Beyond Irregular Migration Governance: Zooming in on Migrants’ Agency

In: European Journal of Migration and Law
Anna Triandafyllidou Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute Villa Schifanoia, via G. Boccaccio 121, I-50133 Florence Italy

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1 The Case for a Different Take on Understanding Irregular Migration

The loss of over a thousand human lives in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean during April 2015 has once again drawn media and political attention to the challenges that the European Union faces in its efforts to govern irregular migration and asylum in the region. However, what still seems to be wanting is our (experts’ and policy makers’) understanding of what drives people to put their lives at risk in search of a better future. What are the motivations that are so strong and what is the information they have? How do they organise their journey and how do they respond to changing policy practices (e.g., more intensive enforcement at the border or a more expansive rescue operation at sea)? How much do they know about destination or transit countries and how accurate is their information? How much are they in control of their own destinies and how much do they accept contingency and risk?

This Special Issue of European Journal of Migration and Law (based on original empirical research conducted within the framework of the irma project, Governing Irregular Migration: States, Migrants and Intermediaries at the Age of Globalisation, funded by the Greek Secretariat for Research and Innovation, ARISTEIA programme, 2012–2015) focuses on precisely this type of research and policy questions, placing (irregular) migration as a complex social process at the centre of the study. Bruno Latour (1999: 1482) argues that it is not an airplane or a pilot that flies: “Flying is a property of the whole association of entities that includes airports and planes, launch pads and ticket counters.” Similarly, migration is neither about migration policies nor about individuals alone but about the interaction between the two, as well as the variety of intermediary actors and factors that are involved in the process of moving. The nature of the process can best be captured through a focus on the migrant rather than on the policy objective or the policy means. Irregular migration is a complex process set in motion by the migrant through the resources they can mobilise, developed in interaction with intermediaries (such as smugglers, border guards, fellow nationals, natives at transit or destination), and involving different tactics and strategies of navigating or even manipulating migration and asylum policy options (including visa policies, border controls, asylum processing, but also prospects for regularisation or even eventually long-term settlement).

The approach adopted in this Special Issue is anthropocentric: it seeks to cast light on the governance of irregular migration starting not from the policies and the government actors, but rather zooming in on the migrant as the main agent in the migration process. It is our contention that such an anthropocentric perspective improves our actual understanding of how migration control and migration management policies affect irregular migration and thus indirectly leads to a better understanding of the governance of irregular migration and asylum.

2 Beyond Irregular Migration Governance: Focusing on the Migrant

The study of migration governance has typically focused on a critical examination of policy programs, discourses, enforcement practices, and technologies deployed. One of the reference books in the field — notably the volume edited by James Hollifield, Phil Martin and Pia Orrenius (now in its third edition) entitled Controlling Immigration — focuses on a “systematic comparative study of immigration policy in fifteen industrialised democracies and the European Union” (Hollifield et al., 2014: 3) by looking at the efficacy of control measures and the gap between goals and results of national immigration policy. Scholars and policymakers have examined migration management as a set of regulatory mechanisms that aim to control mobility (see also Cassarino 2010). Critical studies looking at the transnational governance of international migration (Betts 2011, Kunz et al. 2011) have also centred on the convergence or divergence of policies and on the role of international organisations or regional governance mechanisms (for instance, the eu) in the process. Emphasis has been placed on the new governance actors (state, civil society, transnational) emerging in the field, while the role of migrants as the primary agents of migration, and particularly of irregular migration, has often been overshadowed in these approaches.

A more agency-sensitive approach started gaining ground 20 years ago in the field of migrant integration and migrant transnationalism (see, for instance, Basch et al., 1994; Papastergiadis, 2000; Levitt, 2001, 2009; Boccagni, 2009), but was much slower to take root in studies on the management of irregular migration or asylum (for instance, Bakewell, 2008). There, the emphasis has remained predominantly on what policies achieve or not (Castles, 2004; Czaika and Haas, 2013) or on the detrimental effects that securitisation and deterrence can have on the management of irregular migration (Bigo, 2002, Triandafyllidou and Dimitriadi, 2014). Seeking objective indicators and concrete policy assessments, researchers have often bypassed the lived experience of the migrant and their strategies of navigating a dangerous and complex world of control and deterrence as well as of opportunity and hope. Most recently, and in the face of the tragedy of massive deaths in the Mediterranean crossings, there has been more attention paid to the powerful, even if sometimes hard to understand for policymakers, motivations of irregular migrants and asylum seekers (Triandafyllidou and Maroukis, 2012, for a current commentary see Hinshaw, 2015) who flee insecurity and poverty but also embrace a strong hope for a better future.

