10/2008: Chris Hedges


Chris Hedges
Chair of the European Committee on
Migration (CDMG), Council of Europe


“Current trends in irregular migration to Europe”


Ü Eurasylum: In 2006, the European Committee on Migration (CDMG) of the Council of Europe launched a multi-annual research programme on irregular migration. The overall objective of this programme is to review national policies in this area with a view to identifying possible best practices, particularly as regards amnesty/regularisation initiatives. Can you guide us through the main purpose and policy rationale of this programme?

Ü Chris Hedges: The programme was conceived as part of the follow-up to the Action Plan of the 7th Conference of European Ministers responsible for Migration (Helsinki 2002). In my view, Helsinki was a defining moment in the history of CDMG as it gave it a very clear focus on social cohesion. Many of the actions arising from the Helsinki Action Plan have had repercussions elsewhere  for example in the subsequent development of the EU Framework for Integration. Regularisation programmes can have a profound effect on social cohesion. Large numbers of regularised migrants may not be welcome in some states, yet others will find the influx of a new, legal labour force extremely beneficial. So this is very definitely an area of policy in which one size does not fit all.

The objective of the activity on irregular migration was to support Member States in evaluating some aspects of their national policies relating to irregular migrants. Often, countries introduce measures to deal with a particular aspect of the migration phenomenon but may not have the opportunity to evaluate how well  or how badly  things went. This activity was therefore intended to provide an opportunity for an appraisal of regularisation programmes by academics in partnership with national experts. The Council of Europe provided funding for the programme. However, as we all know too well, financial constraints can often get in the way of effective follow-up activities when the political imperative is to get something done, often to tight deadlines.

When we were planning this programme we did not want to come up with something prescriptive, for example a Declaration or Convention. The whole idea was to look at regularisation programmes in some detail across a variety of Member States and to give others the chance to learn from these. We hope that in time the results of this evaluation will enable CDMG to prepare some general guidelines on improving co-operation on the treatment of irregular migrants between countries of origin and destination and also to present some examples that might help Member States determine or refine their approaches to irregular migrants.

CDMG was able to assist and support five Member States that had shown a strong interest in participating in this research activity: Armenia, Germany, Greece, Italy and the Russian Federation. I think this spread of countries is extremely interesting because of the widely differing national situations they represent. I was privileged to be asked to be the Project Director for this programme. It has been some years since I worked in the operational enforcement arena but my current role within the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) is concerned with integration and social cohesion, so I was particularly keen to try to identify what approaches would minimise any adverse affects on receiving societies.

The way in which we decided to operate was by utilizing highly experienced national consultants in the field of migration, identified by the participating Member States themselves. We agreed a framework for the reports at the inaugural meeting on 2-3 March 2006. We agreed that each report should identify the main elements of national policies, their objectives, their achievements and any obstacles they met during implementation. This analysis would then lead to general conclusions that could be useful for other Member States.

Ü Eurasylum: To date, five national reports (Armenia, Germany, Greece, Italy and Russian Federation), based on a common research framework, have been drafted and published. Additional country reports are currently being prepared and will be published in 2009. Can you outline some of the key findings of the first round of country reports and discuss any policy lessons that could be derived from them by the CoE Member States?

Ü Chris Hedges: The reports from the first round seemed to have a common conception about the root causes of irregular migration. Often, the blame for this can be laid at the door of restricted opportunities for regular migration when the economy has a demand for labour that it cannot always satisfy. There is sometimes a mismatch between the requirements and demands of our economies and the migration management policies. In this respect it will be interesting to see what effect the UKs innovative points-based system for migration, supported by the Migration Advisory Committee, as mentioned in a recent Eurasylum interview, has on irregular migration patterns. Another key conclusion was that regularisation procedures have to be linked with concerted action against the shadow economy. If this is not done then the risk remains that high levels of irregular migration will continue and might render further regularisation programmes necessary.

One of the key lessons from the analysis of the Greek situation is the fact that a regularisation policy must be supported by a comprehensive review of other policies if it is to be effective. The lack of a holistic approach can mean that beneficiaries of regularisation schemes can sometimes lapse back into an illegal situation. And as the Russian report states, housing policy can often be as important as labour market initiatives if regularisation policies are to be successful and not to have an adverse impact on social cohesion.

It is also important to pressure test emerging policies on regularisation before implementation as there is often a sharp contrast between the aspirations of the policy and the eventual outcome. It is all too easy for policy-makers to misunderstand the big picture so wide consultation with all relevant stakeholders is crucial to achieving successful outcomes.

The reports from Russia and Armenia both looked at the important issue of coordination between countries of origin and of destination. Both reports concluded that closer cooperation and support in terms of establishing better opportunities for regular employment in countries of origin is of paramount important when tackling irregular migration flows. This may not work for all countries but it is a concept that is worthy of serious consideration in the context of co-development.

In recent years Germany has become a major transit country for illegal migration. It is estimated that about 500,000 to one million illegal migrants live in Germany but the complex definitions of illegal migrants there mean it is difficult to come up with a precise figure. The German approach is based on the idea that irregular migration is a criminal offence and the government has therefore never undertaken a formal, large scale regularisation programme. Although the German approach has not proved effective in all sectors of employment  household labour is especially difficult to track down – the system, accompanied by other restrictive measures, has allowed Germany to have one of the smallest shadow economies in the EU and a decreasing or stable number of irregular migrants.

