In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Irregular Migration and the City

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Urban Studies Irregular Migration and the City
David Kaufmann, Mala Walz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0067


Irregular migrants tend to live in cities. Cities offer to irregular migrants anonymity, opportunities to find a job and other ways to make a living, different forms of accommodation, and access to potentially existing relational, ethnic, social, or cultural networks. Irregular migration can therefore also be understood as an urban phenomenon. The urban aspects of irregular migration are the focus of this bibliography. We discuss the precarious life situations of irregular migrants, as well as the complex urban governance of migration. From a national-state perspective, the term, “irregular migrant,” refers to a person who enters or resides in a country without the necessary authorization or documents required by immigration regulations. Irregular migrants have either never obtained any sort of authorization or status or they had a status but then fell out of it, or the status has lapsed. This definition also includes rejected asylum seekers and persons that lost their temporary projection. This bibliography applies the term “irregular migrants,” which is used in the literature and in practice alongside other terms such as undocumented migrants, sans-papiers, illegalized migrants, or migrants in a situation of administrative irregularity. We are aware that all of these terms carry certain normative assumptions with them and that they therefore have to be applied with caution and are context-dependent. The term illegal migrants should be avoided due to its stigmatizing association with illegality and criminality, and also because being present without an authorization is in most countries not a criminal offense but an administrative infringement. This interdisciplinary bibliography focuses on cities as places where irregular migrants live (see Cities as Places for Irregular Migrants), cities as (political) actors that support irregular migrants (see Cities as Actors that Support Irregular Migrants), and on other important (political) actors such as civil society organizations and irregular migrants themselves (see Civil Society and Irregular Migrants as Political Actors). While this article only includes work written in English, it attempts to integrate publications that cover cities from different world regions.

General Overviews

UN OHCHR 2014 estimates that 30 to 40 million migrants live in an irregular situation worldwide. Spencer and Triandafyllidou 2020 reviews recent estimates: more than 50 percent of the migrant population lives in irregular situations in Asia and Africa, about 11 million irregular migrants live in the United States of America (US), and between 2.9 and 3.8 million live in Europe. Tsoni 2016 describes the liminal living situation of irregular migrants because they cannot arrive, stay, and, in a few cases, they cannot even leave. According to De Genova 2002, this liminality and the constant threat of being deported contribute to the precariousness of the everyday life of irregular migrants. Dauvergne 2008 emphasizes that irregular migrants are produced and constructed by national migration regimes, which determines what kind of presence is assessed as legal or illegal—a distinction that is often arbitrary and does not do justice to the complexity of migrants’ lives. In addition, Düvell 2011 detects variation in these legal and political constructions between different national states. This comparative perspective reveals that these categorizations in immigration law and policy are constructed, and can thus also be contested. Willen 2007 outlines that the social construction and framing of irregular migrants can also be reconsidered, for example from benign, excluded “Others” to criminal “Others” through government-sponsored campaigns and changes in policy orientation. Darling 2017 argues that the irregular and precarious living situation of irregular migrants and the diverse contestations of this situation have to be read as part of the more general phenomenon of urban informality. While this bibliography mainly focuses on cities and urban actors that contest the above described national immigration regime (see Cities as Actors that Support Irregular Migrants), it is also important to note that urban policies and practices may also be exclusionary. As an example, Ambrosini 2013 examines local policies that exclude irregular migrants from various rights and municipal services. Moreover, Roy 2019 argues that local practices that intend to support irregular migrants can also represent another set of terms through which state authorities protect and include some while excluding others.

  • Ambrosini, Maurizio. “We Are against a Multi-Ethnic Society: Policies of Exclusion at the Urban Level in Italy.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 36.1 (2013): 136–155.

    DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2011.644312

    Discusses local policies in Northern Italy that aim to exclude migrants from various public benefits and rights. Also describes regressive municipal responses to migrants. An important addition to this bibliography because a lot of the scholarship that the bibliography presents focuses on the inclusive role of local and urban policies toward irregular migrants.

