One of the most widespread stereotypes concerns the association of ‘irregular’ and ‘unskilled’ when it comes to undocumented migrant workers. In a new study published by researchers at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, it is explained that this association, apart from being false, is the consequence of the lack of regularisation paths. Oiza Q. Obasuyi addresses this issue.
When we talk about labour and immigration in Europe, we also refer to how governments need to cover certain labour sectors that are, more often than not, characterised by long working hours, non-existent or minimal wages and exploitation. This is the context in which a large number of migrant workers – often undocumented – are employed, especially from non-EU countries. Researchers Damini Purkayastha, Tuba Bircan, Ahmad Wali Ahmad Yar and Duha Ceylan in their study Irregular migration is skilled migration: reimagining skills in EU’s migration policies, analysed the experiences of 34 migrants – from Afghanistan, Ghana, Guinea, India, Palestine, Syria, Tibet, Togo and Turkey, 25 men and 9 women – who arrived in Belgium via irregular routes, as well as the ways in which they are affected by exclusion and prejudice.
As reported in the study, there is a persistent ‘threat-victim’ link in any discussion concerning ‘irregular’ migrants, a pattern that allows no room for their skills and aspirations to emerge, as if they had little or nothing to offer the host country. “It is estimated that most irregular migrants work in Europe to make a living and often under precarious forms of irregular employment […]. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became apparent that [mostly undocumented] migrant men and women workers constitute a significant share of those working in the EU, especially in sectors such as meat-packing industries, agriculture, construction, domestic work and logistics,” the study states. In addition, the study highlighted a discriminatory double standard adopted by the EU in the treatment of Ukrainian refugee persons compared to those from other parts of the world, in relation to the issue of ‘job quality and skills’. In fact, the research claims that “official EU communications […] emphasised how Ukrainian refugee persons constituted a potential in the labour market [encouraging speedy skills checks for better integration], and thus an important asset for the host community”. The situation is different for refugees from countries on the African continent or in the Middle East. “This “us and them” paradigm fuels an already prevalent tendency to associate refugee persons from the “global South” with poverty, conflict, disorder and threat in contrast to the “white expatriate” who is supposed to add value to host communities”.
The point here, as the research indicates, is not to discredit the important Temporary Protection measure (2001/55/EC) adopted with regard to Ukrainian refugee persons at the outbreak of Russia’s war of aggression, but “to understand why and how migrations […] from a specific part of the world are systematically framed in the concepts of competence, ability and value, while others are instead defined as unskilled and of lesser value”. Drawing this distinction, the study states, leads to the creation of a dichotomy between deserving skilled refugee persons and ‘unskilled’ refugee persons from the global South, setting the stage for a hostile social discourse. In the research, however, it is highlighted that when the persons interviewed left their countries of origin they had at least a high school diploma, and several had a university degree alongside some years of work experience.
Minors also attended school before they had to leave. Some interviewees “left their home countries around 2013-2015, amidst increasing religious persecution and escalating violence in the Middle East. As resources had become scarce […], daily life had become difficult. Despite the circumstances, some cities were committed to keeping schools running and even holding examinations whenever possible. One respondent stated that his family hoped to go to Europe and believed that his high school diploma would be recognised there”, the research explains. Furthermore: “the personal experiences of our respondents debunk the hypothesis of a lack of education and professional aspiration among undocumented migrants […]”.
As further explained in the study, the problem does not lie in the lack of skills or previous studies, but in the fact that not all non-European degrees or secondary school diplomas are automatically recognised. In fact: “what we noticed during our interviews was the discrepancy between the potential our interviewees saw in themselves and how they felt seen by the authorities and potential employers”. J.I., a trained engineer, travelled to Europe with some people, who also had the same training. “He remembers that they left Belgium because they felt that their qualifications were invisible to the authorities. They said that during the interviews no one even asked them what they could or wanted to do”. A similar situation also afflicted some refugees, who, unlike undocumented persons, have a recognised legal status: “a 39-year-old respondent who spoke several languages and had 11 years of experience as a lawyer says that he received no help from the [employment] agency: “I kept asking them what I could do, I received no answer from them”, the research exhibits.
M.D, a respondent who lived for several years in a refugee camp with his family in Turkey, recalls that they could not attend local schools as no one was allowed to leave the camp. However, his mother and many others took action to open schools on the site: “we wanted to learn, we wanted to open schools in the camps. We did not want our lives to stop. My mother and some teachers opened the first school for refugees there. They allowed us to learn Turkish and told us that if we had learned Turkish they could have allowed us to go to university”, the research reads.
Among the female respondents, multiple experiences emerge. Some had high levels of education and work experience in their country of origin: “the respondents spoke of how their legal position, lack of recognition and stereotypes about women had [negatively] influenced their meetings with local Belgians”. And again: what our findings reveal is that the issue of skills among migrants and labour market integration also concerns the systems they encounter.
“In particular,” the research reads, emerges “the epistemic construct of skill designed to exclude or make invisible the competence acquired in the Global South and the gendered discourses that further alienate women from participation [in the labour market] in multiple ways”.
In the case of migrants recognised as refugees, interactions for labour market entry may be characterised by racial prejudices in which their skills are sidelined and they are told to ‘retrain’, acquire further qualifications, start internships or entry-level jobs (even if they possess skills above that level). For irregular migrants, the situation gets even worse as they are forced to take whatever they can get, regardless of what they can actually do. ‘Skills’, the research states, ‘do exist, but they can be systematically rejected’.
A similar conclusion was already reached by the UNDP (United Nations Development Department), which in its report Scaling Fences. Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe, in 2019, highlighted how the majority of migrant women and men arriving in Europe from countries on the African continent, for example, are not only subject to high levels of unemployment and precariousness, but are also over-qualified for the jobs they are forced to do. Furthermore, according to the report, over the years there has been a drastic closure of legal routes to enter Europe, forcing people to make dangerous journeys.
All people interviewed are aware that education and the acquisition of new skills are the key to empowering oneself, during the journey and once in Europe. In conclusion, not only do we need to move beyond the simple-minded categorisations currently surrounding migration policies, but, as the research points out, “it is crucial to recognise that migrants are human beings with aspirations and rights. The European Union should therefore put an end not only to the classification of first and second class migrants, but ensure access to study and work paths for all, based on prior experience, without prejudice of any kind.
This study was produced as part of Humming Bird. Humming Bird is a Horizon 2020 project that aims to improve the mapping and understanding of changing migration flows.
Cover photo via Twitter/Melting Pot Europa