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Making migration work in an unfriendly neighbourhood

Migrants arriving on the island of lampedusa

Arriving on the island of Lampedusa. The recent tragedy where over 130 lost their lives highlights migrants' vulnerability. Sara Prestianni/No Borders Network under a Creative Commons Licence

Going to school when we are children, pursuing the job of our dreams or seeing a doctor when we get sick are things that most of us in Europe take for granted. We might fail to see that there are people among us who have no access to classrooms or medical consultations, even in societies with the best welfare systems. This is the case for undocumented migrants who often remain excluded from accessing essential services, although as human beings, they are equally entitled to them.

With the slogan ‘Making Migration Work’, the UN High Level Dialogue (HLD) on International Migration and Development, taking place for only the second time in history, at the UN General Assembly in New York from 3-4 October, looks into how origin and destination countries can benefit from migration.

It is clearly a step forwards that Heads of States and government officials recognize the benefits of migration and its contribution to development. But how can migration work and how can migrants and communities benefit when a person’s access to services, protection and justice increasingly depends on whether they have the right paperwork and residence status?

Despite the crisis, the European Union has a continuous demand for workers in various different sectors. However, existing migration policies fail to respond to these needs. Workers who do receive visas often face high fees, low salaries, no trade union protection, and deportation if they challenge exploitative working conditions because their residence status is dependent on a working relationship with a single employer, who can simply end that relationship and threaten to call the immigration authorities if a migrant worker takes a stand.

Once they are undocumented, workers have little or no access to services, protection or justice for the abuse and exploitation they have faced. Many sectors reap huge economic benefits from employing cheap, flexible workers, who avoid reporting abuse for risk of deportation.

There are certainly examples of progress. The International Labour Organisation Domestic Workers’ Convention (No. 189) came into force on 5 September 2013, specifically extending basic labour rights to all domestic workers. Ten countries have ratified the convention so far.

However, recent reports on the slave-like living and working conditions of irregular migrants in domestic work and agricultural sectors, among others, show us the urgent need to make rights on paper become reality.

We also need to rethink the focus on increasing border security and criminalizing migration, as opposed to addressing the reasons why people become undocumented and ensuring equal treatment, dignity and rights for all men, women and children living and working in Europe.

We see a clear need to address other causes of irregularity. For instance: inadequate visa and residence policies, administrative failures, protection gaps, and lack of access to support and complaint mechanisms. In Europe today, a migrant parents’ redundancy can lead to their child also becoming ‘irregular’ and losing access to healthcare or education. A woman’s decision to flee a violent spouse can lead to her becoming irregular and facing deportation.

States should enhance regular migration channels for work and family reunification, and make accessible permanent mechanisms to access long-term regular migration status on the basis of reasonable conditions (such as years of residence, participation in education, and connections to destination society).

With a vested interest in providing routes back to regularity for migrants, states should ensure that irregular residence does not prevent the possibility to obtain permanent residence status and citizenship when other requirements are met. Family reunification policies should enable children, whose parents had no choice but to leave them behind when they migrated, to join their parents, or parents to join their children, in the destination country, thereby avoiding irregular and unsafe migration.

Discussions at the UN High Level Dialogue have made the case for these goals to be realized. Social cohesion and development can only be achieved if governments of countries of destination ensure access to services, protection and justice for all migrants, including undocumented migrants.

Watch the web documentary Undocumentary to find out more about the daily realities faced by undocumented migrants living in Europe. PICUM travelled to Spain, Cyprus, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden to gather the stories of those on the frontline, including irregular migrants, migrants’ rights defenders, professionals and public authorities.

Michele LeVoy is Director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) -, a non-governmental international organization that promotes respect for the human rights of undocumented migrants within Europe.

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