The papers included in this Special Issue seek to challenge conventional views of irregular migration as a policy subject. We argue that our understanding of irregular migration needs to be turned on its head. Instead of focusing on policies and how successful or failed these are or on distinguishing between irregular and legal migrants — or instead of despairing because the root causes of international migration cannot be eradicated (notably important global economic inequalities or political insecurity in many parts of the world) — we need to focus on the migrant’s motivations. The emphasis of this Special Issue is on how the agency of the migrant plays out, under specific structural conditions (of a given set of initial social, economic, and political resources), through interaction with a number of intermediate factors (including other social actors like employers, smugglers, ngos or international organisations, but also national policies and national authorities that shape the migrant’s plans and actions). Indeed, policies and intermediaries thus become hurdles to overcome, costs to assess, or opportunities to seize, while the focus remains on the human agent rather than on the policy and its effectiveness.

Contributions to this Special Issue seek to emancipate our categories of analysis from the related policy categories. From a policy perspective, any study on irregular migration starts from a clear distinction between legal and irregular flows, and between “real” and “fake” asylum seekers (or “successful” and “failed” ones). Human mobility is analysed, categorised, and placed under distinct labels. However, such policy categories do not correspond to the categories of meaning that irregular migrants and asylum seekers employ. For the migrant or the person seeking international protection, the point of departure is their changing life circumstances or actually the lack of a way out, the impossibility to significantly improve their living and working conditions at home. Thus an insider’s look into the dynamics of irregular migration points to the need of going beyond such conceptual fixity and embracing the point of view of the migrant.

For migrants with mixed motivations of both insecurity and poverty it is not clear which comes first, and it may safely be argued that one is the catalyst of the other as the studies included in this Special Issue show. There is a need to consider how such a complex interrelationship can be addressed in the nexus of migration and asylum governance. The current conceptualisation of the two phenomena as discrete and distinct fails to take into account the multifaceted realities on the ground, leading people in need of protection not to apply for asylum and economic migrants to apply as a temporary regularisation measure, while actually not opening any viable alternatives for those fleeing a mix of both problems. The governance and control of irregular migration and the management of asylum need to be understood by policymakers and researchers as a continuum rather than as separate and compartmentalised policy and governance domains of human flows.

Similarly, the compartmentalisation between legal, irregular, and asylum-seeking moves needs to be reconsidered. These notions for the people who consider moving are means to an end — the end being to secure better life prospects for themselves and their children or supporting family back home, including extended family or family of origin. So these are policy options which they consider and on which they gather information. This also relates to the question of obtaining a visa and what kind of visa, therefore also to European and national visa policy. Thus, a person who decides to migrate pushed by a combination of economic and sometimes political factors crosses a slippery slope, sliding from the regular to the irregular options depending on what option is available and affordable. Often migrants do not even see the distinction between legal and irregular channels other than as obstacles or opportunities for realising their project.

Interestingly, for instance, the notion of legal versus irregular dawns on the migrants only after a certain period of time has elapsed and they realise that their classification as being with or without documents limits their life prospects and their ability to go back to their country of origin to see relatives. Thus, while it seems that migration control policies may have a limited influence upon the first part of the decision-making as migration and asylum-seeking motivations take the toll, they come back with a vengeance as with time undocumented status becomes a trap — both a physical trap of immobility and a social trap that prevents the migrant from moving on with her or his life. A different perspective is necessary in examining the governance of irregular migration, removing the focus from policies and zooming in on human agency and the migrant’s motivations.

3 Greece and its Southern European Context

This Special Issue investigates the dynamics of irregular migration (and asylum-seeking) and the ways in which different actors and factors affect the nature and direction of the flows within an overall restrictive eu and national (Greek) migration policy regime. The Special Issue concentrates on the case of Greece in relation to the four largest groups of irregular migrants in the country, notably Albanians, Georgians, Pakistanis and Afghans.

