Schwenken, H.: Irregular Migration, 2008

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Irregular migration only became a topic in European media as well as in the political arena since the mid 1990s. This paralleled the introduction of further restrictions in asylum policies (e.g. the Dublin Convention, list of ‘safe’ countries of origin, change of §16 of the German Constitution) and subsequently the decline in asylum applications in countries of the European Union. Today, irregular migration is among the most controversial migration related topics in the EU. In this contribution some general information on irregular migration shall be given and the policies of the European Union briefly be characterized. As these are contested policies, the main non-governmental organisations raising their voices in favour of undocumented migrants will be introduced. By drawing more in detail to the case of a European network supporting undocumented migrant domestic workers, the variety of strategies on how to deal with the topic, will be elucidated. Overall, this contribution provides an overview over the phenomenon of irregular migration as well as the contested policies around it.

Who are the undocumented migrants in the EU?

According to the nature of undocumented migration, it is hardly possible to operate with robust statistics. Very rough estimations consider the stock of undocumented migrants among all non-nationals in the EU to be 10-15 percent. For Germany estimations between 100.000 and one million have been made. The presence of undocumented migrants, particularly in bigger cities, is thus a fact. However, policy makers at a national level in many countries are hesitant in acknowledging this and foster stricter immigration laws and tighter border controls. Yet, the living and working situation of undocumented migrants poses serious consideration. Some local governments raise the issue and experiment with local policies offering undocumented migrants at least very basic health and education access. The regional origin of undocumented migrants differs from country to country: While in Spain the majority originates from Maghreb countries and Latin America (mandatory visas were only introduced recently), many French sans papiers come from West Africa as well as from the Maghreb. In Germany the situation changed after the extension of the EU through which (temporary) migrants from some of the Middle and Eastern European countries became legal (at least their stay, while working remains illegal for most of them). But among the undocumented population are also persons which someone does not expect, such as relatives of “guest workers” from countries like Turkey who are not eligable for familiy reunion, e.g. parents or grandaunts. Most undocumented migrants work, despite the permanent danger of being controlled in the public or at the site where they work. For women in an irregular status working in privatehouseholds (caring and cleaning) is the most common job. The private household is a comparatively safe place – except for neighbours who (threaten to) report to the immigration officials, the withholding of wages and other bad working conditions. Other undocumented migrants work in restaurants, in construction work or agricultural seasonal work (for a more detailed overview on undocumented migration c.f. Schönwälder et al. 2004).

European Union policies on undocumented migration

Since the end of the 1990s, the European Union’s migration policy is characterised to a great extend by preventing and fighting irregular migration and securing the EU’s external borders. It is argued that as a precondition for more open policies towards legal immigration, irregular migration shall be abolished first (see for example European Commission 2003). The approach is clearly a security and migration control approach. Just to name some examples: During the Eastern enlargement of the EU, the accession countries had to implement measures against irregular migration and human smuggling and were supported in setting up modern border control techniques. Several Action Plans, as part of the harmonization of migration and asylum policies, were put into force in order to combat illegal migration. The signing of repatriation agreements for undocumented migrants is part of the conditionalities of European developmental aid mainly for West African countries. Border controls were externalized, for example by introducing fines for transportation companies which transport (with or without knowing) persons without proper documentation (for further examples c.f. Schwenken 2007)
But this approach of the EU of combating undocumented migration is contested. First of all by migrants themselves: Situations like in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla arise in which  hundreds of migrants tried to overthrow border fences in a coordinated way in autumn 2005. Intensified border controls cannot stop migrants from coming, as indicated by the growing number of undocumented migrants. Crossing borders only gets more dangerous and the number of deaths, e.g. in the Mediterrannean Sea or close to the Canary Islands, increases. Restrictive entry policies are challenged secondly by NGOs and pro-migrant networks. They are calling for more human migration and asylum policies and they are confronting the public with the deadly consequences. And thirdly also by economists and business representatives who advocate for more open borders in oder to make use of needed and cheaper workforce.
Nevertheless, the security and control paradigm remains powerful. Furthermore, the EU policies have become a role model for other regions. The know-how of European border patrols and control strategies is exported world-wide, especially towards Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa.

