Reflecting on 5 years of C-MISE, celebrating impact and plans for the future

Irregular migrants and the city: a tale of research, knowledge-exchange and impact on a highly sensitive issue

Nicola Delvino 

Researching irregular migrants – that is, those who do not possess an authorisation to reside in the country where they live – is a complex task, not least because it is an extremely diverse population, as the situations that may lead non-citizens to become irregular are numerous and diversified.1 They are subject to removal and generally excluded from engaging in official work or accessing services beyond minimal levels. As a consequence, due to their fear of being deported by the state’s authorities and the ‘hostile environment’ created by the laws and policies of their country of residence, they are pushed into the shadows of society. Discussing the ethical dimensions of researching irregular migration, Duvell et al. (2008) described how researching irregular migrants raises issues of vulnerability, sensitivity and risks due to the political and legislative aversion towards this unwanted population. The authors posited as “one of the very first questions with an ethical dimension” whether this hard-to-reach and “too hot to touch” population should be researched at all. Among the cited replies, they suggested that the ethical rule-of-thumb question is “whether potential social benefits from the research are higher than potential social harm that the research may induce” and that “social research should not simply be conducted as a means without end but because all relevant stakeholders must be informed and put into the position to make informed decisions to best address, ease or solve the social problem. Thus, it is the professional responsibility of social researchers to research irregular migration and to inform society about the phenomenon”.2

Social benefits constitute the purest “research impact” that researchers are increasingly encouraged to seek, including through policy engagement and knowledge exchange. Yet, engaging stakeholders in open conversations on a sensitive issue might prove even riskier than simply researching such issues. It requires an approach balancing evidence, caution, creativity and, simply put, bravery. 

The creation, development and impact of the City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe (C-MISE) offers an example of how, however, research and policy engagement on sensitive and misrepresented topics such as irregular migration have a high potential to secure social benefits, despite political sensitivities and, in fact, helping to resolve controversies among decision-makers. C-MISE is a knowledge-exchange project supporting European cities in sharing knowledge on local practices responding to the presence of irregular migrants. It was founded by Dr Sarah Spencer at COMPAS following a study she conducted with V. Hughes3 showing that irregular migrants in Europe have limited access to services and that their exclusion has negative repercussions not only on individual migrants but also on society in general (e.g. in terms of public health or safety). Research revealed that these consequences were mostly felt locally, leading several municipalities to adopt more inclusive approaches but doing so in a discrete (at times almost secret) way to avoid clashing with national and EU authorities and rhetoric.

Interviews with municipal officers suggested that an open dialogue among city stakeholders raising the visibility of inclusive initiatives could, within a highly politicised context, involve risks, not least stronger pressures towards interrupting inclusive city practices. On the other side, Dr Spencer envisaged that an open exchange of knowledge could potentially generate higher social benefits for the migrants, the cities, the local population and, eventually, for national policies themselves. Balancing evidence, caution, creativity and bravery, C-MISE was devised following a knowledge-exchange model contemplating dialogues among local authorities and with higher levels of governance (e.g. at EU level), and co-production of knowledge based on research findings enriched by the constant contribution of local stakeholders facing the reality of migrants’ exclusion in their daily work. 

This model proved to fit to the abovementioned researcher’s ethical responsibility to put stakeholders in the position to make informed decisions to best address a social problem. After five years of activity, C-MISE engaged around 50 cities and could boast significant impact. More cities openly adopted initiatives ensuring access to services for all migrants (e.g. as in, Frankfurt setting up a legal advice unit serving medical patients with irregular status; in Ghent’s new Reception and Orientation shelter for irregular migrants, or in Zurich’s plan to issue civic ID cards for residents irrespective of migration status). 

Dialogues between cities and EU authorities also paid off: after a decade of EU policies constantly excluding irregular migrants from inclusive policies and only mentioning them in the context of returns, in 2020-2021, this trend was interrupted by an increasing number of official documents mitigating the EU’s rigidity. For instance, the EU Strategy on Victims of Crime now aims to protect victims with irregular migration status. The 2021 EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion does not exclude, for the first time, irregular migrants. Based on C-MISE, the European Commission commissioned an EU-wide study investigating local responses to long-term irregularly staying migrants and explicitly acknowledging, for the first time, the challenges faced by local authorities in mitigating the social consequences of an unresolved issue. 

It is the impact at the national level that most eloquently revealed the potential researchers have to resolve controversies among decision-makers on a sensitive topic. For instance, in the Netherlands, where the provision of municipal shelters to homeless irregular migrants had previously led to litigation between cities and the national government in supranational courts. Following dialogue and knowledge-sharing, an agreement between the Dutch government and five cities was found in 2018 to pilot the provision of shelters integrated with counselling to address the irregular status of those sheltered. Transnational-intercity dialogue eventually led, more recently, to the Belgian federal government to commit to funding similar pilot projects, following the model adopted in the city of Ghent, inspired in turn by the city of Utrecht. 

In a process of knowledge co-production, the impact produced by research and policy engagement may in itself produce new knowledge which may in turn lead to additional social benefits in a virtuous circle. The abovementioned examples eventually allowed Dr. Spencer to masterfully explain how, within a broader (and shared) understanding of irregular migration as a structural phenomenon, inclusive municipal practices that are taken in apparent contradiction of national policy may, in fact, contribute to the achievement of national policy goals, as in managing and finding solutions to irregularity (through services facilitating regularisations and voluntary returns), but also in pursuing a nation’s higher economic and social policy goals, as well as its international human rights obligations.4 

Søren Kierkegaard once said that “it is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards”. The impact produced by Spencer’s research and C-MISE showed that, even in deeply polarised societies and a post-factual world, researching issues as politicised as irregular migration stays vital to understand our societies, as much as researchers’ policy engagement is vital to generate those social benefits that constitute the purest impact of research.

1 Triandafyllidou A., Bartolini L. (2020), Understanding Irregularity. In: Spencer S., Triandafyllidou A. (eds) Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. 
2 Düvell F., Triandafyllidou A., & Vollmer B. (2008). Ethical issues in irregular migration research. 
3 Spencer S., Hughes V. (2015), Outside and In: Legal Entitlements to Health Care and Education for Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe, Oxford: COMPAS 
4 Spencer S. (2020), Cities Breaking the Mould? Municipal Inclusion of Irregular Migrants in Europe. In: Spencer S., Triandafyllidou A. (eds), op. cit.