top of page

Is regular migration truly safer for migrants? The pitfalls of ‘regular’ migration as ‘safe’ migration

HALLAM TUCK  |  19 APRIL 2019  |  ISSUE #3

Our notions of order, safety, and control are bound up in the inherent dynamics of power and inequality of migration as a social process. Picture by Mike Chai on Pexels.

In a flyer disseminated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Zimbabwe in 2005, a woman looks back over her shoulder as she walks down the road, smiling happily with her infant child strapped to her back and a full suitcase propped delicately on her head. The caption reads clearly: ‘ON THE MOVE? LIFE IS A JOURNEY: KEEP IT SAFE.’ Between 2005 and 2010, IOM ran the ‘Safe Journey Information Campaign’ to raise public awareness of the risks of irregular migration. Altogether, the campaign included posters, billboards, television and radio programmes, and the establishment of ‘Safe Zone’ centres in targeted communities where people could seek advice about irregular migration. The message pervading the campaign is clear: irregular migration is dangerous and regular migration is safe. Since 2005, the goals of regular migration and safe migration have increasingly overlapped in development programmes and policy. Yet, this entanglement has narrowed the scope of ‘viable’ migration governance, rejecting forms of mobility considered disorderly.


Since the inclusion of migration in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the subsequent agreement of the Global Compact on Migration, the goal of ‘safe, orderly, and regular’ migration has become a priority for policymakers around the world. The notion that migration should be managed in an orderly fashion through state institutions is unchallenged. This view suggests that migration is good, but it must be managed properly to prevent social and political disorder. A chorus of academics, political leaders, and policy-makers calling for ‘managed migration’ have for years advocated for the potential benefits of temporary visa programs that would allow migrants from developing countries to access low-skilled labour opportunities in developed countries. The potential outcomes of these labour programmes has been described as a ‘win-win-win’, providing economic opportunity to migrants, increased remittances to migrants’ countries of origin, and helping employers in destination countries meet their need for low-skilled workers.


Yet the ‘win-win-win’ of ‘safe, orderly, and regular’ migration has proven elusive. Many have questioned who will benefit from the inclusion of migration so prominently in the UN’s development agenda. The ‘win-win-win’ solution has been transformed in uncomfortable ways to suit an agenda of explicit control. In his recent book Whiteshift, Eric Kaufmann proposes the establishment of long-term camps in rich countries ‘without the prospect of permanent settlement’ as an alternative to the integration of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Western societies. This proposal, Kaufmann argues, would provide the sort of control over migratory movement necessary to placate ‘white majorities’ in western countries, and prevent the further rise of populist political forces. Kaufmann’s proposal illustrates, at one extreme, the performative work that the concept of ‘regular and orderly’ migration can do, effectively suggesting that the orderly management of migration requires substantive reductions in human rights and refugee protections.


Beyond proposals, the drive to meet the goal of ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration has led to an array of concrete programming that treats migration as a deficiency to be controlled and managed. On one hand, the UK Government’s 2015 aid strategy lists the ‘root causes of mass migration’ as a ‘great global challenge’ akin to terrorism and climate change. In more practical terms, in September 2017, IOM, the US Agency for International Development, and the Egyptian government co-launched a national media campaign in Egypt to ‘sensitise youth to the risks of irregular migration journeys.’ In a campaign video titled ‘Your family, your dream, your life’ a young man, frustrated with his life in Egypt, borrows his family’s savings and hires a smuggler to take him to Europe. The video cuts from images of the son pawning his mother’s jewels to a shot of money exchanging hands across the table of a nondescript café. At the videos climax, the protagonist marches down a darkened tunnel, presumably to Europe, only to be stopped in his tracks by famous Egyptian footballer Hazem Emam. Emam rests a knowing hand on the young man’s shoulder and tells the camera the videos key message: that ‘solutions exist and come from within us through hard work, perseverance and initiative.’ Somehow, the press release issued by IOM accompanying the campaign’s launch states that the initiative supports the goal of ‘reduced inequalities’ at the heart of SDG 10.


Yet, it is not clear whether orderly movement makes migration safer. In a recent paper, Maryann Bylander draws from a survey of 1,419 migrants returned from work in Thailand conducted in 2016 in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam to examine whether using regular migration pathways makes migrants safer. In Thailand, much like IOM’s erstwhile campaign in Zimbabwe, Bylander notes the existence of a variety of development programmes highlighting the perceived risks of irregular migration and the relative safety of moving through regular channels. Deportees in Thai detention centres watch videos heralding the benefits of legal migration pathways, while just across the border NGOs host workshops and hotlines to spread information about the risks of smuggling and trafficking, and the documentation necessary for emigrating abroad.


Although regular channels offer some increased protections related to rights and benefits in the workplace, regular migrants were actually more likely to experience other risks relating to the migration process. These can include fraud, contract deception, and withholding of wages. Moreover, despite significantly higher costs incurred during the migration process, regular migrants experience significantly worse outcomes upon return. Although by no means comprehensive, these findings fit with evidence from other temporary labour programs around the world. In the United States of America, low-skilled visa programs have been rife with exploitation. A Government Accountability Office report issued in 2015 on H-2A and H-2B visas, which allow agricultural employers to hire migrant workers on temporary contracts, found evidence of widespread abuse of temporary workers, who were particularly vulnerable because their legal status and income was tied to their employer. Although applied in a different context, academics have voiced similar criticisms of the Jordan Compact, a multilateral compact led by the UN that aimed to increase Syrian refugee access to the Jordanian labour market. Recent work by Katharina Lenner and Lewis Turner highlights how the Jordan Compact has neglected what Syrians actually want to get out of Jordan’s labour market, and fails to address the vulnerabilities and exploitations faced by refugees seeking work through the programme.


‘Safe, orderly, and regular’ migration seems likely to be the pre-eminent goal for policymakers around the world for years to come. Yet, our notions of order, safety, and control are bound up in the inherent dynamics of power and inequality of migration as a social process. Achieving a ‘win-win-win’ outcome may require the confidence to think beyond the narrow confines of ‘managed migration.’ Separating the goal of safety from the preoccupation with orderliness may allow for a more robust debate about forms or migration governance, like freedom of movement, that are inherently less orderly.

Hallam Tuck

Hallam Tuck is a graduate of the MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, where his research focused on state power, privatization, and immigration detention in the US. Before grad school, he was a community organizer at Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program in Syracuse, NY, and the Legal Initiatives Associate at the New York Immigration Coalition. 

You might also like...


Invisible immobilities: Statelessness in Southeast Asia


Safe, orderly, regular

Magda (2).jpg

Standing still to move on: Scenes of waiting at the border

bottom of page