Reports & Leaflets

Life in the Shadows: An Exploration of Irregular Migration in Ireland

Life in the Shadows: An Exploration of Irregular Migration in Ireland


Irregular migration is a complex and diverse phenomenon. There are no accurate estimates of the number of people involved in irregular migration. Despite increasingly far-reaching measures to combat it, irregular migration will continue to be an inevitable by-product of migration policies and practices. Deregulation and liberalisation of the global economy has generated a heightened demand for mobile labour. All too often irregular migrants are identified as a cheap, dispensable, unlimited source of labour.

Irregular migration poses very real social, economic and political challenges for states, as well as exposing migrants themselves to insecurity and exploitation. While acknowledging the right of states to manage migration, the human rights of all members of society, including irregular migrants, must be respected. Policies, practices and public statements that seek to criminalise and demonise irregular migrants must be avoided. This requires political leadership and sensitive handling by all the key societal institutions, in particular political parties, trade unions, media and education bodies. We need to be sensitive to the gender dimension, and the fact that the impact and barriers may be different for women and men who are undocumented migrants. We should also be careful about the language we use. Human beings should not be classified as ‘illegal aliens’ which is a regrettable tendency currently in the United States.

Irregular migrants enjoy the protection of fundamental human rights as enshrined in a range of international conventions and covenants. These rights include non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, sex, language, religion or social origin; the right to life; the prohibition of torture, slavery and servitude; the right to recognition before the law, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. These rights must be realised in practice, and respected in the operation of societal institutions. Too often rights such as health care and access to justice are denied, thus undermining the principles of human rights and equality on which modern democracies are founded.

This report is the first of its kind in Ireland and makes for thought-provoking and unsettling reading. The report highlights the reality that most irregular migrants become undocumented through no fault of their own. This is consistent with international research, and raises questions regarding the effectiveness of traditional policy responses such as tighter border controls and employer sanctions. Migrants living and working in an irregular status are clearly one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in Irish society today. Ireland prides itself on its track record in promoting human rights across the globe. We are now challenged to respond to the situation of undocumented and irregular migrants in Ireland in a way that is consistent with our human rights commitments.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge and salute the bravery of those individuals who participated in this study, many of whom are actively involved in supporting and seeking justice for irregular migrants. At a time when concepts of active citizenship and integration are highly valued it is important to recognise the work and commitment of those who frequently pay the greatest price in seeking to make the world a more equal and humane place. The MRCI plays a significant role in supporting migrant workers and their families to access their rights in Ireland, including those who are undocumented. In publishing this report, the MRCI has made an important contribution to shedding light on the phenomenon of irregular migration in Ireland, and towards finding meaningful and long-term solutions to these challenges.

Mary Robinson

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