Tracking the rapidly changing & complex responses to migrants with irregular status

Published 21 May 2020 / By Sarah Spencer

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Governments see irregular migrants as targets of enforcement action but they are also people, active to varying degrees in society: as parents, workers, students and contributors to community life. They develop reciprocal relationships and identities unrelated to their immigration status which bind them to their locality and others to them.

Our new book out this week explores the conceptual challenges posed by this population in limbo, and evolving policy responses at EU, national and municipal level. Edited by myself and Anna Triandafyllidou, its multidisciplinary contributors bring research evidence to address one of the foremost issues of our time.

Irregular (‘undocumented’) migrants are a structural feature of Europe’s labour markets and societies. Policy responses can only be effective if they take account of that reality, limiting the efficacy of enforcement measures designed only to deter, detect, and remove.

COVID-19, for instance, has brought home the importance of being able to contact anyone who may have been infected. We cannot afford to have a section of the population who, because of their irregular immigration status, will not risk being known to the authorities, or seek the testing and treatment they need.

The economic, demographic and political determinants of irregular migration are constant, but its drivers, forms, and consequences are in transition. Paths to irregularity have diversified over time, as have barriers to return and its sustainability. Chapters in the book identify how the differing labour market dynamics in each country and modes of regulation, coupled with degrees of social acceptance of economic informality, shape the patterns of irregular work across sectors (Triandafyllidou, Bartolini, & Mantanika). A key theme of the book is one of change.

We might expect international human rights standards to provide this population with some protection. They do, but there is a contradiction between universal standards and their limited realisation. Recent insistence by municipal authorities on their human rights obligation to provide essential services has opened a new frontier in the development of a multi-layered system of rights protection (O’Cinneide's chapter). Limited rights of access to the courts, however, translates into limited opportunities by individuals themselves to challenge the proportionality of their exclusion. Some, despite their vulnerabilities, nevertheless engage in advocacy for reform (see Chimienti and Solomos).

The evolution of policies on irregular migrants has shown that enforcement of immigration controls alone cannot solve the challenge of the enduring presence of this population. Internal controls fostering a hostile environment have not resolved the presence of people with irregular status, and their exclusion brings challenges of its own. Recognising that, some European governments have implemented a limited process of semi-inclusion, granting minimal and highly uneven entitlements to essential services. (Delvino). Some enforcement measures can, moreover, be more symbolic than substantive—intended to persuade the public that action is being taken rather than having the intention of so doing (Ataç and Schütze).

How do we explain this?

Governments face contradictory imperatives. The primary driver of inclusion may be found in their need to ensure the predictability of collective conduct (Foucault’s 'governmentality') . The uncertain boundaries in this moral economy of irregularity, in which exclusion and inclusion go side by side, force us to reject binary ideas of citizens versus non-citizens, legitimate versus illegitimate, deserving versus non-deserving members of society (see chapter by Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas).

While national governments have lead responsibility for managing migration, there is shared responsibility with regional and local authorities for policies relating to - and impacted by – these residents. Some lower tiers adopt more inclusive measures, leading to tensions with national governments; but their agendas may be less opposed than this might suggest. Some inclusive measures at the local level contribute to migration management, facilitating regularisation or voluntary return, while others are in line with national economic and social policy goals, like public health and tackling homelessness. What we are witnessing may not be a loss of national control to the local state but a reinvention of it at the local level (Spencer).

Many of the chapters identify questions for a future research agenda, from the need for more empirical evidence on the relationship between irregular migration and irregular working in sectors of Europe’s labour markets, to the need to position municipal activism within a clearer concept of the State. Do welfare restrictions actually deter arrival and encourage return; and what is the impact of inclusive measures on individual behaviour?

A stronger evidence base could also help to counter the dominant narrative on ‘illegal immigration’ which hinders constructive policy debate.


Spencer, S. & Triandafyllidou, A. (2020). (Eds) Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe: Evolving Conceptual and Policy Challenges. Springer

Contributing authors: Ilker Ataç Laura Bartolini, Sébastien Chauvin, Milena Chimienti, Nicola Delvino, Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas, Regina Mantanika, Colm O’Cinneide, Theresa Schütze, John Solomos, Sarah Spencer, and Anna Triandafyllidou.


For more information on the C- MISE project go to

And watch the video Irregular Migrants in European Cities: How to respond?