, they are entitled to have their basic human rights respected as elaborated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The reality though, is that most governments fear that ensuring basic Human Rights for undocumented migrants would create a "pull effect" and encourage further irregular migration.
New policies and perspectives
Does making laws stricter reduce irregular migration?
"Making migration rules stricter creates more clandestinity. It is not flexible migration policies that create illegal migration but too strict migration policies. When borders are open, people come and go. When borders are closed, people tend to stabilize.", Catherine Vihtol de Wenden, Research Director at the French National Centre for Scientific (CNRS).
Most destination countries seem convinced that they are able to control migration while studies undertaken across the world show this is not the case and it is becoming more and more evident that restrictive migration laws tend to generate "illegality". Indeed, how can a country stop "migratory flows" in an era of globalisation where borders are open to international trade or tourism? Or, when business continues to lobby governments to facilitate migration to access cheaper labour markets? Separating migration from the world we live in is at the crux of the misunderstanding around migration.
This misunderstanding is reflected in international law, in the "fundamental contradiction for which only emigration is recognized as a fundamental right (article 13-2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ) while immigration is regarded as a matter of national sovereignty". States must rethink the issue based on a more comprehensive framework of mobility. If we want to see change, "the immediate challenge is indeed to persuade states to address irregular migration in a human rights framework", and to take into account the realities of our globalized world to start reducing human misery at home and abroad.