A topical question that has arisen during the last months is whether and how irregular migration stocks and flows are affected by the current economic crisis. The current economic and financial crisis is probably yet to reach its highest peak, however a stagnation of economic activity and rising unemployment have been felt by several countries all over the world. The overall negative climate clearly affects both migrant and native workers.
These are some of the thoughts with which Anna Triandafyllidou, Clandestino workshop coordinator has introduced the Roundtable on Irregular Migration and the Global Economic Crisis organized within the Clandestino workshop on Irregular Migration and Informal Employment in Europe on 27 April 2009, in Athens.

Although the CLANDESTINO workshop and roundtable has raised more questions than it could provide answers it did reach some important conclusions that are of relevance for policy makers and civil society actors:

1. The likelihood that legal or irregular migrants will return to their countries of origin depends on the situation in countries of origin as well as on the family and other safety nets that migrants dispose of in the country of residence.

  • Legal migrants have more to lose than irregular ones if obliged to return but irregular migrants may find it not feasible to go back because they are indebted to smugglers
  • The crisis leads less to unemployment and more to the normalization of irregularity: informal work is likely to become commonplace among immigrant workers both legal and irregular ones in the coming months
  • Wage decrease is also a big issue in all the countries as migrants, especially those without legal status, may be willing to accept the lowest of wages and the heaviest of working conditions by fear of remaining completely unemployed and with no means at all for subsistence
  • Xenophobic and racist incidents have increased in countries where there were hardly any while random identity checks at public places by police forces have become more frequent in countries where there was none. These developments contribute to a sense of insecurity among immigrants while legitimizing a view of irregular migration as a crime.

2. Overall the impact of the economic crisis in terms of flows between source and destination countries is uncertain and very difficult to measure because of lack of data and because a time lag is necessary for the crisis to shape flows.

  • However, the crisis does shape flows within countries between the formal and informal labour market and between stocks of legal and irregular migrants: the crisis is likely to overall increase the share of irregular migrants among the total immigrant population.

3. The Clandestino workshop suggests that there have been policy developments in some countries reducing legal flows and seeking to encourage return migration with few results so far.

  • Policies are needed rather to help labour markets react to the crisis in ways that do not excessively penalize the most vulnerable and exploitable workers notably irregular migrants.
  • Policies are needed to cater for those most vulnerable among the immigrant population: there is a need to provide for basic social support protecting irregular migrants from extreme poverty and from falling prey to networks of organized crime (e.g. prostitution and child exploitation for instance).

In other terms, the situation is more complex and more fluid than that: first because the crisis affects in different ways different categories of immigrants and their families, and second because job prospects and wages are probably worsening in source countries too keeping thus the comparative profit from migration similar to the pre-crisis period. It might be logical to assume that the negative economic climate would lead to a reduction of migration inflows towards developed economies as well as a growth in return migration flows. The assumption is that some immigrants will be motivated to return to their home countries while less immigrants will be inclined to move given the negative prospects as regards employment and wages.

It may seem logical to assume that long term settled migrants and their families will be affected by the crisis in ways similar to those of natives. They are not subject to losing their papers if they lose their jobs and they are unlikely to move because of the crisis. Migrants who are undocumented though and mid-term migrants, notably those who have been staying in the destination country 5 years or less and/or whose legal status is insecure or who have left their families behind are more likely to consider going back.

Furthermore, the decision to return is further affected by two factors: on one hand, the pressure from their families back home to keep sending remittances and, on the other hand, the job prospects in the source country upon return. If the former are high and the latter are low, these immigrants are more likely to stay in the destination countries and accept worse working conditions, lower wages, even periods of unemployment. Those who may lose their papers because of lack of employment may also consider staying and going underground, working in the informal market if there are few prospects of economic survival when they go back and especially if prospects of then returning to the destination country are bleak because of migration restrictions in developed economies.

(1) The media have been reporting dire competition for jobs between native and migrant workers (the title of a news story in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published in the Sunday, 22nd March edition was eloquent: Italians want the migrants’ jobs back) as well as between legal and irregular workers especially in sectors like construction, which have experienced the crisis in more acute ways.

See the programme of the Workshop.