An overview: NGOs and self-organisations of undocumented migrants in the EU

At the European level several networks, umbrella organisations and NGOs work in the field of migration and antiracist policies. In general the non-state sector can be differentiated in 1. huge European networks and umbrella organisations (European Council for Refugees and Exiles, European Antiracist Network, European Women’s Lobby, Platform of European Social NGOs, UNITED for In­ter­cultural Action), 2. smaller European networks such as Picum, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants or the RESPECT – European network of migrant domestic workers (for their policies see below), 3. Faith-based Christian or­ga­ni­sa­tio­ns such as the Chur­ches Committee for Migrants in Europe or the Jesuit Refugee Service, 4. international NGOs (Human Rights Watch, amnesty international, Anti-Slavery International) and trade unions (European Trade Union Confederation and sector specific unions), 5. Think Tanks, expert networks or service providers for migration related information (Migration Policy Group, Migration News Sheet, Statewatch), 6. autonomous antiracist networks (noborder network, Frassanito network, Barbed Wire Europe, and last but not least 7. self-organizations of undocumented migrants and refugees (at a European level difficult, but some coordination at European Social Fora and no border camps). Of these organisations only a handful is actively concerned with undocumented migration: Picum holds a coordinating position on these issues, involving organisations such as trade unions and other Brussels based organisations. The faith-based organisations are rather active as well. An interesting observation on almost all of these organisations is that – in the case they deal with undocumented migration – they focus on the human rights of those migrants already present in the EU, they hardly deal with the question on how people come or have to return. Entry and return issues seem to be much more sensitive than lobbying for basic human rights for everybody. This question of policy priorities leads us to the next section in which the policies of one network, RESPECT, will be analysed more in detail.

Mobilizations in the field of migrant domestic workers

In order to shed light on the controversies between organizations and on the tension between relatively autonomous migration practices of the migrants and the migration control policies, I will briefly sketch out how migrant organizations and NGOs deal with this security driven approach. Are they able to convince policy makers to improve the situation of undocumented migrants despite the hegemonic security driven policies in the EU? I will identify three different ways and sometimes contradicting strategies of how a European network of and for migrant domestic workers, RESPECT, mobilizes for female migrant workers rights on the European Union’s level (more in detail c.f. Schwenken 2006).
RESPECT is the abbreviation for “Rights, Equality, Solidarity, Power, Europe, Co-operation, Today”. The European RESPECT-network has been founded in 1998 by the Filipino-British NGO Kalayaan and Solidar, a Brussels based NGO with close trade union links. Groups and organizations attached to the network come from Belgium, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Greece, the UK etc. With the constitution as a Europen network they reacted to the need and the opportunities to rise the issue of the exploitation and legal status of migrant domestic workers at the EU level. The RESPECT-network comprises self-organized migrant domestic workers’ organizations, support organizations, trade unions and individuals. It campaigns for the rights of women – and also some men – working in private households.

Domestic work as trafficking in women

Some organizations regard exploitation in domestic service as a kind of trafficking in women. Trafficking has been defined for a long time as a combination of coercion, deception, exploitation and prostitution, in other words, sexual exploitation. Hence migrant domestic workers did not fall into that category. But this has changed with the United Nations’ substantially widened definition of 2000 in which abusive and exploitative situations in domestic work and mail-order-brides are included (UN 2000: 2). The discussion about trafficking at the global level coincided with the development of policies against trafficking and also combating illegal migration in the European Union in the middle of the 1990ies. But the political opportunity structure only allowed activities within a narrow corridor. Despite these enabling factors, the RESPECT-network decided in February 2001 to disassociate from campaigns against trafficking in women. There have been various reasons for it: Experiences and needs of domestic workers differ from that of trafficked women. Interviews reveal that domestic workers do not consider themselves as being trafficked. There is also a discrepancy of the related identity construction. The dominant identity of the women within the concept of trafficking is the one of a victim, while the RESPECT-network aims at overcoming the feeling of powerlessness among the migrants. The regularization of undocumented migrants – which is a consensus among the members of the network – is not part of the anti-trafficking agenda. It is further criticized that the motive force to combat trafficking in women is not the well-being of the women, but the state interests in fighting irregular migration and therefore intentionally equating trafficking and smuggling. The fight against trafficking is also used as a legitimation to destroy safer ways of irregular migration as irregular migration becomes more difficult and dangerous.

