Should we consider irregular migrants as victims of migration laws or as active agents who decide their own fate? This question was heavily debated during the intensive summer course Governing Crime & Migration that took place at Leiden Law School a few weeks ago. While we discussed many other interesting things related to the process of crimmigration i.e. how crime control and migration control have become increasingly merged, this was the question that lingered in my mind.
It makes perfect sense to see undocumented immigrants as victims. Most scholars have implicitly done so. After all, irregular migrants can claim fewer rights than other residents, are excluded from social security benefits and do not have access to the formal labour market. Their pre-migratory expectations can be unrealistically high. Stories are frequently quoted of migrants who believe the streets of Europe are paved with gold. Many studies chronicle broken dreams and irregular migrants dealing with difficult circumstances. The story portrayed in most studies is the tale of irregular migrants struggling to survive. While they had high expectations before their arrival, little is left of these expectations once they arrive, and survival becomes the central theme in their lives.
It is often stressed that irregular migrants have little control over their lives due to immigration policies that try to make their lives as difficult as possible. Migrants’ agency is largely conditioned by macro-structural forces over which individuals have little, if any, power. While irregular migrants had agency before they came, once they arrive they become puppets subjected to the control of structural forces. They have become victims.
I have always taken the stance that we should not consider undocumented migrants as victims. I believe it is necessary to move beyond a perspective that focuses on constraints. After all, important aspects of the lives of irregular migrants may otherwise remain out of focus, such as our understanding of the ways in which irregular migrants manage to improve their situation. Even though the stories of ‘success’ might make up just a small percentage of the total experiences of irregular migrants, they do exist. Not considering these experiences would be unwise, as these success stories are generally considered reason enough for undocumented immigrants to stay in Europe, and are likely to foster new arrivals. After all, the success they experience might be insignificant from a Dutch perspective, but that is not the way irregular migrants themselves evaluate their lives. They compare their current situation to the situation they experienced in their country of origin.
As part of the summer course, we visited a centre for asylum seekers in Katwijk. Here they host refugees mainly from countries such as Syria, but also rejected asylum seekers with minor children, or rejected asylum seekers who cannot be deported for other reasons. They are irregular migrants for whom no clear policy solution exists and who as a result are supported by our government, which is the humane thing to do. They are not allowed to leave Katwijk and they live in small quarters, actually only intended for temporary residence. But they often stay there for years, until their youngest child turns 18. And a lot of babies are born there. Inhabitants may not work but are granted a small sum of money each week so that they can cook meals. And their children can go to school. For many of our students, seeing how these people live and seeing how Dutch these children are was an emotional experience. Are these people in Katwijk the victim of our migration laws? I would say they are. But they also have room to manoeuvre as active agents. Many illegal migrants in a similar situation make other decisions than to live there. And those who live there do not all live in exactly the same way but also shape their lives differently. Moreover, in their view, they are still better off than in their country of origin.
So in my opinion, we should not regard undocumented immigrants as victims a priori, but should keep an open mind so that we are at least able to see the heterogeneity in their lives. At the same time this is of course a slippery slope. In devoting more attention to individual agency we have to make sure we do not fall into the opposite trap, by overemphasizing it and thereby failing to contextualize attitudes and actions as responses to constraints. Illegal migrants are not only active agents who can freely decide how to live their lives. They experience limitations, and much more so than the average citizen. Because of the limited rights they have, they are a vulnerable group, and as researchers we have the obligation not to do them any harm. This means we should not overemphasize their individual agency. And it implies that we should also not turn them into passive victims who are unable to take matters into their own hands. This may foster learned helplessness which does not do them any good in the end.