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What are irregular migration and asylum seeking?

Watch this video to discover the differences between irregular migration and asylum seeking
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Welcome to our MOOC and to this introductory lecture. In this course, we will see together what are the facts behind irregular migration, and asylum seeking. What is irregular migration, and how do we distinguish irregular migration from asylum seeking? Let me first say something about words, about terminology. We use the term “irregular” to speak of migrants. People are not illegal. We can speak of illegal entry, unauthorized stay, undocumented status, but we don’t speak about illegal people. Looking, however, more closely to irregularity, there are different elements in it. For instance, a person may cross a border without the appropriate documents, they may cross through a border checkpoint, or they may cross through another point that is not guarded.
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Then we speak about unauthorized entry to the country. Second, their stay in a country can be irregular. So they don’t have a visa, they don’t have an authorization, they don’t have a stay permit. Third, somebody may be legally staying in a country, but may be working while they’re not authorized to work. So we can distinguish three elements of irregularity that may be combined in different ways– illegal entry, unauthorized stay, irregular work. Irregular migration is, by definition, an unregistered phenomenon. So we cannot know at any one time in a specific country how many undocumented migrants are there. What we can have, however, is estimates– estimates that are produced through the comparison of different population registers.
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This is the case, for instance, of the United States, which compares census data with data on entry and exits with data on legally staying aliens. A similar thing is happening in the European Union. However, there we have to take statistical data from 28 national statistical services. So perhaps the best that we can produce is a range of an estimated irregular migrant population. How can irregular migrants, however, become known to the authorities? How does it happen if they are an unregistered or a hidden population? There are actually two ways. In one case, irregular migrants apprehended by the authorities.
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This can happen when there is a random control at a public place or at the labor space, or when they try to cross a border illegally. Actually, oftentimes the data that we see about irregular migration refer to apprehensions, and not to people illegally staying in a country. Another possibility is, though, that the migrant comes forward and comes to the authorities, either because there is an amnesty program, so a program that aims at legalizing the status of undocumented people, or because actually, the migrant comes forward to a non-governmental organization to seek support. Who are asylum seekers?
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Asylum seekers are people that ask for international protection because in their country they are, or they fear to be, persecuted on the basis of their race, nationality, religion, or for their political activities. States that apply international laws on humanitarian protection can give them a refugee status to reside on their territory. This should not be confused with the kind of refugee status that people can receive directly from the United Nations and are hosted on the UNHCR mandate in refugee camps, which are usually closer to the place of origin. For the larger majority– almost 90%– refugees are hosted in countries in the developing world.
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This is people fleeing from war and persecution, as in the case of Somalis to Kenya and Ethiopia, Nepalese to India, Palestinians to Jordan, or Afghani to Iran and Pakistan, or Syrians going to Lebanon and Turkey. Oftentimes, there is a certain confusion between irregular migrants and asylum seekers. The reasons for this confusion are many. First of all, migrants, irregular migrants, and asylum seekers may travel the same routes. They may use the same means of transport, and they may use the same networks of smugglers. Second, when an asylum seeker is rejected, they become illegally staying aliens. In that case, they are invited to leave the territory, and they are treated as irregular migrants.
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Irregular status is sometimes also the outcome of very restrictive migration and asylum policies. Actually, there are very limited legal channels if one wants to migrate from a developing country to a developed country. On the other hand, once there, it may be difficult to renew your stay permit, or it may be impossible to change the type of permit if you change employment. First, you may become an illegally staying alien, although you initially were a legal migrant. The problem with asylum seekers is that it is difficult for them to access a country and seek asylum in that country. So that is also a condition that creates irregularity. Second, asylum systems, like migration policies, are often quite restrictive.
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It is difficult to prove you are truly in need of international protection. Governments can react differently in front of the presence of a large irregular migrant population. Some governments decide to tolerate the presence of irregular migrants because they’re useful to the labor market. They satisfy labor market needs. Other governments may decide to implement large legalization programs so as to give these migrant workers legal status. Of course, there are countries that decide to step up control, both internally and externally, so as to reduce the size of the irregular migrant population. Irregular migrants are at great risk of poverty and social exclusion.
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Because they lack legal status, they oftentimes cannot access any social services, not even health services, apart from emergency health care. They cannot access education, training. They’re not protected when they work. So if they have a work accident, they may find themselves completely uncovered, both as regards their health and as regards their employment status. Civil society actors and the media oftentimes showcase this vulnerability of irregular migrants– the fact that they are victims of exploitation in the workplace because they have no labor rights, and also that they’re victims of discrimination.
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If you want to find out more about specific cases and the challenges that irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers face, as well as the role that policies play in these situations– –follow the rest of this course.

In this introductory lecture, Anna Triandafyllidou and Sabrina Marchetti explain the differences between irregular migration and asylum seeking

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