Southern European countries attract large numbers of irregular immigrants not simply due to their geographic position as the eu’s external borders (although this is a decisive factor), but crucially because of their inadequate policy responses and highly bureaucratic administrations, as well as labour market structures with high demand for cheap and flexible work and large informal sectors (Sassen, 2000; King, 2002; Baldwin-Edwards, 2008; Triandafyllidou and Maroukis, 2008; Triandafyllidou and Ambrosini, 2011; Maroukis et al., 2011).

Greece’s transition to immigration in the early 1990s involved predominantly irregular movements, mostly from neighbouring Balkan countries. The undocumented character of the flows had to do with the lack of a policy for managing economic migration and a reluctance to recognise that this was a long-term trend, not just a short-lived phenomenon after 1989 and the implosion of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe. Indeed, Greece transformed de facto into a destination country while it regularised through three large “amnesty” programmes (1998, 2001 and 2005) hundreds of thousands of migrant workers (and their families) employed in agriculture, construction, tourism, small manufactures, cleaning, and domestic care. With shifting channels and routes of migration — and adjustments of smuggling operations to policy developments — Greece saw flows increasing in the second half of the 2000s along both its maritime borders and its eastern land border with Turkey. Violence and conflicts in the Middle East, as well as further afield in Africa and Asia, have swelled both the migrant and asylum-seeking flows towards Europe in general and towards Greece in particular in the last five years.

The four case studies seek to uncover the dynamics of irregular migration, taking as their focus not the policies but rather the migrants as central actors in the field. We investigate how migrants react to the policies, how they make decisions and execute their plans, how they learn about and factor in policies and intermediaries and eventually adopt one pathway or strategy of mobility instead of another. Our analysis concentrates on how migrants make sense of their own needs and wishes and how they conceptualise their migration project.

4 Rationale for Selecting the Case Studies

In this Special Issue, we look at four countries belonging to three migration systems from the mid-2000s to the present. The first system looks at the case of Albania, part of the broader Balkan-to-EU migratory movement. This period has been characterised by economic growth and a fragile political stability in Albania, which has since built closer links with the eu and has been working on a path towards future membership. This path, however, was interrupted by the global financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis. Italy and Greece were the main economic partners as well as migration destinations for Albanians. Yet the crisis in these two countries has had important repercussions for the Albanian economy and society. Exports have suffered and approximately 140 000 Albanian citizens have returned to the country, of which a vast majority are men returning from Greece (approximately 70% of the total) in the period 2009–2013 because of rampant unemployment.

An example of the second system is the case of Georgia. Greece has been a primary destination country for Georgians, partly because of cultural and religious affinities (both Greece and Georgia are Christian Orthodox countries) and because of indirect ties forged by the presence of a large Greek ethnic population in Georgia during Communist times. While Georgia had been on a path of growth and political and economic stabilisation during the first decade of the century, this path was interrupted by the war with Russia in 2008. The conflict had important negative repercussions for the economy and has led to a new wave of emigration as well as to Georgians living abroad attempting to apply for asylum because of the conflict in their country.

The third migratory system examines migration from Pakistan and Afghanistan. These two countries are inscribed in a completely different geopolitical and socio-economic context than Albania and Georgia. Afghanistan is one of the major refugee source countries for the past 30 years and has been tormented by war since the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Afghans arrive in Greece mainly seeking international protection, though many opt out of the asylum process due to their desire to reach other eu destinations. A significant number of them has either been born and raised or spent a significant period of time (often 10 years or more) in Iran. Their re-migration is a result of the changed policy in Iran more towards return and less towards settlement of the Afghan population

Pakistan, on the other hand, is both a major refugee host country, particularly for the Afghans, and an important source country of economic migrants. Highly-skilled Pakistani migrants prefer to head to the uk and the usa while others, including low-skilled migrants, opt for European or southeast Asian destinations. Greece has been a destination country since as early as 1970, when the first groups arrived. Pakistani migrants represent the third-largest group of third-country nationals in Greece after the Albanians and the Georgians.

