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Out of the Shadows: Shining a Light on Irregular Migration


Executive Summary

Millions of people around the world live in and travel through the shadows. Compelled to leave home, they migrate irregularly without proper documentation to gain access to jobs, education, healthcare, food, and other basic services. In reality, an irregular migrant’s decision to leave home is rarely a decision at all. Upon leaving, these people not only live in the shadows but are also left in the shadows of the broader global conversation on forced migrants, which typically revolves around those with internationally recognized status such as legal immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Irregular migration is a critical, global, and underappreciated phenomenon, hence the existence of this report. Irregular migration exists because there are not enough opportunities for safety and prosperity at home and too few regular means through which to remedy that lack of opportunities. For those who feel compelled to move, the goal of the international community should be to afford basic human rights to everyone regardless of status, which means regularizing as much of that movement as is feasible while protecting borders and national sovereignty.

This report estimates that there are over 100 million irregular migrants around the world, many of them vulnerable women and children. Their motivations for migrating irregularly are varied; from fleeing violence and persecution, food insecurity, military conscription, and resource constraints to seeking better jobs, education, and health care, every irregular migrant’s journey is different and motivated by different factors. This report sheds light on some of the root causes that drive irregular migration and explains how irregular migration has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. Irregular migration is not a new phenomenon. There is a plethora of historical cases that prove managing irregular migration is possible. Historical lessons and new big ideas and opportunities should be leveraged to address current irregular migration flows (e.g., people moving to, within, and from Mexico or Eritrea) and to prevent future problems in areas of current stability (e.g., Ghana). By analyzing Mexico, Eritrea, and Ghana, this report highlights the complex and varied nature of irregular migration via three very different country contexts. These three countries highlight irregular migration’s complexity because they demonstrate how different migration policies can affect why people leave and what happens to them on their journey while also demonstrating that the lines between countries of origin, destination, and transit are often blurred. This report offers recommendations for those three countries and for the international community on how to leverage existing tools to address the issue of irregular migration. It also calls for bold U.S. leadership on these issues. Even in today’s political environment, ignoring the root causes of irregular migration and only focusing on people arriving in the United States is a mistake with long-term ramifications. The authors argue that U.S. leadership is critical and feasible, though realistically not on all facets of this complex global phenomenon. As such, the United States should consider:

▪ Convening a coalition of committed partners to address the root causes of forced and irregular migration;

▪ Establishing an intergovernmental approach to migration;

▪ Increasing foreign aid, not cutting it;

▪ Using trade as a tool;

▪ Leveraging the global system of MDBs and DFIs;

▪ Creating a “FEWS-NET” for forced and irregular migration;

▪ Extending USAID’s presence in “hot spots”;

▪ Leveraging and partnering with the private sector;

▪ Supporting cities and city leadership;

▪ Improving data collection and utilization;

▪ Prioritizing vulnerable groups; and

▪ Reinforcing strong congressional leadership.

It makes sense from every conceivable perspective—economic development to human rights to national security and beyond—that vulnerable people should be brought out of the shadows and that irregular migration should be talked about in policy spheres with an eye towards solutions to a real problem affecting real people. This report aims to shine a light on irregular migration and, in doing so, to contribute to an enormously consequential conversation.


Center for Strategic and International Studies
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