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Understanding Unauthorized Migration

Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division.

Refugees at the Greek-Macedonian border. Credit: Nikos Pilos/IPS

NEW YORK, Nov 15 2016 (IPS) - Growing numbers of men, women and even children in every major region of the world are joining international streams of unauthorized migration. This global movement of humanity’s desperate is taking place despite walls, fences, barriers, guards, patrol ships, warnings and nativist political rhetoric. Governments of origin, transit and destination countries are struggling on how best to manage unauthorized migration flows.

While the specifics of leaving ones country and settling in another without authorization vary from region to region, the dynamics of most unauthorized migration are similar. Understanding those dynamics is essential to addressing the underlying causes of unauthorized migration and assisting governments, international agencies, regional and national organizations dealing with the consequences, especially the tragic loss of thousands of lives in failed unauthorized migration attempts.

Climate change, environmental degradation, shrinking natural resources, armed conflict and violence are additional major emigration pressures.

Excluding refugees who number more than 21 million and are under the protection of international conventions and agreements, it is estimated that of the remaining approximately 225 million migrants worldwide about 50 million are unauthorized migrants. The countries with the largest numbers of unauthorized migrants include the United States (11 million), India (at least 10 million), the Russian Federation (4 million), Malaysia (1 million) and the United Kingdom (1 million).

Every year countries receive millions of migrants who are granted visas for various purposes, including employment, family reunification, business, schooling, medical care and tourism. Some of those migrants with short-term visas overstay their visits, thereby becoming unauthorized migrants, whose numbers are increasing in various countries.

Many countries seek foreign workers, especially the highly skilled. However, the level of demand for those workers is far less than the growing pool of potential migrants in sending countries. Based on international surveys, the number of people indicating a desire to immigrate to another country is estimated at about 1.3 billion, far larger than the current 244 million migrants worldwide (Figure 1).

Source: Author’s estimates based on United Nations statistics and international Gallup surveys.

Source: Author’s estimates based on United Nations statistics and international Gallup surveys.

Among those wishing to migrate, about 100 million report planning to migrate in the next year and 40 million have taken steps necessary for migration, such as obtaining travel documents and needed finances. Again, the number of potential migrants who have taken steps to emigrate greatly exceeds the world’s average level of approximately 6 million migrants per year.

While everyone has the right to leave and return to their home country, they do not have a right to enter another country. Consequently, the large majority of people wishing to emigrate basically have no legal means available to them other than unauthorized migration.

Well before undertaking unauthorized migration, powerful push and pull factors influence men, women and even children in their decision-making. High unemployment, low wages, few benefits, difficult living conditions, separated families, poor governance, human rights abuses and limited prospects for improvement in the near term are among the root causes of unauthorized migration. Climate change, environmental degradation, shrinking natural resources, armed conflict and violence are additional major emigration pressures.

At the same time, higher wages, demand for labor, benefits, schooling, health care, social welfare and security in the industrialized countries are among the factors attracting many to emigrate. The economic successes reported by earlier migrants, some being family members or friends, and the remittances they regularly send home confirm the benefits of relocating overseas. Modern communication, advanced information systems and integrated transportation networks also act as facilitators for those considering unauthorized migration.

In making their decisions, most potential migrants conclude that the perceived benefits of unauthorized migration greatly out weigh the costs and risks involved. The financial costs of unauthorized migration are substantial, varying greatly according to a variety of factors, including distance, transportation, obstacles and the number, gender and age of the migrants. While short distances over a single border may cost several thousand dollars, smuggler fees that involve long distances, land and sea transportation, crossing many borders and payoffs to those along the way are in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Due to the high profits, low risks and seemingly unlimited supply of people wishing to emigrate, criminal networks are increasingly involved in smuggling and human trafficking. As a result, growing numbers of men, women and children are falling victim to deception and mistreatment, including debt bondage, unlawful confinement, sexual abuse and violence against them.

Potential migrants often claim to recognize the risks of unauthorized migration. However, those starting out on their migratory journeys tend to discount the risks, perhaps believing they apply to others, and are often misled by false claims and promises of smugglers and traffickers. At the same time, many potential migrants have family obligations, responsibilities and related concerns pushing them to attempt unauthorized migration.

