“Irregular Migration“ – an Interview with Dita Vogel

20 February, 2011

Refugees, persecutees, undocumented immigrants, aliens without residence status – hundreds of thousands of them live in EU countries. The constant risk of being deported forces them to go underground, work under exploitative conditions and live without access to medical care. An interview with Dr. Dita Vogel, who is in charge of the research area “Irregular Migration” at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI).

Dr. Vogel, how many “illegal migrants” are there in Germany at present?

Nobody knows exactly how many persons without residence status are currently living in Germany. According to estimates arrived at by our institute, 200,000 to 400,000 is a realistic figure. The number of illegal residents has been declining for years. Our maximum estimate for 2005 was as high as 700,00 undocumented persons. The decline is to some extent related to the enlargement of the EU, which has led to numerous immigrants such as those from Poland gaining legal residence status. A similar trend can be observed in other EU countries, where regulatory programmes and the economic crisis have likewise contributed to the decline.

You use the term “irregular migration” – why?

Irregular migration is a term that is gaining increasing acceptance in international organisations and scientific discussion. Irregular migrants are people who are not entitled to reside in a country under that country’s law. They were not permitted to enter it and have done so nevertheless, or should have left the country and have remained there. Official texts often speak of “illegal residence”. The term “illegal residents” is frequently felt to be stigmatizing.

Are all “irregular migrants” refugees and persecutees or rather people with entrepreneurial spirit and the courage to take risks?

The two are not mutually exclusive. Refugees or persecutees who manage to get as far as Germany will generally not be among the weakest and poorest in their home countries. Illegality is often a transitional stage: they enter the country illegally, apply for asylum and may end up going underground again, if they are unable to justify their reasons for seeking asylum or fail to have their grounds for fleeing their countries recognized as entitling them to refugee status.

But many of them work illegally… Many irregular migrants succeed in joining Germany’s underground economy, finding employment in domestic service, for instance, or in restaurants and on farms or building sites. Despite low wages, some of those who are employed in this way manage to earn a living through their industry and entrepreneurial spirit. Others are cheated of their wages and don’t know how to defend themselves.

Given the tougher border controls, how do they gain entry to EU member states without documentation?

Illegal entry by boat across the Mediterranean or to the Canaries is the most widely known route, but certainly not the most frequent. We can assume that most irregular migrants nowadays enter the country legally, as tourists for example, or manage to pass the border controls with forged documents.

How do the destination countries deal with irregular migrants? Is the situation in Germany comparable with that found in the other EU member states?

Basically, all EU member states agree, on the one hand, that human rights must be upheld, irrespective of residence law, and on the other, that people without a right of residence must leave the EU as soon as possible – preferably voluntarily, by force if necessary. Legalizations should only be possible in exceptional cases. However, there are still wide differences in the mode of implementation employed by the various member states. In Germany, for example, civil servants are subject to a duty to pass on data and must report cases of illegal residence to the competent foreigners’ authority. It was not until last year, that this duty was qualified in recognition of the fact that it might stand in the way of children attending school or people receiving emergency hospital treatment. The qualified duty must now be put into practice in the field, so that parents without residence status will send their children to school and dare to go to hospital for emergency care. In other countries, cooperation on the part of officialdom is less extensive.

Ways out of illegality

What ways are there out of illegality?

The primary and most important route is voluntary repatriation to one’s home country. For many people, illegality is only a stage in their lives. They return home because they have achieved their income goal or the situation in their home country has improved or because they cannot bear to live a life of illegality any longer.

And in the receiving country?

Some countries have legalization programmes. Other countries – such as Germany – temporarily suspend deportation of those who cannot be deported. Migrants thus enter a grey zone, which may end in renewed illegality, legality of return.

The EU intends to take steps to combat exploitative practices and prohibit the employment of irregular migrants through strict controls – will that help?

In the final analysis, the provisions on uniform penalties and controls are very vague. The mode of implementation is left up to the individual member states. What is more important is the fact that the Employer Sanction Directive of 2009 lays down that the states should have effective mechanisms in place that allow employees to lodge complaints against employers, also through third parties such as trade unions. The battle against the worst cases of exploitation of illegally employed third-country nationals, involving cases where persons without status are cheated of their wages, can only be fought with employees, not against them. This, in turn, protects German employees, as nobody can compete against a dumping price of zero euros an hour.

Others recommend preventing immigration in the country of origin – what do you think of this recommendation?

This is largely reality. Visas are only granted after close scrutiny and airline companies that have not checked passengers’ documents properly must transport them back to their home countries and bear any ensuing costs. This method functions but has negative side-effects that have not been sufficiently investigated, e.g. the extent to which desirable visitors are deterred from travelling there. Stricter border controls also tend to lead to an extended period of stay of illegal migrants because re-entering the country or moving to and fro becomes risky. In academic circles, this type of phenomenon is also referred to as the “ratchet effect”.

Volker Thomas conducted the interview. He is a free-lance journalist in Berlin and heads the Thomas Presse & PR agency.

Translation: Mary-Lou Eisenberger
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2010