Les migrations

Is clandestine immigration organised?

Although it is difficult to quantify it exactly, illegal immigration has been constantly developing and concerns all western countries. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017 Europe counted between 3.9 and 4.8 million illegal foreigners. With each having 1.2 million illegals in the high range, Germany and the United Kingdom welcome half of all illegal immigrants. When Italy and France are added, 70% of illegals are living in these four countries, which represent half of the total European population. France is said to count 400,000 illegal foreigners on its soil, including 38,000 waiting for a decision on their asylum-seeker status.

Go No Go, The Borders of Europe 1998-2002. Punta Paloma, Spain 2001. Immigrants unloaded by Moroccan traffickers on the beach. © Ad Van Denderen / Agence Vu'
Go No Go, The Borders of Europe 1998-2002. Punta Paloma, Spain 2001. Immigrants unloaded by Moroccan traffickers on the beach. Black and white silver print on baryta paper, 60 x 80 cm.
Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration © Ad Van Denderen / Agence Vu'

Data in figures: estimates

Around 30% of illegal foreigners come from the Asia-Pacific region (including Afghanistan), 23% from European countries that are not members of the EU or the four countries in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), 21% from North Africa and the Middle East, 17% from Sub-Saharan Africa and 8% from the Americas.
In 2017, these illegals were mostly men under 35 years old, who had arrived within the past five years. Asylum seekers represented half of them, as opposed to only 20% in the United States. In the US, Pew estimates the illegal population to be between 10.3 and 10.7 million. The overwhelming majority come from Latin America, almost half of them from Mexico, and have been settled in the country for at least ten years.

The Pew Research Center’s estimate corresponds to the figures provided by the French Minister of the Interior, Gérard Collomb, in late 2017, and by demographer François Héran in 2018. It is also consistent with the number of beneficiaries of State medical assistance (Aide Médicale d’Etat). This system, which enables foreigners with no right to stay to get free health care, benefited 335,483 individuals as of September 30th 2019 (+ 6.6% cf. 2018). Undocumented immigrants would in this case represent less than 1% of the French population.
Patrick Stefanini, ex-Secretary General at the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidarity Development alongside Brice Hortefeux and Director of V. Pécresse’s campaign during the 2022 presidential election, applies “a multiplying coefficient” – which he sets at 3 – to the number of medical assistance beneficiaries. With the result that: “The number of foreigners in an irregular situation in France would therefore be around 900,000” (Immigration, ces réalités qu'on nous cache, R. Laffont, 2020).
Questioning of foreigners in an irregular situation increased by 12.9% in 2019 (125,000). The number of people accused of helping foreigners to enter, circulate and reside illegally increased by 10.5% to reach 6,392 in 2019 cf. 5,783 in 2018 (Ministry of the Interior). Although the two facts are not necessarily connected, 328 illegal immigration networks were dismantled in 2019 (321 in 2018 and 303 in 2017), resulting in 1,791 individuals being charged.

Changing ways of thinking

300,000, 400,000 or 900,000, and these are “ballpark estimates”… But what if the question lay elsewhere, being less about hidden truths, and more about the paradigms that form the basis of public policies? Hence, according to François Héran: “There is no clear dividing line between legals and illegals. Those categories aren’t airtight. The status of migrants usually corresponds to an in-between status (…). There is the idea everywhere that with time, presence, attachments created, the right to stay is consolidated. All in all, what strikes me is the right to time. Some people complain about it and want to expulse immigrants as fast as possible so they don’t have the time to gather proof over time.
In November 2021, a French Senate report on migrations recommended: “acting on the deciding factors behind departure” and “not penalising populations through a drastic reduction in visa deliveries, which has the sole consequence of strengthening clandestine networks”. In other words, “favouring multiple-entry visas to enable people to go back and forth rather than underground movements with all the bad things that result from that (…)”. For François Gemenne (questioned within the framework of this report), “a more precise visa policy would mean fewer people taking the risk of dying in the Mediterranean and spending a fortune paying people-smugglers”.

Perilous conditions that encourage precariousness

Clandestine immigration forces people to opt for dangerous transport solutions and to pay large sums to people-smugglers (between 2,000 and over 10,000 dollars). Having illegal status in the countries where they arrive, these people must reimburse the cost of the trip over several years and continue to be exploited by the smuggler networks.
And there are those who never arrive! The IOM (International Migration Organisation) estimates the number of people who died or disappeared in the Mediterranean between January 1st 2014 and July 30th 2018 at almost 17,000. 86% of the 5,773 deaths and 11,089 disappearances were in the central Mediterranean, between Libya, Tunisia, Malta and Italy, which makes it “the deadliest migration route in the world”.
The United for Intercultural Action network currently counts 34,361 migrants who died during their migration to and across Europe between 1993 and 2018, and 80% of them died at sea. The real number is certainly much higher. The bodies found are buried in anonymous graves in Europe or in mass graves in Africa.
According to the Missing Migrants Project, since 2014, over 47,327 migrants have lost their lives across the world, 23,490 of them in the Mediterranean and 11,261 in Africa. 64% of the bodies have not been found. In 2018, 813 deaths were recorded between North Africa and Spain (272 in 2017). That same year, some 570 migrant deaths were recorded in North Africa, caused by a hostile natural environment but also by violence and ill-treatment, illness and/or lack of food.
By becoming difficult to cross, the border has become an even more lucrative source of income.

A “clandestine smuggling economy”…

Clandestine immigration has been partially fuelled by a clandestine smuggling economy that is increasingly organised into veritable transnational networks, often run by the mafia. They provide fake documents to departure candidates, determining the means of transport, the routes and the modalities for crossing the borders. They recruit labour in the countries of origin, filling the pockets of recruiters, and they create slave networks (prostitution being the most visible example). This new economy is said to be worth around 7 billion dollars just for the regions of Latin America towards North America and North, East and West Africa towards Europe.

… that is increasingly organised

Initially informal, this people-smuggling economy has organised means of transport: chartered cargo ships under flags of convenience, converted fishing boats, specially equipped inflatables that can escape maritime border controls. It has formed hubs in Tangiers, Ceuta, Melilla, between Spain and Morocco. It sets up networks which, depending on the case, can be mafia-run from start to arrival of at the destination. Lastly, modern information and communications technologies, apps and social media enable the exchange of information, and are used to cross borders illegally.  
Since the early 1990s, the European Commission has established penalties for anyone transporting travellers who do not have the necessary documents and for labour traffickers, but these tougher control measures do not seem to be stopping these inhumane practices. Perhaps the very opposite?

Mustapha Harzoune, 2022