PORTLAND, USA, May 23 (IPS) – Illegal immigration in the 21st century poses a serious dilemma for the world. Governments in virtually all regions of the world do not seem to know how to approach the two central dimensions of the dilemma.
The first dimension concerns the persistent waves of illegal migration arriving daily at international borders. The second dimension of the dilemma revolves around the presence of millions of men, women and children residing illegally in countries (Table 1).
Source: Compilation of the author.
The United Nations’ first International Migration Review Forum, held from 17-20 May, discussed various aspects of international migration, focusing on the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. forum was an intergovernmental agreed statement of progress, calling on governments to step up their efforts for safe and orderly migration, crack down on people smuggling and trafficking, and ensure that migrants are respected and receive health and other services. However, the 13-page statement contained no explicit guidelines or enforceable actions that would effectively resolve the illegal immigration dilemma.
Three fundamental aspects of the illegal immigration dilemma relate to demographics, human rights and profit.
First, the demographic aspect clearly shows that the supply of people who want to migrate largely from developing countries far exceeds the demand for immigrants in developed countries. As a result of that demographic imbalance, and despite the costs and risks, millions of men, women and children are turning to illegal migration to settle in another country, which is generally wealthy developed countries.
While more than a billion people want to move to another country permanently, the current annual number of immigrants of several million is only a small fraction of those who want to immigrate. Also, the total number of immigrants worldwide is also relatively small, about 281 million in 2020, of which an estimated quarter, or about 70 million, are illegal migrants (Figure 1).
Source: United Nations, Gallup and Author’s Estimates.
In addition, the number of people attempting illegal migration is reaching record highs. In the United States, for example, the number found in April, ie arrested or detained at the US-Mexico border, reached the highest recorded level of 234,088.
The number of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach the European Union and the English Channel to reach the United Kingdom is on the rise again. In the first two months of 2022, the number of illegal border crossings at the EU’s external borders rose by 61 percent from a year ago, or nearly 27,000. The UK government also reported that the number of illegal migrants arriving in small boats could reach 1,000 a day.
The second fundamental aspect of the illegal migration dilemma concerns the asymmetry of human rights with regard to international migration. Article 13 of the International Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his home country. However, there is no human right for anyone to enter another country without that country’s permission (Table 2).
Source: Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In addition, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives individuals the right to request and obtain asylum in other countries from persecution. However, in order to obtain asylum, a person generally must be unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin for a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
Poverty, unemployment, domestic problems, climate change and bad governance are generally not considered legitimate reasons for granting asylum. Unfortunately, many of the asylum applications submitted are not genuine, but simply intended to enter the country of destination first and then stay.
Most asylum applications are rejected, but it takes a lot of time, often several years, to reach a final decision on a person’s application. Such long periods allow claimants to settle, work and integrate into a local community.
In addition to logistics, governments face economic repercussions and public opposition from various quarters to the repatriation of illegal migrants to countries of high poverty, corruption and social unrest. As a result, unless they commit serious crimes, illegal migrants are usually not arrested and deported.
A notable recent exception, however, is the United Kingdom, which wants to send illegal migrants to Rwanda. The UK government recently announced that those making dangerous, unnecessary and illegal journeys to the UK could be transferred to Rwanda to consider their asylum application and rebuild their lives there.
The third fundamental aspect of the illegal migration dilemma concerns the gains made. Traffickers charge high fees for their services and make huge profits by promoting, facilitating and encouraging the illegal migration of men, women and children across international borders.
Once illegal migrants are settled in their desired destination, many businesses and enterprises benefit from their labour. Given their precarious status, illegal migrants are not only willing to work for below normal wages, but are also reluctant to report workplace abuses, which could lead to their dismissal, arrest and repatriation.
Faced with ongoing waves of illegal migrants, many countries are building walls, fences and barriers, increasing border guards, getting more pushbacks, returns and expulsions, and establishing more detention centers. However, based on recent levels and trends of illegal migration, these and related steps have not achieved the desired goal.
Similarly, given the presence of large numbers of illegal migrants residing within their borders, governments are grappling with how best to address this troubling dimension of the illegal migration dilemma. Governments are unwilling to grant amnesty or a path to citizenship for illegal migrants, nor are they willing to expel the illegal migrants residing within their borders. As a result, the current situation in most countries remains unresolved for most illegal migrants, who are in a precarious status.
In summary, it appears that governments are unlikely to be able to resolve the illegal immigration dilemma any time soon. In fact, the dilemma is likely to be exacerbated by increasing illegal immigration due to a growing population, deteriorating living conditions and the effects of climate change in countries that send migrants.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, former director of the United Nations Population Division, and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters”†
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