New Paths: How Global Illegal Immigration Rates Have Grown

For decades, international organizations and governments around the world have been keen on combating illegal immigration, in light of the growing worrying phenomenon that is seen as a threat to social stability in the countries of immigration. Although the severity of the phenomenon decreased during the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the complete border closures that resulted from it as precautionary measures to contain the spread of the virus, and consequently the decrease in regular movement routes, financial transfers and others.

According to official figures, irregular crossings witnessed a relative decrease as a result of tightened border controls during the pandemic. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency “Frontex” reported in 2020 the lowest level of irregular migration to the European Union since 2013, due to the pandemic. However, following the wave of openness in the second half of 2020, illegal immigration operations increased, and new patterns and routes emerged with it.

It is worth mentioning in this regard that there is no globally accepted definition of irregular migration, but the International Organization for Migration defines it as “movement that takes place outside the regulatory rules of the sending state.” A migrant may find themselves in an irregular situation in a number of circumstances; such as entering a country in an irregular manner, such as crossing with forged documents, or residing in the country irregularly, such as violating the conditions of an entry visa or residence permit, and perhaps being employed in the country irregularly, such as having the right to reside, but not being allowed to obtain paid work in the country of immigration.

Main Indicators

In recent years, there have been indicators of the growth of the phenomenon of illegal immigration, after a temporary decline witnessed by the world during 2020, against the background of the closures that the world witnessed during that period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The most prominent indicators of the growth of the phenomenon can be reviewed as follows:

1- Increase in irregular migration in sub-Saharan Africa:
As of July 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported about 3.2 million internally displaced persons in the Sahel region, and about 1.5 million refugees and asylum seekers in the region. These are huge numbers when compared to what was reported when the EU Trust Fund was established in 2015, which was estimated at just under 50,000 displaced persons and more than 200,000 refugees. Also, in the first half of 2023, out of 64,846 irregular arrivals by sea to Italy, at least 38% of them were mainly from West and Central African countries, which is a significant increase when compared to what was expected during 2020 with an increase of only about 10%.

2- Relative increase in the number of arrivals via the Atlantic Ocean:
The total number of migrants to the Spanish Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean more than doubled from the first quarter to the second quarter of 2023; The United Nations High Commissioner for Migration reported about 5,000 people between April and June 2023. While the number of irregular arrivals is still down 19% in the first half of 2023 compared to 2022, this represents a much smaller decrease than what was seen at the end of the first quarter of 2023, which was estimated at about 64%.

3- Increase in the numbers of migrants from East Africa via the “Eastern Route”:
The International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix showed in 2021 more than 269,000 movements along the eastern route across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and then to Saudi Arabia, accounting for about 40% of all illegal migration movements in the East Africa region. In the first quarter of 2022, the same matrix recorded the arrival of nearly 20,000 migrants from East Africa to Yemen; This is an increase of 69% compared to the last quarter of 2021.

4- Increasing numbers of irregular border crossings:
According to Frontex, the European Coast Guard and Border Agency, there was an increase in the number of irregular border crossings in 2022 by 60% compared to 2020. According to the Ministry of Interior in the United Kingdom, in 2021, about 28,526 people were discovered arriving illegally on small boats coming from France to the United Kingdom, which is a huge increase from the 8,430 people discovered in 2019 and 1,843 people in 2018. It is worth noting here that the majority of migrants by this method range in nationality between Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and Syria.

5- Escalation in the number of illegal immigrants to the United States:
In 2021, the number of migrants from Mexico crossing the United States border irregularly increased significantly, as shown by the US Border Patrol; Where it stated that about 1.52 million illegal immigrants were discovered on the border between the United States and Mexico, which is an increase of three times the number in 2020, which was estimated at about 491,000 immigrants. It is worth mentioning in this context that the number of non-Mexicans arrested exceeds the number of Mexicans in 2021. Perhaps this reflects a new trend that clearly resulted during recent years, as a result of the increase in the number of irregular border crossings, which have become popular among illegal immigrants from Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba.

Different Patterns

Despite the risks of ships sinking and the increase in its victims, it is still a prevailing pattern of illegal immigration. It is noted here that there are main patterns, some traditional and others new, that have come to dominate illegal immigration, which can be reviewed as follows:

1- Carrying forged work visas to facilitate immigration:
Carrying forged work visas has long been one of the most important and prominent patterns of illegal immigration; Where those wishing to immigrate seek to obtain forged visas, by resorting to recruitment agencies and accepting bribes and approving temporary work visas for these workers, which is a pattern widespread in many countries of the world, as is the case in Malaysia, where there is still a crisis of migrant workers in Malaysia; During recent months, about 500 migrant workers from Nepal and Bangladesh carrying temporary work visas were arrested stranded in Malaysia without obtaining the desired jobs, which two immigration officials had promised them in cooperation with recruitment agencies.

2- A decisive shift towards the central Mediterranean route:
During 2022, there was a major shift from the eastern Mediterranean route (mainly from Turkey to Greece) to the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy; This is due to a number of developments in several regions; While the number of crossings from Turkey to Europe decreased sharply, due to Greece intensifying its maritime patrols and establishing a border fence along the Evros River. This coincided with the outbreak of violent repulsion operations and systematic human rights violations against refugees and migrants on that route, including illegal detention, physical assault, theft, humiliation, and even murder.

