Beyond the Irregular Migration Mantra: Reconceptualizing Migration

On 18 September 2017, Dr. Jeff Handmaker, senior lecturer in law, human rights and development at ISS gave a presentation at Humanity House as part of the 2017 Metropolis Conference in The Hague to an audience of policymakers, refugee / migration advocates and migration scholars.

Three propositions were put forward by Handmaker, who questioned popular assumptions underpinning migration policies, and public attitudes towards migrants.

First, Handmaker argued that there is a mantra of Irregular Migration that tends to be reproduced. This negative mantra is generated by sympathetic characterizations of two categories of migrants towards whom exclusive attention is paid, namely: refugees and knowledge migrants.

But what about everyone else? An over-emphasis on refugees and knowledge migration, Handmaker argued, relegates the majority of migrants who do not fit into either of these narrow juridical categories to being irregular migrants (i.e. people who shouldn’t be here). Policies associated with this mantra have:

  1. burdened the global system of international refugee admission/reception with large numbers of asylum seekers, the majority of whom are unlikely to obtain refugee status and
  2. relegated the overwhelming majority migrants in a highly vulnerable or ‘liminal’ situation (having rights on paper, but no realization). The response, he argued is that irregular migration should be abandoned as a discredited concept.

This led to Handmaker’s second proposition, namely that conceptualizing the vast majority of transboundary movement (irregular) migration suggests that it is a problem that needs to be solved.

The irregular migration mantra has led to a range of internal and external containment measures, the latter based on containment measures and involving an extraordinarily broad use of extra-territorial jurisdiction. This leads to (at the very least complicity) violations of human rights, from mass incarceration and other associated violations, particularly affecting children.

Apart from these violations, reducing the issue of migration to being a problem that needs to be solved prevents us from understanding, let alone addressing the underlying reasons why people are moving transnationally. This conceptualization also makes it very difficult to implement policies of a “true” (two-way) integration – as opposed to conventional policies on assimilation – and contributes to xenophobia and racism.

The response he argued, is that international migration policies need to be premised on a critical and honest engagement with the grounded realities of transboundary migration, and not the simplistic goals of containment.

Furthermore, we must begin to address the root causes of international migration, by exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction to address not irregular migration but: illegal financial transactions, foreign-based corruption, impunity for human rights violations and international crimes.

Handmaker’s third, and more positive proposition was that municipalities are Generally Much Better Placed to Address Integration. This has been reinforced by scholars such as Professor Barbara Oomen, who argues that there are cities of refuge, and indeed ‘cities that refuse’, which must be better understood, both in terms of its sociological and legal dimensions.

The real work of migrant reception and integration takes place at not the national, but local/municipal level, and tends to be more grounded to social and economic realities. Municipalities also tend to be more respectful of international law principles than national government agencies. Municipalities are also much more keenly aware of objective labour needs.

The response, he argued, is that municipalities, rather than national ministries, should take the lead on migration and integration policies.


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