Migration: the riddle of Europe’s shadow population
Lennys — not her real name — is part of a shadow population living in Europe that predates the arrival of several million people on the continent in the past few years, amid war and chaos in regions of the Middle East and Africa. That influx, which has fuelled Eurosceptic nativism, has if anything complicated the fate of Lennys and other irregular migrants.
Now she is using a service set up by the Barcelona local administration to help naturalise irregular migrants and bring them in from the margins of society. She is baffled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians who suggest people like her prefer living in the legal twilight, without access to many services — or official protection.❞
The fate of Lennys and other irregulars is likely to take an ever more central role in Europe’s deepening disputes on migration. They are a diverse group: many arrived legally, as Lennys did, on holiday, work or family visas that have since expired or become invalid because of changes in personal circumstances. Others came clandestinely and have never had any legal right to stay.
The most scrutinised, and frequently demonised, cohort consists of asylum seekers whose claims have failed. Their numbers are growing as the cases from the surge in migrant arrivals in the EU in 2015 and 2016 — when more than 2.5m people applied for asylum in the bloc — work their way through the process of decisions and appeals. Almost half of first instance claims failed between 2015 and 2017, but many of those who are rejected cannot be returned to their home countries easily — or even at all.
The question of what to do about rejected asylum applicants and the rest of Europe’s shadow population is one that many governments avoid. Bouts of hostile rhetoric and unrealistic targets — such as the Italian government’s pledge this year to expel half a million irregular migrants — mask a structural failure to deal with the practicalities.
Many governments have sought to deny irregular migrants services and expel them — policies that can create their own steep human costs. But authorities in a growing number of cities from Barcelona to Brussels have concluded that the combination of hostile attitudes and bureaucratic neglect is destructive.
These cities are at the frontline of dealing with irregular status residents from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Local authorities have, to varying degrees, brought these populations into the system by offering them services such as healthcare, language courses and even legal help.
The argument is part humanitarian but also pragmatic. It could help prevent public health threats, crime, exploitative employment practices — and the kind of ghettoisation that can tear communities apart.
“If we provide ways for people to find their path in our city . . . afterwards probably they will get regularisation and will get their papers correct,” says Ramon Sanahuja, director of immigration at the city council in Barcelona. “It’s better for everybody.”
The size of Europe’s shadow population is unknown — but generally reckoned by experts to be significant and growing. The most comprehensive effort to measure it was through an EU funded project called Clandestino, which estimated the number of irregular migrants at between 1.9m and 3.8m in 2008 — a figure notable for both its wide margin of error and the lack of updates to it since, despite the influx after 2015.
A more contemporaneous, though also imprecise, metric comes from comparing the numbers of people ordered to leave the EU each year with the numbers who actually went. Between 2008 and 2017, more than 5m non-EU citizens were instructed to leave the bloc. About 2m returned to countries outside it, according to official data.
While the two sets of numbers do not map exactly — people don’t necessarily leave in the same year they are ordered to do so — the figures do suggest several million people may have joined Europe’s shadow population in the past decade or so. The cohort is likely to swell further as a glut of final appeals from asylum cases lodged since 2015 comes through.
“The volume of people who are in limbo in the EU will only grow, so it’s really problematic,” says Hanne Beirens, associate director at Migration Policy Institute Europe, a think-tank. “While the rhetoric at a national level will be ‘These people cannot stay’, at a local community level these people need to survive.”
Barcelona: cities seek practical solutions to ease migrant lives
Barcelona’s pragmatic approach to irregular migration echoes its history as a hub for trade and movement of people across the Mediterranean Sea.
It is one of 11 cities from 10 European countries involved in a two-year project on the best ways to provide services to irregular status migrants. Other participants in the initiative — set up last year by Oxford university’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society — include Athens, Frankfurt, Ghent, Gothenburg, Lisbon, Oslo, Stockholm and Utrecht.
A report for the group, published last year, highlights the restrictions faced by undocumented migrants in accessing services across the EU. They were able to receive only emergency healthcare in six countries, while in a further 12 they were generally excluded from primary and secondary care services.
Some cities have made special efforts to offer help in ways that they argue also benefit the community, the report said. Rotterdam asked midwives, doctors, and schools to refer children for vaccinations, in case their parents were afraid to reveal their immigration status.
The impact of some of these policies has still to be demonstrated. Ramon Sanahuja, director of immigration at the city council in Barcelona, says authorities there had an “intuition” their approach brought benefits, but he admits they need to do a cost-benefit analysis. As to the potential for the scheme to be exploited by anti-immigrant groups, he says Europe needs “brave politicians who explain how the world works and that the system is complicated”.
“A lot of people in Barcelona are part of the system — they have [for example] a cleaning lady from Honduras who they pay €10 per hour under the counter,” he says. “Someone has to explain this, that everything is related.” Michael Peel
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Belgian policy towards irregular migrants and undocumented workers has stiffened under the current government, which includes the hardline Flemish nationalist NVA party. It has prioritised the expulsion of “transmigrants”— the term used for people that have travelled to Europe, often via north Africa and the Mediterranean and that are seeking to move on from Belgium to other countries, notably the UK. Several hundred live rough in and around Brussels’ Gare du Nord.