Reliable statistics and updated information are key requirements for a better policy on irregular migration in the European Union. This is an important message from the European research project CLANDESTINO funded by the European Commission within the 6th Framework Programme for Research in the field of Social Sciences. The project coordinator Anna Triandafyllidou (Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP) warns that low quality estimates on irregular migration promote ‘number games’and the deliberate use of unjustified numbers to dramatize irregular migration.

CLANDESTINO produced a Database on Irregular Migration which serves to reveal ‘number games’. Aggregating information from the 27 member states of the European Union (EU), researchers estimate that the total number of irregular migrants residing in the EU27 is likely to be in the range of 1.9 million to 3.8 million. Dita Vogel (Hamburg Institute of International Economics, HWWI), scientist responsible for the CLANDESTINO Database, notes that this most recent estimate is based on an improved methodology and should question the estimate of up to 8 million irregular migrants, used until recently in European policy documents (see more in particular the policy brief on size of irregular migration).

The use of outdated numbers is often unintentional. Numbers are scarce in a field in which it is difficult to investigate because irregular migrants hide from authorities and are reluctant to talk to researchers for fear of detection and expulsion. As there are indications that the actual number of irregular migrants has declined since the turn of the millennium, the use of outdated numbers leads to an overestimation of the phenomenon. More persons legalized their status (as a result of large regularization programmes in southern Europe) or returned to their country of origin than entered illegally or lost their legal status. The enlargement of the European Union also had a major legalization effect, because EU citizens may legally stay in other countries of the Union, even if they do not have the permission to take up regular employment. As Franck Duvell from COMPAS, at Oxford University (a partner of the CLANDESTINO project) emphasizes “contrary to public perception influenced by overloaded boats in the Mediterranean Sea, most irregular residents originally entered legally and later lost their status or overstayed.” (see more in particular the policy briefs on policies and pathways into irregularity and on discourses of irregular migration).

The development of irregular migration needs to be better monitored in the future. The economic crisis may result in more people falling back into an irregular situation, for example when they are not able to renew their residence status due to unemployment. However, the current situation does not call for hasty emergency measures but for a more in-depth evaluation of existing policies in line with the new figures.

The Platform for International Collaboration on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), a partner of the CLANDESTINO project, is concerned that declining numbers could be misinterpreted: “Declining numbers do not mean declining needs for action on behalf of irregular migrants. They just indicate that solutions may not be as difficult as previously believed.” The European Union is committed to secure human rights of all persons independent of their status, but migration control measures often impede access to basic rights for irregular migrants, making them vulnerable to health hazards, exploitation and criminality.