Armenia represents the only source country that was researched, with a view to exploring some of the drivers for irregular migration and also the effect on source countries of regularisation programmes. The report concludes that a very limited number of Armenians reside legally in other countries. This has come about because of the (relatively) recent introduction of stricter regulations in receiving countries. As a consequence, in countries where Armenians can enter legally without a visa, most of them have found themselves having the status of irregular migrants. The Russian Federation is seen as the destination of choice for Armenians. Between 1990 and 2005 an estimated 700,000 – 1,300,000 people left Armenia  a significant proportion of the total population.

The focus in Armenia is therefore on the following areas:

– Awareness raising of the consequences of irregular migration
– Readmission Arrangements; and
– Reintegration Arrangement

When examining the whole issue of regularisation programmes it is important to realise, from a human rights perspective, the adverse affects they might have on source countries. A country that is experiencing brain drain may well regain some of its lost talent if robust controls and returns arrangements are in place in receiving countries. But large scale regularisation programmes may mean that talent and labour force is lost forever  something that receiving countries can easily forget.

Greece and Italy have both had more than one regularisation programme and this brings some interesting conclusions. The report on Greece looked at the 2005-2006 Regularisation Programme, previous ones having occurred in 1998 and 2001. The latest programme has proved the most restrictive, with a significant decrease in applications. However, there is a suspicion that the more liberal regimes in previous years may have attracted applicants who should not, in fact, have qualified. There is also a view that the programmes may have exacerbated irregular migration by making it easier to settle in Greece than through regular channels  hence the conclusion that a holistic approach is needed, based firmly on thorough research of the situation.

Italy too has had several programmes of regularisation. The latest programme was initially intended to be more restrictive than previous ones but pressures from civil society and adaptation of the procedures to the reality of the situation eventually made it notably more flexible along the implementation period. The main objectives of this programme were to recover social security contributions and fiscal contributions that were lost in the shadow economy and also to prevent regularised migrants from reverting to an illegal status. So the pattern here  and perhaps the policy lesson  is that repeated regularisation programmes need to be adapted following earlier experiences but need appropriate safeguards if they are to be fully effective.

Ü Eurasylum:: Regularisation programmes carried out in the past have not been uniform and have been established in the light of the specific situation of each country concerned. To what extent do you believe that effective and coherent migration policies, and bilateral and multilateral co-operation on a regional basis, can be facilitated and indeed achieved by reports such as those prepared under the CDMG research programme on irregular migration?

Ü Chris Hedges: It seems to me that it is absolutely right and proper that any regularisation programmes need to be carried out in the light of the specific situation in the country concerned. An entirely effective policy that met all its objectives in country A might prove to be entirely ineffective in country B. The situation therefore needs to be thoroughly researched and I think the reports we have received so far provide clear examples of how thorough analysis can provide a sound basis for policy development.

When planning regularisation programmes, as a bare minimum good estimates are needed of the potential numbers involved so that an appropriate infrastructure can be developed to deal with them and effective steps need to be taken to avoid the numbers building up again. The effects on existing communities certainly need to be taken into account, as indeed does the political situation in the country concerned. For example, there was a suggestion not long ago that a regularisation programme in the UK might bring huge numbers of workers in the shadow economy back into paying taxes, with a consequential beneficial effect on the UKs GDP. But the reality of the situation is that many of the people concerned were being exploited and paid considerably less than the UK minimum wage and they might lose their jobs altogether if regularised. And the public perception of illegal migration in the UK is largely hostile, so this begs the question about the extent to which newly regularised migrants would be accepted into the community.

The role of the Council of Europe and of the CDMG in this issue is therefore mainly about providing Member States with a range of different experiences so that they have at least something to go on if/when they consider a regularisation process. As ever, the CDMG advocates a human rights based approach on the subject.

In many Member States, basic human rights are guaranteed in legislation or under the national Constitution. In many areas these constitutional rights are enshrined in domestic legislation and can therefore, in contrast to international law, be enforced by individuals through legal action. By contrast, however, it is often the case that only the universal human rights can be invoked by illegal foreign residents. In dealing with the phenomenon of foreign residents who may have entered, or reside in, a country clandestinely, Member States should ensure that their domestic legislation includes at least a minimum level of access to remedies in case of breaches of human rights.

In my view, the work that has been done so far and the work with another five Member States that is currently under way is a valuable contribution to the whole debate on regularisation. There are clear examples in the reports we have already of the value of bilateral and multilateral co-operation, not just with and between governments but involving civil society too. But if we are to achieve anything from the hard work that has been done, we need to think very carefully about how to communicate key messages. The reports will, of course, be published but I would very much like to see a separate piece of work that distils best practice from these reports that is communicated in a clear and effective way at both official and political levels. And a final wish from me would be an activity that critically examines what the man on the Clapham omnibus(i.e. the reasonable man) thinks about regularisation. After all, integration and social cohesion dont just involve migrants themselves and the acceptance of migrants, whether they are legal from the outset or become legal through a regularisation programmes, is crucial to promoting lasting peace and harmony.