In resorting to unauthorized migration, many men, women and children are risking their lives to reach their desired destinations. From 2000 to 2015 at least 50,000 migrant border-related deaths occurred globally. Approximately half of those deaths were at European external borders, followed by the Mexico-United States border accounting for about 15 percent of the deaths.

The latest tragedies in the Mediterranean in early November brought the grim tally of migrant deaths in 2016 to 4,271, making this already the deadliest year ever recorded. From one death for every 269 European migrant arrivals in 2015, the probability of dying in 2016 has surged to one in 88 arrivals. In addition, some believe that more migrants perish attempting to the cross the Sahara Desert than drown in the Mediterranean Sea.

Upon arrival at the border some unauthorized migrants avoid detection by the authorities and travel usually to large cities where they typically join their compatriots, relatives and earlier arrivals. Lacking legal resident status, those migrants, as well as the growing numbers of visa overstayers, live in fear of deportation and often take on irregular, low-wage and difficult work that citizens generally eschew.

Most unauthorized migrants, however, are met by border agents and taken into custody for processing, checking and determining eligibility for entry. While considerable variation exists across countries, some common procedures are applied when dealing with unauthorized entry.

If eligible to apply for asylum or protection, the authorities send the prospective refugees to reception centers and shelters for additional screening. Others, deemed economic migrants, are relocated to another facility for further processing and evaluation, appear before a court at a later date or forced to leave the country.

Virtually all governments have explicit policies against unauthorized migration. Implicit policies and actual enforcement, however, are more varied and ambiguous, with considerable debate on how best to address the presence of unauthorized migrants. Although in the past legalization was the typical remedy, recently the issue has become highly contentious, emotive and politicized, with vocal arguments for and against granting legal status to unauthorized migrants.

At one extreme are those who contend that deportation is the appropriate and necessary solution to unauthorized migration. At the other extreme are those who oppose deportation, pressing for legalization of unauthorized migrants. And in between there are others who equivocate on deportation and legalization depending on the circumstances, such as length of stay, family relations, children, employment, arrival as minors and criminal record.

Given the complexities, politics and enormous variations in country circumstances, it would be naive to attempt to enumerate specific actions on how best to deal with unauthorized migrants. Nevertheless, it is instructive and perhaps useful to consider a general recommended approach that is both reasonable and workable.

For unauthorized migrants residing in countries and those apprehended attempting to enter outside legal channels, governments should properly review and evaluate the migrant’s circumstances and conditions and decide on the appropriate course of action in a timely, transparent and humane manner. Unfortunately, the recent surges in the arrivals of unauthorized migrants by land and sea, especially families and young children, have overwhelmed and seriously delayed the review and evaluation process.

In those instances when repatriation is deemed appropriate, reasonable and feasible, governments should return and reintegrate the unauthorized migrants back to their countries of origin consistent with basic human right principles. If unauthorized migrants are found to have legitimate claims and recognized rights to remain in the country, governmental authorities should ensure the fundamental human rights of those migrants and facilitate their integration within the country.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of IPS-Inter Press Service.

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  • wordscanhelp

    How could the writer not include the overpopulation caused by denying education and jobs to girls and women, and forcing them into early marriage, or child bearing with no say over it, or abandoning them with their children and no education or skills to support kids ….a major cause of poverty and the huge overpopulation that will not stop while men are empowered to buy girls and often more than one, and basically rape them at will and impregnate them without responsibility to support the children, all with with male run society’s consent.

    Kenya recently passed terrible laws for the future of women and girls, while jeering at the women MP’s, and now Turkey is legitimizing child rape and child marriage, while Putin congratulated his Chechen buddy for arranging for a weeping 17 yr old girl to be forced into marriage as a second wife to one of his commanders (while her boyfriend was savagely beaten), even though Russia does not allow polygamy.

    The problem is continued and enabled by men not giving females full civil and human rights globally, using ‘cultural’ arguments while they pick and choose which ‘cultural’ habits they will preserve in their modern lifestyles, but women do not have the choice of which ‘cultural’ habits to preserve.

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