3- Discovering the Serbian route as an alternative corridor for Tunisians:
Since mid-2020, the Serbian route has represented an alternative corridor for Tunisians fleeing the deteriorating economic conditions at that time. The importance of this corridor increased in the context of tightening control in the Mediterranean, especially since the Tunisian migration wave raised the concern of the European Union in the period between 2018 and 2021; Where more than a third of illegal immigrants arriving in Italy by sea were mainly Tunisians. Therefore, during the period between 2020-2022, large numbers of illegal Tunisian immigrants traveled through Serbia in order to reach Europe, and received financial assistance from Tunisian expatriates living in Europe at that time. On the other hand, Serbia used Tunisian immigrants as a pressure card on the European Union, until it decided to close the road in November 2022.

4- Mexico’s transformation into a transit for illegal immigrants from different countries:
After nearly a decade of continued immigration with an overwhelming majority from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to the United States, flows to the United States from outside traditional countries have increased; Where migrants from outside Mexico and North Central America represented about 43% of those arrested on the US-Mexico border in 2022, which is a large rate compared to about 4% just five years ago, but the matter does not stop at the arrival of immigrants from distant regions only, but rather their points of arrival at the borders as well. Between the United States and Mexico has also witnessed a change on a large scale and differed according to nationality.

Response Paths

Addressing the phenomenon of illegal immigration required a number of tools and paths on the part of governments and international organizations, which can be addressed through the following:

1- Attempting to address the root causes of migration:
Based on the fact that the phenomenon of illegal immigration is basically the result of extremely difficult economic and social conditions, it forced young people to search for new areas of refuge, and at a time when the need for money is intensifying, they find it very difficult to travel and immigrate legally, until they end up searching for ways, even if they are illegal, to leave their countries. This imposes on governments to deal intensively in combating the deep roots of the phenomenon, by promoting education and providing training opportunities to improve the skills of the local workforce, providing sufficient job opportunities and creating good living conditions for their citizens, as well as encouraging investments, creating a business environment conducive to local and foreign investments, providing the necessary health care, and reducing corruption. In addition, international organizations stressed the need to combat conflicts and political turmoil that would push towards more illegal immigration; This is by strengthening mechanisms of political and economic stability in the countries exporting migration, and strengthening international cooperation to address conflicts and resolve disputes.

2- Enhancing border security between countries:
Given that enhancing border security is the first step in combating illegal immigration, this solution requires countries to start working on enhancing cross-border control, which is a process that, although it receives wide international attention, can be improved through developing more effective techniques and methods for monitoring and monitoring illegal movements across borders, intensifying security and customs presence at borders to prevent infiltration, as well as exchanging information and experiences with neighboring countries to ensure the security of common borders, which ultimately serves to enhance border security and reduce the number of infiltrators from illegal immigrants.

3- Providing legal options for immigration:
Countries need to provide legal options for immigration, through which they provide facilities that would facilitate legal immigration procedures, and design programs for practical and family immigration, based on clear criteria, and perhaps conclude agreements with countries whose citizens are keen to immigrate to; To facilitate the process of immigration legally, which leads to reducing the need to resort to illegal immigration.

4- Developing mechanisms for international cooperation:
The past years have witnessed an escalation in cooperation efforts between countries on the issue of exchanging information and experiences on analyzing the causes of migration and adopting joint strategies to combat the phenomenon, and coordinating efforts among them. It is also possible to conclude joint agreements that stimulate cooperation in order to combat human trafficking and exchange information related to smugglers.

5- Launching awareness and education campaigns:
Since the prevailing culture pattern and way of thinking is a major factor in directing individuals towards making specific decisions, governments have increasingly tended to launch awareness and advertising campaigns for the local public and potential migrants about the risks associated with illegal immigration, and to present information about available legal alternatives and available immigration programs. This is a role that can be undertaken by civil society institutions, side by side with official media, and influencers on social media, which ultimately pushes towards creating a state of societal awareness of the seriousness of the phenomenon and ways to avoid its repercussions.

6- Combating human trafficking:
Considering that human trafficking at the hands of organized gangs is one of the factors of illegal immigration and a major cause of it – as these gangs resort to kidnapping large numbers of people, and then deliberately displace them to traffic them irregularly – it is of great importance to strengthen international cooperation in combating human trafficking, and tighten penalties for those involved in that crime, as well as providing adequate support to victims and providing programs for their rehabilitation.

7- Developing resettlement programs:
This solution is directed especially to receiving countries, to which illegal immigration occurs; As these countries can provide opportunities for illegal immigrants to settle legally and sustainably in them, reintegrate them into their society and benefit from them as a workforce calculated within their gross domestic product.

In total, due to the seriousness of the phenomenon of illegal immigration, many countries are keen to combat it, which has appeared over decades through organizing many international conferences and agreements between many countries, as well as issuing regulations and laws and enhancing border control in order to combat the phenomenon of illegal immigration. Perhaps the latest international efforts in this regard, Italy hosted a number of leaders of countries and international organizations in Rome in July 2023, in a conference entitled “Rome Dialogue Path”, in an attempt to find a different approach to addressing the deep roots of illegal immigration, and to reach new cooperation mechanisms between the countries from which migrants depart and the host countries, after many security measures alone failed to stop the flow of illegal immigrants to European shores. It is likely that more of these international efforts will lead to enhancing international solidarity and cooperation in order to combat the phenomenon, and bring closer views between the countries of emigration and the countries of immigration, which ultimately serves to combat the phenomenon and find practical solutions to it.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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