ASEF Workshop on irregular migration, 7-9 January 2008

The Asia-Europe Workshop 'Now you see them, now you don't. Defining irregular migrants in Europe and Asia and the immigration measures applied to them', funded by the ASEF and the Asia Alliance and organised by the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies (University of Amsterdam), the Centre for Migration Law (Radboud University of Nijmegen) and the Institute of Occidental Studies (University Kenbangsaan Malaysia), was held in Malaysia from the 7th to 9th January 2008. ASEF has shown a strong commitment to comparative research on migration in Asia and Europe. Over the last five years it has funded conferences examining border control practices in the two regions, detention of foreigners and the changing patterns of age and migration - pensioners on the move. This workshop fits into this continuing interest, examining an important aspect of migration in both regions: the creation of irregularity and its consequences.

In particular, the aim of this workshop was to examine who irregular migrants are, who defines them and how, and what is done with them once categorised. By comparing different European and Asian countries, the final goal was to consider to what extent irregular migration means the same in different social and political contexts. Our starting point was that different migration regulations might produce different kinds of migrant irregularity. The center of comparison was thus the legal production of migrants' irregularity, that is, how laws and policies construct and define the status of the irregular migrant.

During the three days workshop, papers were presented by Didier Bigo (Sciences Po, Paris), Jeroen Doomernik (University of Amsterdam), Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas (University of Amsterdam), Elspeth Guild (Radboud University of Nijmegen), Azizah Kassim (IKMAS, University Kebangsaan Malaysia), Ana López-Sala (University of Tenerife), Melody Chia-wen Lu (International Institute for Asian Studies), Patrick Pillai (ISIS, Malaysia), Kamal Sadiq (University of California, Irvine), Riwanto Tirtosudarmo (Indonesian Institute of Sciences), Risa Tokunaga (Australian National University), Judit Toth & Julianna Traser (IRM, Hungary) and Bastian Vollmer (University of Amsterdam). Moreover, in the third day, Irene Fernandez (director of Tenaganita, Malaysian NGO working for the rights of foreign workers) and Latheefa Koya (Malaysian lawyer working on refugees) were invited to present their work.

Despite obvious differences, some common trends were identified between European and Asian countries. For instance, a number of papers highlighted the importance of documents in shaping migrants' position and experience in destination countries. While this 'fetichism of papers' is common to most countries, the meaning of 'having papers' or the nature of 'these papers' might vary. As shown for the Malaysian case, the weakly institutionalised character of citizenship in developing states might facilitate the entry of irregular immigrants and allow them to gain citizenship rights through the acquisition of fake documents.

Another trend countries and continents appear to have in common is the securitisation of migration. This has led to the 'illegalisation' of irregular migrants or, in other words, to the increasing unlawfulness of the act of immigrating irregularly. In particular, in the last decade the notion has shifted from 'spontaneous' or 'bogus' migration to 'illegal' migration and finally 'criminal' migration. In parallel to this 'illegalisation' of irregularity, irregular migrants have become object of administrative detention and mass deportation. In this regard, detention and deportation of irregular migrants have provided the exemplary theatre for the legal production of migrant 'illegality'.

Differences between European and Asian countries were also identified during the workshop. One of the main differences is the role of the judiciary and human rights in protecting irregular migrants. While European states' committment to the rule of law and human rights might protect irregular immigrants (for instance, from expulsion in case of risk of torture, terminal illness or family life), in many Asian countries rights are very restricted not only for irregular but also for regular migrants. For instance, both in Taiwan and Malaysia regular migrants are deported in case of illness or pregnancy and their labour rights (although recognised by law) are in practice very restricted as their legal presence is contingent on their employers.

Another important difference between European and Asian countries is the nature of the state and therefore its role vis-à-vis (irregular) migration. While European states are strongly institutionalised and therefore their capacity to draw the border between insiders and outsiders might be higher, the rule of law and human rights (for instance through the intervention of the European Convention on Human Rights) and the EU integration process tend to limit national sovereignity. In contrast, the sovereignity of Asian states (both regarding the influence of human rights regimes and regional integration processes) has remained higher. At the same time, the weakly institutionalised character of many Asian states and, in some cases, their multiethnic nature have tended to blurr the border between insiders and outsiders or citizens and foreigners.

A final conclusion of this ASEF workshop was that more academic discussions on (irregular) migration should take place between European and Asian scholars. In particular, participants expressed their interest in bringing the discussion further on issues such as the relationship between migration and ethnicity, the mechanisms of control and surveillance vis-à-vis irregular migration, the integrity and nature of the state and its capacity to define membership and, last but not least, the agency of migrants in experiencing and re-defining their status of irregularity. Therefore we hope that this Asia Europe Workshop will be followed by other academic events that help to strenghten the dialogue between European and Asian migration scholars. That is in fact our wish and our aim.