25th Sep 2023


On migration, Europe needs to pivot from walls to work

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It's not news that Europe wants fewer migrants reaching its borders. What is less visible is that at the same time Europe is scrambling to get more migrants — to fill dramatic labour shortages, with little consideration for workers' and human rights. The approach so far has been hypocritical, harmful — and self-defeating.

EU migration policies have long been promoting a narrative of migration as a threat, and something that should be tackled with a defensive and punitive approach.

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The 2020 EU Migration Pact, still under negotiation, is billed as overhauling the EU migration system, but instead just expands existing measures like detention for anyone coming to Europe via irregular routes, including children, and speeding up deportations, while lowering human rights safeguards.

The never-ending fight against irregular migration

Last week, the European Council asked the Commission to fund border surveillance technology and to step up the use of visa agreements as a tool to pressure other countries into accepting swifter and more deportations of their citizens. Throughout 2022, several agreements were struck to increase joint policing at common borders, including between France and the UK, Germany and Switzerland, and Czechia and Slovakia.

The proposed revision of the Schengen Borders Code would allow border guards to stop and check people crossing borders internally within the EU if they believe that the individuals can't prove their right to enter the country. There is little doubt that this amounts to legitimising racial profiling.

The demand for workforce

While Europe cracks down on migration, it also discreetly tries to get more migrants to fill ever more dramatic labour shortages in key sectors from hospitality to construction, from transportation to health care.

In practice, this means granting residence permits to people already living in the country through ongoing or new regularisation mechanisms, and creating work permits for people to come to work in the EU from abroad. Yet many of these measures may be driven by the demand for workforce, with little attention for workers' rights.

France is negotiating a regularisation scheme for shortage occupations — but it's been criticised for focusing on workers employed in the most physically demanding professions, while leaving out other key sectors and skills.

In January 2023, the right-wing Italian government increased the number of available permits for non-EU workers from 69,700 in 2022 to 82,705 but more than half are for seasonal work, which is often extremely precarious and rife with exploitation.

The 2020 Italian regularisation was largely prompted by fears that the country's fields would remain without workers due to COVID-19 restrictions on international travel. The regularisation kept workers dependent on their employers, and conditions to apply were extremely strict and burdensome. The result is that only a third of the applicants managed to regularise their stay.

Last year, Greece passed a scheme to grant 4,000 new seasonal permits every year to Bangladeshi workers. The same scheme is meant to regularise an estimated 15,000 Bangladesh nationals already living and working in Greece. The Greek seasonal work visa scheme means that work has to be found from Bangladesh, with few safeguards against illegal recruitment fees, and workers must leave Greece for three months every year.

Regularisation and regular pathways are both vital policy tools — but they should be done the right way. When labour rights and workers' needs are side-lined to pursue purely market-driven interests, no one wins.

Another way: decent regularisation and regular routes to Europe

How Europe approaches migration today is leading to deaths at sea and land borders, exploitation and abuse in our fields and restaurants, employers who cannot find workers, and dwindling social security systems. All this harm is senseless, and preventable.

Last year, Ireland put in place a six-month regularisation programme that has allowed thousands to regularise their stay in the country and have unlimited access to the labour market. The Irish regularisation enabled undocumented migrants to apply themselves, without being dependent on employers, and the resulting residence permit is secure and long-term, and grants full access to the labour market and public services. A great part of its success is arguably thanks to the efforts of civil society, and undocumented people themselves, to campaign for such a measure and ensure a policy-making process informed by people with lived experience.

Besides regularisation measures, European countries must devise systems that allow for more and decent work permits for people to come to work in Europe, across skills and sectors. This means permits that let workers change employer or sector, look for work if they lose it, and grant them fair access to social protection.

Procedures to apply should be reasonable and not costly. Putting in place a single permit that combines both residence and work permits can help ease the administrative burden and costs. The ongoing revision of the EU Single Permit Directive is a key chance to do make this happen.

Fair and effective regularisation and regular pathways that put people and workers' rights at the centre will allow safer workplaces and better working conditions, help fill labour shortages, and reinforce social security and public services for all.

Author bio

As Director of PICUM, Michele has led the organization for nearly two decades in advocating for undocumented migrants’ human rights towards European and global institutions. Michele has played a key role as board member for several civil society organisations at the global and EU levels. She holds degrees in French, Justice and Peace Studies and a Master in Applied Sciences (Housing and Development).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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