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What are irregular migration and asylum seeking?

Watch this video to discover the differences between irregular migration and asylum seeking
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, unauthorised 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 their proper documents. They may cross through a border checkpoint or they may cross through another point that is not guarded.
Then we speak about unauthorised 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 authorisation, they don’t have a stay permit. Third, somebody may be legally staying in a country, but may be working while they’re not authorised to work. So we can distinguish three elements of irregularity that may be combined in different ways– illegal entry, unauthorised 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.
This is the case, for instance, of the United States, which compare 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 are apprehended by the authorities.
This can happen when there is a random control at a public place, or at the labour space, or when they try to cross the border illegally. Actually, oftentimes, the data that we see about irregular migration refers 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 programme, so a programme that aims at legalising the status of undocumented people, or because, actually, the migrant comes forward to a non-governmental organisation to seek support. Who are asylum seekers?
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 refugee status, to reside on that territory. This should not be confused with the kind of refugee status that people can receive directly from United Nations, and are hosted on the UNHCR mandate in refugee camps, which are usually closer to their place of origin. Asylum seekers and refugees are a smaller portion in the total number of 60 million people that, in 2014, had been forced to leave their homes.
The strong majority is, indeed, the one of internally-displaced people, that have had to leave their villages in order to move to other parts of the same country. Let’s look at the case of the European Union. The numbers of people applying for refugee status has increased from 2013 to 2014, and it is expected to increase further in 2015. However, for the large majority, almost 90%, refugees are hosted in countries in the developing world. This is people fleeing for 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’re invited to leave the territory, and they’re treated as irregular migrants. 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. Fast 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. 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 are useful to the labour market. They satisfy labour market needs. Other governments may decide to implement large legalisation programmes, 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. 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 labour rights, and also that they’re victims of discrimination. 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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