Regular migration pathways include labour mobility regimes, sponsorship programmes for high-skilled workers, student visas and protections for refugees. In contrast, irregular migration pathways include illegal entry, overstaying a visa and befallen irregularity (where regular status is lost) (Vickstrom, 2014). The links between regular (legal) pathways for migration and irregular
migration is complex, however, two linked assumptions are common in the evidence base for this report.
The first assumption is that destination states’ restrictive migration policies and the lack of regular pathways pushes migrants into an irregular entry, illegal residence and befallen irregularity (see, for example, Carrera et al., 2018). The second assumption is that expanding regular migration will reduce irregular migration as people would choose to migrate regularly if options were available
(McAuliffe, 2017). Options for expanding regular pathways include labour mobility regimes, safe pathways for refugees and expanding visa options for students and low-skilled workers (Bither &
Ziebart, 2018). However, it is also possible that expanding regular pathways could result in increases in irregular migration and smuggling along specific corridors (McAuliffe, 2017).
Key findings include:
- The evidence base is limited for both assumptions and there are only a small number of rigorous empirical studies.
- A lack of comprehensive data on irregular migration and the complex links between regular and irregular migration as well as the wider trends driving migration makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of different regular pathways and to attribute causality. For example, Germany’s Western Balkans Regulation, which expanded labour mobility for low-skilled workers correlates with a decline in the number of asylum claims from the Western Balkans. However, it was only one of a package of measures to address migration and potential effects varied by country.
- Restrictive visa and asylum policies can have deflection effects, pushing migrants into irregular channels. For example, people seeking protection may choose to migrate irregularly due to restrictive policies in destination countries.
- Labour pathways are the most widely studied in the literature reviewed for this report. Limited high-quality evidence was found assessing the effects of expanding family migration, migration for education and protection pathways.
- Labour market dynamics are a strong pull factor for migration, both regular and irregular, and can incentivise employers in destination countries to employ irregular workers. McAuliffe & Solomon’s (2017) collection highlights how irregular labour migration pathways can lead to exploitation and abuse, with women particularly vulnerable.
This report is based on a series of online keyword searches to identify rigorous, empirical evidence assessing the effects of regular migration pathways on irregular ones. A large body of academic and grey literature address irregular migration and calls for expanding regular pathways are common. However, only a small number of high-quality evidence-based studies were identified. These studies include a mix of case studies and quantitative studies using cross-national datasets. Within this, there is a split between those that examine the effects of restrictive regular pathways on irregular migration and those that assess the effects of expanding regular pathways.