Perspectives on Irregular Migration

(Last modified August 2012)

This project concerns the theory, mechanisms, and effects of criticism and justification of attitudes and policies toward irregular migration; in other words, how supporters and critics arrive at practical compromises over the practice and repercussions of state immigration control. Irregular migrants are found in all states that exercise the internationally accepted right to control foreigners' entry to and residency in their territory.

The theory is based on Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot's Sociology of Critical Capacity: The way society deals with irregular migration is determined not solely by the state actors of immigration control and their supporters, but also by the strength of criticism of unacceptable manifestations and consequences. This project examines how the process of criticism and justification leads to consolidation or change in associated societal arrangements, examining and describing these in the example of irregular migration from Ghana to Hamburg.

The research is organized in three phases.

The first phase involves describing and analyzing existing ideas about irregular migration, with respect both to contributions to the public discourse by involved actors in Hamburg and to the possibilities for relating to irregular migration. The diverse ideas are reconstructed by means of interviews with representatives of official agencies, churches, trade unions, and NGOs, and by analyzing media reports and official sources. An initial review suggests that the ways society handles irregular migration in Hamburg can be described as a compromise between parallel arrangements of social inclusion and exclusion.

During the period under consideration a new compromise emerged in Hamburg. Traditionally the authorities related to irregular migration exclusively in the scope of practical routines for maintaining public order: as a violation of residency requirements, to which the response was to initiate steps to terminate the stay. As far as the statutory welfare agencies were concerned, irregular migrants did not officially exist, and their legal obligation to address social problems was neutralized by a tacit toleration of informal arrangements. Medical care for irregular migrants was placed in the hands of a private voluntary network, and when undocumented parents enrolled children at school this was tolerated by the principal and not reported to the authorities. The authorities abrogated this compromise in 2006 by introducing a central register of pupils for the city.

The central register of pupils gave rise to an alliance of civil society groups criticizing the way irregular migration was addressed. The charitable organization of the Lutheran Church (Diakonisches Werk) and the trade union Verdi commissioned a research report on the situation of people without documents. All the critics highlighted the authorities' blanket exclusion of irregular migrants and emphasized that the right to health and schooling applied to them too. They called for the state to remove the obstacles preventing children without documents from attending school and stopped patients without residency status from seeing a doctor.

Ultimately the critics gained a hearing and were able to improve arrangements for irregular migrants. The schools department officially confirmed the earlier practice of certain principals on the grounds that there was no need to ask about residency status when a child started school and therefore no need to report it. The authorities in Hamburg now even provide official resources for health care for irregular migrants. In other words, the city has for the first time recognized the social existence of irregular migrants and its own responsibility for them. This remarkable transformation of the social situation of irregular migrants will be described in detail in order to explain these changes came about.

Case study: Migration from Ghana to Hamburg

The second phase explores how and to what extent irregular migrants participate in the relevant debates. Interviews with irregular migrants from Ghana and with representatives of Ghanaian grassroots organizations supplied information about respondents' living situations and how they feel about them. An initial analysis shows that all respondents tend to ignore their lack of residency status, and avoid mentioning or discussing it. In everyday social life irregular migrants seek to remain invisible and conceal the stigma of lack of legal status – even from their compatriots. This taboo on immigration illegality within the Ghanaian community blocks the emergence of collective criticism of the social situation. Irregular migrants receive individual support in emergencies, whereby the lack of legal residency is accepted as fact and not discussed. While the interviewed Ghanaian migrants do not challenge the legitimacy of state immigration control, they regard irregular migration as a legitimate route to seek a better life. They criticize the lack of recognition for the personal achievement of surviving in illegality and the absence of any opportunity of legalization. They complain that when they are detained by the authorities they are treated like criminals. In their eyes illegal immigration is not a crime.

Experience, interpretation, moral grammar

The final phase will investigate the results from the first two parts to identify their reciprocal effects on the justification dynamic. Special attention will be paid to the question of how the described changes came about.

The initial findings suggest that the existential experiences of Ghanaian and other irregular migrants played only a small part in the emergence and strengthening of criticism. The decisive event for a broad alliance of actors appears to have been the authorities' unilateral termination of the compromise of parallel arrangements of inclusion and exclusion. A detailed analysis is scheduled for the remaining project period.