A gender issue

As a consequence from the experiences with the trafficking issue, the network went on accentuating rights, women’s rights and migrant workers’ rights. To apply for money from the European Commission’s programme on violence against women was at first a strategic choice in order to fund EU-wide collaboration, but it turned out to be a good way for addressing difficult working conditions, physical and psychological violence employers direct against their employees. The issue of gendered violence led to the accusation of certain migration regulations which put women into a dependent relation to their employers and/or husbands. The frame of trafficking has also been extended to migration issues, but in a solely restrictive way.

Domestic work as ‘real’ work

The third strategy frames the demands of the domestic workers as workers’ and labour rights. The gender-specific approach of the network also contains demanding the recognition of usually invisible domestic work as proper work. The strategy was quite influential as the European Parliament (EP 2004) adopted a report in which the lobbying efforts of the RESPECT network were reflected. The European Parliamant was concerned that the work so far was undeclared and part of the informal economy. Thus the aim was to find regulatory solutions for a growing problem within ageing societies and women’s work. As a positive side-effect from the perspective of the RESPECT-network, the labor related approach kept out the whole discussion about trafficking but allowed to talk about minimum labour standards and the social organization of reproductive labor. This approach is linked to a specific identity construction, the one of powerful, self-conscious migrants who know very well about their economic relevance for both, the receiving and the sending countries. To refer to labour rights also gave access to trade unions as new potential allies. Thus, the labour related framing allows addressing issues of migration policies like the admission policies of the EU which could not have been achieved with the frame of trafficking.

What does the RESPECT case teach us?

The RESPECT-network made use of new opportunities which developed at the European Union level. The resonance the network achieved has been ambivalent: On the one hand they gained structural access to EU policy makers, but on the other hand the political opportunities narrowed down due to a fusion of migration policies with crime and security policies. Reflecting the political power relations, the RESPECT-network disassociated from a very resonant lobbying strategy, combating trafficking in women. NGOs which are active in the fight against trafficking do not have the aim of working against irregular migrants, they mostly promote the human rights of the victims of trafficking and migrants in general. But due to the conflation of irregular migration, trafficking and security issues, there may be a danger in unintentionally buying into restrictive policies. Thus it is crucial to distinguish between the situation of migrant domestic workers and the one of victims of trafficking in women. As the case shows, every topic has more then one dimension and more then one potential ally. As in the case of the RESPECT network: Is it a labour issue? Or trafficking? Or gendered violence? To some extent NGOs can consciously focus on one topic and less on another. The global norms which have been refered to (e.g. of combating trafficking in women) are always tied to political interests and power relations. As the ‘management of migration’ is a contested field, part of the strategic considerations of a network or NGO is to discuss the (unintentional) side effects mobilizations can have in the dominant political framework of European Union’s migration policies.


EC, Commission of the European Communities (2003): Communication. Development of a common policy on illegal immigration, smuggling and trafficking of human beings, external borders and the return of illegal residents. 3.6.2003. COM(2003) 323 final. Brussels.

EP, European Parliament (2000): Report on regulating domestic help in the informal sector (2000/2021(INI)). Committee on Women's Rights and Equal Opportunities. Rapporteur: Miet Smet. FINAL a5-0301/2000. EN. Brussels.

Schönwälder, Karen; Vogel, Dita; Sciortino, Giuseppe (2004): Migration und Illegalität in Deutschland. AKI-Forschungsbilanz 1. Berlin: WZB.

Schwenken, Helen (2006): Rechtlos, aber nicht ohne Stimme. Politische Mobilisierungen um irreguläre Migration in die Europäische Union. Bielefeld: transcript.

Schwenken, Helen (2007): Die Herstellung von Illegalität. Das Scheitern von Migrationskontrollen ist kein Zufall. In: Dossier „Leben in der Illegalität“, (17.12.2007)

UN, United Nations (2000): Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Geneva.

Helen Schwenken, Globalization & Politics» unit at the University of Kassel, Germany