As global economic disparities remain large, irregular migration pressures continue unabated despite the economic crisis that several EU countries are facing. Current irregular migration policies privilege tougher border controls--often at the expense of human rights obligations (and in violation of the European Chart of Fundamental Rights) while seeking to enlist the cooperation of main origin and transit countries through the so-called ‘mobility partnerships'. These partnerships basically promise more legal migration channels, mainly for temporary or circular migration, if sender countries guard their borders more effectively, combat migrant smuggling, and seek to deter emigration.
The carrot offered is, however, too meager compared to the stick meant to discipline. Vague promises or small seasonal migration schemes are not efficient safety valves for countries that have huge issues with poverty, lack of infrastructures or welfare systems, widespread corruption, and often political instability or civil war. Despite the rather non-existent results of this approach so far, the European Commission insists on Mobility Partnerships as a policy tool that will ease out irregular migration pressures from Northern Africa the year after the Arab Spring and aims to sign such agreements with Morocco and Tunisia.
Perhaps what is most promising in the EU policy against irregular migration is, paradoxically, the policy path opened up with the Directive on common standards for returning illegally staying aliens. While the Directive (voted in 2008) was then criticized for being inhuman--the directive of shame, it was indeed called by the relevant NGO campaign--it has actually obliged several EU countries to put in place relevant legislation and guarantee the fundamental rights of irregular migrants. It has led to the development of a new set of instruments such as the ‘formal toleration status' (existing, for instance, in Germany and in Greece) for irregular migrants who cannot be removed. It has strengthened voluntary return schemes (by extending the period given to migrants and their families to prepare their ‘voluntary' departure). Furthermore, it has obliged several EU countries to rethink the plight of people who are undocumented but cannot effectively be expelled. These countries have realized that the illegal immigrants cannot be ‘wiped out' with tougher welfare and residence policies or by making them ever more fearful that they will be caught (and their native employers ever more fearful to employ them). Thus, this directive opens up, through the backdoor, a debate on how to best handle irregular migration in Europe.
Perhaps the step to take in this direction is not too big to create a more effective and just irregular migration policy. In my view, three measures are needed:
- Acknowledge openly that a certain level of irregular migration is an endemic feature of democratic liberal societies.
- Europe, who needs demographic growth, has several labour market niches where migrant workers can be handy even at times of crisis like this one. Irregular migrants should, under a set of conditions, be integrated into the legal migrant population. The example of Spain with its arraigo procedure (that consists of tacit on a case by case basis regularization after 2 years of residence and demonstrating social and economic integration), the former such policy of France (abolished in 2006) and the relevant policy of Greece (after 12 years of residence).
- Human rights obligations should not be forgotten. They are valid also for irregular migrants and pending or rejected asylum seekers (indeed in this respect the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union is doing a good job and its role should be further strengthened).
Such a realistic short and medium term policy is necessary so that the more long term approach of closer cooperation with countries of origin and transit (including the dismantling of human smuggling networks and the promotion of growth and stability in these countries) becomes truly effective.
Dr. Anna Triandafyllidou is a Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy and Senior Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) in Athens, Greece.
This article is published as part of the "Border Policies: Lessons for Improvement" theme week.