  • Darling, Jonathan. “Forced Migration and the City: Irregularity, Informality, and the Politics of Presence.” Progress in Human Geography 41.2 (2017): 178–198.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132516629004

    Explores the relationship between forced migration and the city. Highlights how informality as one characteristic of the urban environment shapes the city as a place for irregular migrants to live, but also as a place for them to politically contest the informality produced by migration policies and governance.

  • Dauvergne, Catherine. Making People Illegal: What Globalization Means for Migration and Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511810473

    Examines the relationship between migration, globalization, and migration law. Views migration law as one of the last bastions of national state sovereignty in today’s globalized world. Also tackles how migration law and its enforcement construct categories of migrants, some of whom are determined to be a regular and some of whom are determined to be irregular migrants.

  • De Genova, Nicholas. “Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life.” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 419–447.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085432

    Discusses aspects of the everyday life of irregular migrants from an ethnographical perspective. Critically reflects on and problematizes the categorization of migrants, and argues that we should look beyond illegal, irregular, and other precarious or absent statuses and analyze how sociopolitical processes construct and produce them.

  • Düvell, Franck. “Paths into Irregularity: The Legal and Political Constructions of Irregular Migration.” European Journal of Migration and Law 13.3 (2011): 275–295.

    DOI: 10.1163/157181611X587856

    Examines the political and legal construction of irregular migration across different national states in Europe. Reveals how migration policies and laws produce and construct irregular migration by emphasizing the diverse and divergent policies and practices that exist.

  • Roy, Ananya. “The City in the Age of Trumpism: From Sanctuary to Abolition.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37.5 (2019): 761–778.

    DOI: 10.1177/0263775819830969

    Offers a critical reading of the concept and the modern practice of sanctuary in North American and European cities. Argues that these cities seek to offer protection from state exclusion while resting on a liberal notion that presumes that the state can include some but exclude others. Discusses the more expansive concept of hospitality and argues for critically engaging with it and the concept of sanctuary in view of their colonial and imperial histories.

  • Spencer, Sarah, and Anna Triandafyllidou, eds. Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe: Evolving Conceptual and Policy Challenges. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2020.

    Examines how states deal with ethical, legal, and social dilemmas when they engage with irregular migrants. Discusses evolving policy responses at the European, national, and municipal levels. Chapter 2 offers an overview (including estimates of irregular migrant numbers from different world regions) and chapter 10 focuses on the urban and municipal dimension of policy responses.

  • Tsoni, Ioanna. “‘They Won’t Let Us Come, They Won’t Let Us Stay, They Won’t Let Us Leave.’ Liminality in the Aegean Borderscape: The Case of Irregular Migrants, Volunteers and Locals on Lesvos.” Human Geography 9.2 (2016): 35–46.

    DOI: 10.1177/194277861600900204

    Draws on ethnographic observations from the Aegean Sea and the Greek border island of Lesbos where the European crisis of migration and asylum centrally unfolds. In this interstitial transit space, the liminality of migrants can be understood as a form of sustained social marginality and exclusion produced through incoherent European Union (EU) and national policies as well as participation and resistance in migration policymaking.

  • UN OHCHR. The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Migrants in an Irregular Situation. New York: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2014.

    This report, initiated by numerous international organizations, builds on the observation that irregular migrants are more likely than other groups to face discrimination, exploitation, and abuse. It provides data, terminology, and a policy discussion and stresses that irregular migrants have fundamental human rights including economic, social, and cultural rights. The report states that migration restriction by states are only justifiable if they pursue a legitimate aim and if they are proportionately enforced.

  • Willen, Sarah S. “Toward a Critical Phenomenology of ‘Illegality’: State Power, Criminalization, and Abjectivity among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel.” International Migration 45.3 (2007): 8–38.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2435.2007.00409.x

    Employs a “critical phenomenological” approach to the study of migrant illegality involving a three-dimensional examination of it: as a form of juridical status, as a sociopolitical condition, and as a mode of being-in-the-world. Studies communities of irregular migrants of West African (Nigerian and Ghanaian) and Filipino origin in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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