Razvan Stan


Issue Paper


Irregular migrants are estimated to one-third to one-half of the new entrants into occidental countries, according to International Organization for Migration. It is also assumed that there are over 500,000 irregular migrants in the European Union at this moment. However, because of their clandestine nature migrant trafficking and irregular migration are still underestimated phenomena.


In an era of globalization of crime, migrant trafficking and smuggling became a global business generating huge profits for organized crime syndicates and traffickers themselves.  According to a UN report, criminal organizations generate over 3,5 million dollars per year in profits for migrant trafficking.


The trafficking of migrants is interlinked with several criminal activities. For instance, the illicit trade in false documents is strongly related with migrant trafficking. Forging, altering and stealing documents, including work and residence permits, has become an extended criminal activity as the possibility to migrate and work abroad largely depends on having the necessary documents. The clandestine transportation and border crossing have also developed and new trafficking routes have been established.


In many parts of the world, possibilities for legal migration have decreased while demand for foreign labour has increased. Besides, the lack of job opportunities, the increasing of relative poverty, and even the political and social instability in the countries of origin have facilitated the spreading of irregular migration phenomenon. Able to offer documents, transport and even jobs for a fee, organized traffickers have become an attractive option especially for those wishing to migrate and unable to do it legally because of both political and individual circumstances.


Irregular migration and trafficking in Eastern Europe are still phenomena of significant proportions. For these post-communist countries,  the breakdown of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the major social-economic transformations that followed led to increased irregular labour migration from Eastern to Western Europe and this become an important problem in the negotiation process between candidate countries and European Union.  In the case of Romania, the number of migrant workers has strongly increased since 1990, with a turning point in 2001, when the Schengen visa restrictions were lifted up. According to a national survey, about 10 per cent of Romanian households had at least one member who was working abroad at the moment of survey (Open Society Foundation, Public Opinion Barometer, 2004). Besides, according to another recent survey (February, 2005) ordered by International Organization for Migration – Mission in Romania, just 53 per cent of the Romanian migrants workers who were interviewed declared that they work abroad under legal contract. However, if one takes into account the sensitive nature of this issue, the rate of those who work with legal contract can be even smaller.


In spite of the importance of adopting the European Union acquis in the field of labour mobility and social protection, the Romanian legislative and institutional transformations in this field are still at an early stage, this fact being confirmed by the Regular Reports on Romania’s Progress toward Accession (2003, 2004). The labour migration which is mediated and supported by official channels – either by the responsible institutions inside Ministry of Labour, Social Security and Family or by the accredited private mediating agents – still has a small extent in contrast with the share of Romanians who use informal or even semi-legal means to work and migrate to European Union member states.  The risks and complexity associated with irregular migration, determined European Union to propose a transition period after the Romania’s accession with regard to the right of free labour. This transition period was proposed in order to avoid the possible labour market disorders and the anticipated public opinion reactions which could endanger the support for accession.


Irregular migration is due to different contextual and institutional factors. The economic shock of transition to the market, which cut real wages and living standards dramatically and brought unemployment, as well as the outdated national migration legislation and the incapacity of official channels and service providers to meet the high demand for jobs abroad led to a high rate of irregular migration among Romanian workers. Irregular migration is also related to the weak legal employment opportunities abroad in contrast with the offer of working places on the black market. The institutional channels also play their role in the proliferation of irregular migration. The private agencies and labour-exchange companies generate mistrust, because of the many cases of fraud and cheating, and because of the high level of commissions which have discouraged migrants. Consulates and embassies are still considered lees supporting because of the persistence of the negative image associated with former and current visa constraints and procedures. The private transporters are also having an important role in mediating both regular and irregular labour. They charge lower taxes which sometimes include ‘costs’ for illegal border crossing. Finally, institutional corruption, the huge profits that are possible from trafficking as well as the associated low risks led to the proliferation of this illegal activity.  


With regard to the costs of irregular migration, beside the political costs – as those related to pre-accession and European integration processes – there are also social and individual costs. The irregular migrant-workers are frequently underpaid, they do not have minimum labour protection standards at their jobs being exposed to accidents, and they do not have access to legal assistance, to medical care or to other social protection services. They are also exposed to economic exploitation through forced labour and debt bondage, being dependents of their agents and employers. Because of their irregular status, the migrant-workers prefer to avoid the contacts with the authorities from the destination countries and risk to become victims of trafficking networks or of other organized crime syndicates. Those caught in this trap face abuse, domination and even violence from traffickers.


This project aims to address the problem of irregular migration in the case of Romanian citizens who are working in the European Union countries. First, it aims to facilitate a qualitative understanding of the root causes, means and effects of this phenomenon in this specific case. Given the complexity of irregular migration, the research methodology will articulate several sources, methods and perspective, and the analysis will be carried both at central and local levels.  Second, it aims to explore the shortcomings in government approach of irregular migration in the context of European integration. Third, the project aims to formulate informed policy recommendations and to disseminate them to relevant stakeholders in order to stimulate reflection and conscious debate on irregular migration issues. Particularly it aims to propose practical solutions for the decrease of migrant smuggling and trafficking phenomena.


Finally, one of the main hypotheses of this policy research project is that increased sanctions cannot prevent irregular migration on the long term. Since smugglers and traffickers are creative in finding new strategies to bypass regulations, sanctions alone cannot guarantee the sustainability of prevention. This hypothesis has been supported by the preliminary research findings of the project. Besides, it can be further assumed that the development of more and less costly (in terms of both time and money) legal opportunities to migrate and work abroad will reduce the migrants’ vulnerability to criminal networks.


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