5 Methodology

Each country case study developed in parallel, starting with a period of desk research and fieldwork in Greece, interviewing stakeholders (state authorities, civil society actors, experts) and collecting relevant policy documents as well as relevant bibliographical sources. During a second phase, we conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews with irregular migrants in Greece, while a third phase included interviews with returned irregular migrants or with people in the countries of origin who considered leaving but did not eventually emigrate. In the cases of Pakistan and Afghanistan, interviews were conducted via Skype with people in the countries of origin and also in Istanbul where many Pakistani and Afghan migrants and asylum seekers are in transit waiting for a smuggler’s passage to Greece. Additional interviews were conducted in all case studies with people in detention or under voluntary return procedures with the International Organization for Migration (see Table 1). Interviews have been analysed along four nodal points that follow the unfolding of the migration project:

table 1

Interviews with immigrants and stakeholders

table 1

First, the “before” the journey phase, notably the motivations that made the migrant consider leaving their home country and the information they have in relation to what awaits them at destination and how hence the project may fulfil their needs and desires.

Second, the phase in which the migrant turns the aspiration into action. In this part of the migration project, the intermediaries enter, as well as the awareness of the migrant that the project is unlawful and that there may be consequences because they travel without authorisation.

A third nodal point concerns the phase of first arrival and settlement, the ways in which the migrant navigates an initially unknown country without appropriate documents for residence or work. Here, again, the role of intermediaries comes into play as well as the information received from different sources on how to navigate a difficult environment without legal status.

A fourth and final nodal point concerns the migrant’s plans for the future and how migration control policies shape those, e.g., by making the life of the migrant impossible and future prospects in the destination country grim, or by opening up opportunities for further migration (e.g., in the case of Afghans seeking asylum in third countries) or for instance in terms of deciding to return either because the project has been fulfilled or because the migrant has been arrested and their project has been abruptly interrupted.

6 Contents of this Special Issue

In line with the organisation of the case studies into three migration systems suggested above, this Special Issue starts with a paper by Eda Gemi on Albanian migration in Greece: “Understanding Irregularity in Times of Crisis.” This paper discusses the impact of the economic crisis along with the visa-free regimes for Albanian citizens entering the eu on the patterns of Albanian irregular migration to Greece. The paper explores the emerging mobility strategies for irregular circulation and shows how Albanian migrants navigate a legality-irregularity space using their agency to overcome policy restrictions and socio-economic hurdles in search of better life and job prospects in Greece. The paper speaks more generally about the dynamics of a fluid Balkan–eu migration system that involves migration, return, and circulation, and where migrant agency is crucial for navigating policy rules.

The second paper, by Michaela Maroufof, examines Georgian irregular migration patterns to Greece. The paper points to the relevance of networks for both starting and continuing irregular migration. As the study shows, such networks do not only include co-ethnics but also Greeks who find their roots in the repatriation of co-ethnics (Pontic Greeks) from Georgia to Greece in the early 1990s. The paper shows how the migrant is part of a network comprised of relatives and close friends as well as agents acting for profit like employment agencies, travel agencies, and employers themselves. The focus of the paper is on showing how migration and asylum policies are creatively navigated by migrants, are indeed circumvented or even exploited (as the case of asylum applications after the Russia-Georgia war shows) with the help of the network responding to the strong motivation behind the individual migration project.

The last pair of papers included in this Special Issue focus on the Asia-to-southern Europe migration system. The paper on Afghan asylum seekers cum irregular migrants to Greece, by Angeliki Dimitriadi, points to the specificities of this population group and how their particular understanding of asylum guides their choice of transit and destination countries. The paper pays special attention to the policies in place since 2012, from increased border controls to systematic detention, returns, and the new asylum service. It also looks at how the Afghans have responded to these policies and their effect on Afghan migratory trajectories.

Migration as a process is inherently intertwined with the history and the present of Pakistan. For many years the country has been not only the origin, but also the destination or transit of multiple migratory flows. At the same time, Greece has become a critical pathway for migratory flows to Europe during the last few years, especially serving as the main junction for migrants crossing from Asia and Africa. The last paper, by Michaela Maroufof and Hara Kouki, traces the decision-making process through which people opt for Greece as their destination, their journey to the country, and the labour conditions and migration control and management policies they are subjected to upon their arrival. While a variety of actors and factors are at play in the way people move from the one country to the other, masculinity emerges as the frame against which these come together to make sense, attributing the interviewed individuals’ subjectivity and agency when deciding to begin their journey.


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