Undocumented Migration: a global problem

People are migrating across the globe in unprecedented numbers. More than 200 million people are residing in countries other than their home countries. Further, that number represents a forty per cent increase over the last decade. Regardless of status, permanent, temporary, circular, whether for work or to join families, countries are concerned. It seems that the developed countries are concerned with threats to security, lack of control, and effects on labor markets. While the less developed countries seem to focus more on disregard for human rights, labor issues, and the trafficking industry that has developed around it. From the US to Europe, from Africa to Asia,  governments are confronting the same questions albeit from different perspectives. And it seems, no nation has developed a successful solution.

Of the estimated 200 million people, it is believed that the Americas (the U.S. and Canada) account for about thirty per cent. Also, Continental Europe contains about twenty per cent although there seems to be a high degree of uncertainty about their statistics because Europeans do not always include all the different categories of undocumented immigrants. The other half is spread out across the globe with Asia having the larger share. It seems that the U.S. and certain South American countries do not deny that their estimates accurately capture only about two-thirds of this population. Furthermore, undocumented/irregular immigration has been the fastest growing form of migration for the past ten years. Apparently, the U.S. has the largest number of irregular immigrants followed by South Africa.

By the same token, Continental Europe has a large number of unauthorized immigrants with southern Europe accounting for the largest numbers. Although the numbers fluctuate due to the impact of “regularization” programs, these fluctuations usually are cyclical because large portions of those that regularize eventually fall back into unauthorized status when they are unable to meet or maintain conditions for legal status.

When we turn our attention to “flow estimates,” (legal, permanent, and long-term temporary stays), the traditional countries of immigration such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand account for about one-third of all migration. Other advanced, industrial societies account for about another one-fourth, with the UK receiving the largest portion of these immigrants mostly through asylum programs. Of particularly interest is the other two groups of countries. These are growing regional countries whose economies fall within the top twenty per cent of developing countries and countries directly adjacent to these emerging countries. It is in these two groups of countries that illegal traffickers and smugglers are most active.

Although undocumented immigration takes on several different forms, there are four types that are most common: undocumented-unauthorized entry; fraudulent documentation; and visa violations which can be divided between violations of duration and violations of conditions. The first form is when nationals from one country enter another country clandestinely. Entry may be by crossing land borders, sea routes, or airways.  The important thing to remember is inspection is somehow circumvented in order to enter a country. In the U.S., this is termed EWI or “entry without inspection.” Next, there is fraudulent documentation whereby a person’s identity or documentation is falsified. Other forms are false claims for asylum where the narrative for applying is falsified. Also, there is violations of the duration of a visas when a foreign national enters a country with proper documentation but willfully stays beyond the period of their legal stay.  And finally, there is violations of the conditions of a visa which most frequently takes on the form of accepting employment in another country without authorization. In many of these violations, administrative and regulatory infractions can sometimes result from lengthy adjudication delays.

It seems that almost all countries are effected by undocumented immigration in one way or another particularly unauthorized entry. For policymakers, this topic remains a top agenda item in national, regional and global discourse and the trend among most nations is to deal with the problem with increased enforcement. In the U.S., agents patrol the borders, particularly the southern border with Mexico. And, billions of dollars have already been spent to build fences along the border. Spain is contending with thousands of immigrants entering the country by way of sea and Italy is dealing with immigrants pouring in from Eastern Europe. Both countries have offered various amnesty programs to regularize unauthorized immigrants but lately the two countries have taken a tougher stance by investing in border security. Unfortunately, cracking down on undocumented immigration in one country only shifts the problem to other countries.

There seems to be four major reasons why such measures fail.

First, law and order measures alone seem to be ineffective and only result in skyrocketing investments in enforcement. In the U.S., for example, despite large investments in border control, undocumented immigration has been increasing by an average of 500,000 people per year for a decade. Second, immigration control systems seem to bind transit countries together creating a “self-feeding” dynamic that encourages more immigration. Also, transnational contact whether it be economic, political, social or cultural have some migration consequences. Globalization, no matter how you consider it, is a major contributor to migrations. And finally, people fleeing dangerous or intolerable circumstances will enter the undocumented migration process even to the extent that are willing to pay enormous fees or risk their own lives. One of the most significant consequences of undocumented immigration stems from the increasing growth of smuggling and trafficking syndicates.

Clearly, regulation is a critical component of any management system. However, setting the right goals is essential in attempting to successfully control undocumented immigration. More important, systematically assessing the performance of policies and procedures and testing regulatory frameworks should also maintain a position of importance in order to develop a well regulated, international migration system.


Shah, Anup. “Immigration.” Global Issues. 26 May. 2008. Web. 22 Apr. 2016. http://www.globalissues.org/article/537/immigration; CLANDESTINO, “Database on Irregular Migration,” http://www.irregular-migration.net, 2012; Migration Watch, “The Illegal Migrant Population in the UK,” http://www.migrationwatchuk.org, July 28, 2005; Office for National Statistics, “Population Estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland,” http://www.ons.gov.uk, 2012; Bastian Vollmer, “Undocumented Migration: Counting the Uncountable. Data and Trends Across Europe,” http://www.irregular-migration.net, July 2009; Jo Woodridge, “Sizing the Unauthorized (Illegal) Migrant Population in the United Kingdom in 2001,” http://www.webarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk, May 29, 2001; Papademetriou, D. G., 2005. The Global Struggle with Illegal Immigration: No End in Sight. Migration Policy Institute. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/global-struggle-illegal-migration-no-end-sight.

11 thoughts on “Undocumented Migration: a global problem

  1. Pl ease do not use “illegal immigrant”, even the AP has recommended its discontinuation in news reporting, because it is wrong and offensive. First, “illegal” implies having been convicted of a crime, and in this nation you are innocent until proven guilty, and on top of this the supposed crime is civil, not criminal–if you called a US citizen illegal you could be taken to court, as it is illegal to use unless convicted, and libel. As for immigrant, that is conjecture as well, since many undocumented migrants are not planning to stay. So use irregular or undocumented migrant, as most serious scholars do.


  2. illegal:
    contrary to or forbidden by law

    a person who comes to a country to live there


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