How should one define the flows of migrants during periods of crisis? This is a question that is frequently answered in a myriad of ways. At the moment, there is a fairly high level of agreement, on the causes affecting the flows of forced migrants as a whole (e.g. wars, disasters, territorial conflicts, persecution, epidemics, climate change, etc.). On the contrary, the line separating these reasons from those that lead to merely ‘economic migration’ seem to be difficult to understand. Economic migrants are considered to have left their country of origin on a voluntary basis and the assumption is that the decision to migrate is taken by individuals with the awareness of having sufficient skills, resources, as well as previous social and personal relationships. However, this is a restrictive approach. So called ‘economic migrants’ are often those people who feel insecure for different reasons and want to prevent a conflictual situation from affecting their expectations for the future.

So, even if there is a general consensus on the fact that the decisions migrants take are likely to be generated in conflict zones, the scope and impact generated by other factors cannot be ignored (Ozaltin et al., 2019). The knowledge of these movements, which inevitably lead to the redesigning of the interpretation used to assign migrants a particular status and their respective flows, is certainly functional when States, directly involved as landing and first reception places for such individuals, are called on to define specific instruments and policies for the management of migration flows. Moreover, the same considerations are also applicable to other countries which, thanks to an increasing range of factors, become host communities, even if they are not geographically located in border areas, as a result of their presumed or actual attractiveness, as well as based on voluntary reunification and relocation schemes.

In Italy and in some EU Member States, the analysis and implementation of migration policies are designed through procedures and legal acts based on the data analysis of individuals who have already completed their migration process in previous years, compared with the corresponding national framework (e.g. labour market, international relations, readmission agreements). Despite this, the intersection of these data can produce an unintentional prejudice regarding the estimation of such flows, especially if the so-called “quotas” are not calculated according to the changed migrants’ intents and their significant correlation with migratory trends (Tjaden et al., 2019) in the already problematic relationship between planning and management in this specific framework (Van Dalen and Henkens, 2008).

The adoption of migration control tools inspired by a perceived sense of insecurity, which can also lead to the adoption of measures oriented towards entry quotas or refoulement, themselves preferred to regular access and weighted integration, is precisely the case of those countries considered as a border, especially when unstable or changing government majorities are put under political pressure because of migration. Above and beyond the strictly demographic and statistical matters, there is a return to the concept of the border in times of crisis, understood with different, and possibly new, meanings besides being connected to the superordinate control of population flows, something totally antithetical to the ‘deterritorialization of the borders’ which admits ‘a shared sovereignty between different actors, both public and private’ (Balibar, 2004).

During such crisis phases, the limit is not only represented by the border, but can also be represented through other instruments that create difficulties for the migrants to become part of the national community, both in terms of their identification and the State’s ability to enforce these controls.

The relationship between migrants and the labour market is certainly a complex field. This is a sector where, in terms of regulations, there is an intersection between the areas of public policy and more specifically labour law, depending on what aspects and subjects are analysed. In this case, the so-called crisis of recent years has created a labour market in continuous evolution.

According to the latest research by the Italian Ministry of Labour and Social Policies, the image of the last decade in Italy is still very relevant. Compared to their previous levels of education, about 63 out of 100 graduates of migrant origin find their job opportunities in sectors that require a lower qualification; this data is certainly more interesting if it is compared with the data concerning Italian nationals: about 18 Italian graduates out of 100 have a job requiring a different educational level (MLPS, 2019).

Moreover, looking at employment as a tool to emerge from a poor socio-economic situation, it is appropriate to observe – that often employment does not reduce the spectre of poverty for immigrants: a quarter of those immigrants living in extreme conditions of poverty have at least one person in their family unit that has a regular job (Ambrosini, 2020).

When this is seen through the domestic labour market prism, the employment situation of an immigrant,essentially appears as a form of occupational segregation: immigrants remain, in fact, excluded from the most qualified positions (Chiaromonte, 2019).

This difference between the expectations of access and the actual professional position occupied is not only due to the attractiveness and the integration of any given labour market. Instead, it is possible to go so far as to assume that this is one of the most evident results from a labour migration approach centred on the soft and confused classification between humanitarian and economic flows, which is also reflected in the relevant EU legislation. Actually, this binomial is increasingly overwritten by another more relevant issue, which concerns the relationship between the employment contract and the status of the migrant worker, which is linked to a residence permit and which requires a distinction between ‘regular’ and “irregular” migrants including the category of ‘international protection seeker’. In fact, in Italy even an asylum seeker can be employed or have access to any form of vocational training after just sixty days following his or her application for international protection.

It is important to note that, in these specific cases, the residence permit cannot be converted into a work visa. Another limiting factor is the relationship that exists between reception policies, legislation that links immigration to security, and the labour market integration of migrants. According to the current legislation, amended by Italian Law no. 132/2018, asylum seekers do not have, in practice, access to the ordinary reception system which, according to its original purpose, aims to help migrants towards personal and professional autonomy.

Such a difficult transition to a secure job, among other reasons, reveals two other substantial constraints. Firstly, this situation encourages those who wish to exploit migrants for illicit recruitment, a direct result of the insecure and subordinate status these individuals find themselves in (Loprieno, Elia, Di Maio, 2020).Secondly, the internship policy – although valuable for some situations where an integrated labour market already exists – does not always lead to a job opportunity for the migrant who must always accept such an internship as part of the reception they have received.

Indeed, here we seem to forget that this reception is an obligation for Italy that arises not only from international law, but also from the principles on which the Italian constitutional system is based (Calvellini, 2019). The limits described become part of common practice in times of crisis, blurring the dividing line between the planning and containment of immigration flows, the security of the nation and the protection of individuals, as well as social services and the protection of human rights.

This post is an update of an article by Claudio Di Maio of the GLIMER Italian team, published in Democracy and Security Review (April 2020).