Inclusion of Migrants with Irregular Status

June 21st, 2018

By Sarah Spencer, Director, Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity, COMPAS, University of Oxford

Sarah Spencer explains why cities in Europe, like their North American counterparts, are increasingly exploring ways to enable irregular (‘undocumented’) migrants to have access to essential services, and tells us some of the creative ways that they have found to do so. She draws on the work of the City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe, a two-year  learning-exchange project involving 11 European cities, chaired by the City of Utrecht, which she facilitates with her Oxford colleague, Nicola Delvino.

Why cities reach out to migrants with irregular status

There is a widespread expectation that cities will take steps to ease the integration of migrants who have a legal right to stay. The invaluable guidance that Cities of Migration has drawn together in this Building Inclusive Cities initiative rests on the premise that cities both can and ought to use their influence to do so. Discuss these issues with city policy makers in North America and the conversation will invariably extend to migrants with irregular status. The social and economic exclusion of these residents often presents some of the toughest issues that cities have had to face. Yet in Europe cities have only recently begun to talk to each other, and in private, about the challenges they face in relation to this group of people. In the polarized, heated discourse on migration taking place in Europe, in which ‘illegal’ immigrants are negatively portrayed, the idea that cities are taking steps to foster their inclusion would surprise and shock many, in equal measure.

So why are cities taking this step and increasingly wanting to learn from others how to navigate this particularly difficult policy arena?

It is rarely acknowledged by European governments that they have themselves recognized a need to permit irregular migrants a minimal level of inclusion in essential services. Mapping national provisions on health care for instance reveals that all EU states allow access to emergency care (albeit in some cases for payment) and a minority of states allow irregular migrants to have access to some primary and secondary health services. Most states allow children with irregular immigration status to attend school. Access to shelter is limited, but provision is made in some states to ensure victims of domestic violence can approach the police for help without risk of deportation; or, for instance, to allow new parents to apply for a birth certificate.1 There are even examples of recent reforms to extend access to services, as in Sweden in relation to access to health care and education in 2013.  Yet the overall picture is highly restrictive. Irregular migrants are largely excluded as a matter of national law from work, welfare support and services.

“The exclusion of irregular migrants threatens the city’s capacity to fulfil its broader responsibilities – whether ensuring economic prosperity, public health, community safety or cohesion.”

There is no recent estimate of the number of irregular migrants in Europe. The last officially accepted estimate suggested it was between 1.9 and 3.8 million in 2008, some 0.4 – 0.8% of the population of the then EU 27 Member States.Nothing more definite is known about numbers in cities but research has suggested that they comprise between 3% and 6% of the population in cities like Ghent, Genoa and Rotterdam.3  The recent ‘refugee crisis’ is expected to add to those numbers when many of those who applied for asylum are refused but do not leave. The rate of returns is currently well below 50%.Yet, pending detection and removal, they are living in Europe’s cities and present challenges which cities cannot ignore.

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Source:  The Inclusion of Migrant with Irregular Status [PDF] by Dr. Sarah Spencer, Director, Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity, COMPAS, University of Oxford (UK) is a case study published with a selection of international promising practices produced by the Building Inclusive Cities project at Cities of Migration. See also, webinar and related resources.

About the author

Dr Sarah Spencer is Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity, the learning-exchange arm of Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. Prior to Oxford, Sarah was Deputy Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and Chair of the network of equality and human rights organizations, the Equality and Diversity Forum. Her research has focused on integration and, under the auspices of an Open Society Fellowship, on national and city responses to irregular migrants in Europe. As Director of the Global Exchange, Sarah is responsible for the City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe with her colleague Senior Researcher Nicola Delvino.

The City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe (C-MISE) is a working group of cities meeting over two years to learn from each other and to publish guidance for municipalities across Europe on responding to irregular migrants in their area. The guidance, to be published in Spring 2019, will cover a wide range of services from legal advice and education through health care, shelter, and support for victims of crime. The cities involved are Athens, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Ghent, Gothenburg, Lisbon, Oslo, Stockholm and Utrecht, with Zurich and Helsinki as Associate Members.


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