There have been two driving forces that have sustained and fostered the research work at the base of this study: firstly, the curiosity for a phenomenon, irregular migration, that is emblematic of the contradictions and complexities of the age of globalization and then the dissatisfaction with most of the available explanations.
The curiosity was not so much aroused by the scenes of the overcrowded boats trying to cross the Mediterranean or of the people jumping over the fences in Tijuana, in order to achieve their “American dream”. After all, a great deal of human history has been about people trying to overcome barriers, no matter whether they are geographical or political, in order to improve their living conditions. What really intrigued me was on the other side of those barriers. Why were the rich states that cried against the “invasion”, with all their armies, resources and technologies, still unable to stop these hordes of “miserable” people? Was it possible that after four centuries of adjustments and rethinking, the state, epitome of modern politics, had not yet been able to solve the most elemental problem, that of populations coming and going? How could irregular migrants live, work and fulfil their dreams within societies that, at least in principle, refused their presence? Irregular migration appeared to me as a captivating phenomenon because it evidenced the incongruence between the idea of states as the all-embracing, all-mighty controllers of socio-political interactions, and a much more complex and thriving reality made up of conflicts, ambivalences and uncertainty. Reflecting and researching on irregular migration, from this point of view, seems to me not simply a way to elucidate the particular aspects of a specific social phenomenon, but rather to provide a viewpoint from which to observe the structure and dynamics of contemporary society as a whole in the current age of globalization.
A preliminary review of the literature on irregular migration provided me with a large number of different, often contrasting, answers. Depending on the point of view, scholars and researchers had explained the phenomenon as the results of disparate causes, such as: the weaknesses of states, the ability of migrants, the interests of capitalists, the support of criminal networks, etc. As I proceeded in the exploration, I found myself in the paradoxical situation of becoming more and more fascinated by the new approach I found, and, at the same time, more frustrated by the incongruence of the complex puzzle that was emerging. Furthermore, it appeared that each theorization effort usually emerged from the analysis of a particular national case. Thus, for instance, if in a certain place, the role of efficient smuggler networks had been crucial, irregular migration had to be explained everywhere as the result of smuggler networks. Besides, since the studied cases were rather limited, these mono-causal, undifferentiated explanations were generalized without a solid empirical control base. What seemed to be missing, then, was broader and more systematic work of comparison, in other words, one that made it possible to assess similarities and differences between different cases and therefore to offer material for the development of a more general and sophisticated understanding of irregular migration.
On the basis of these initial reflections, I decided to start this work with a very broad and general research question in mind: How can irregular migration be explained? A twofold strategy was formulated in order to add a grain of sand to the building of a better understanding of this phenomenon.
On the one hand, a theoretical study was developed. The objective of this study was to critically analyse the different theories that have been proposed to explain irregular migration and to prepare an alternative theoretical framework. The main research questions of this study were: what it is known about irregular migration? What have been the main theoretical explanations of the phenomenon? What are the strengths and weaknesses of such explanations? Is it possible to find an alternative theoretical framework that is able to reconcile the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of the other theories? Building on the critiques to the principal theoretical explanations of irregular migration, the study focused on the theoretical work of Niklas Luhmann in order to search for a more effective theoretical framework. This approach helped to overcome a number of theoretical difficulties that have characterized this field of research. For instance, it was possible to go beyond a dichotomist understanding of the relation between agency/structure and to retrieve a social perspective where a statist one had been clearly dominant. The result was the elaboration of an analytical framework that enabled the possibility of linking the social characteristics of the irregular migration phenomenon to the structural features of the considered contexts, as well as the understanding of irregular migration as a systemic and differentiated phenomenon.
On the other hand, an empirical study was developed. The objective of this study was to compare the experience of irregular migrants in two receiving contexts and to assess the differences and similarities that characterized the two cases. The aim was to offer empirical material for the theoretical reflection. The chosen case was that of Ecuadorian irregular migrants in the cities of Amsterdam and Madrid. This choice responded to two main explanations. The Ecuadorian migration phenomenon, because of its relatively time circumscribed characteristics and its economical motivations, appeared particularly appropriate for a “at destination” comparative research. Migrants in the two receiving contexts could be considered reasonably similar. In addition, the two cities, while having enough elements in common to avoid the risk of comparing “oranges and apples”, were at the same time very different. This allowed for a “most different cases” research strategy, which appeared particular stimulating for theory testing and possible extension.
The empirical study consists of two parts. First, a context study was developed, which comparatively analysed the main structural characteristics of the two cities. Then, a fieldwork that combined ethnography and the collection of 30 in-depth interviews with irregular migrants in each context was developed. The main research questions that prompted this study were: What have been the main structural characteristics affecting migration in the two contexts (migration history, migration regime, economics, welfare state typology, public and political opinion)? What has been the experience of Ecuadorian irregular migrants within the two different contexts? What have been the most important differences and similarities? In particular: what have been the main legal trajectories developed by the migrants within the two contexts? What has been their experience regarding the work sphere (sectors, conditions, controls)? What has been their experience of state controls? Finally, what was their experience regarding basic life facets such as housing and healthcare access?
Although the theoretical and the empirical studies can be considered as separate entities and each has a certain degree of autonomy, they were actually developed together and imagined as complementary parts of a single research effort. Following Derek Layder’s “adaptive theory” methodology (Layder, 1998), a purely inductive or a purely deductive approach was avoided. Instead, an attempt was made to establish a permanent dialogue between the theoretical and empirical parts of this study. Adaptive theory focuses on the construction of novel theory by utilizing elements of prior theory (general and substantive) in conjunction with theory that emerges from data collection and analysis. It is the interchange and dialogue between prior theory (models, concepts, conceptual clustering) and emergent theory that forms the dynamic of adaptive theory (Layder, 1998, p. 27). The results that gradually emerged from the empirical work in this study influenced the theoretical reflections while, at the same time, the concepts and ideas emerging from the theoretical work helped to orient and improve the empirical work.
In the concluding part, then, the initial and more general research questions – what is irregular migration and how is it possible to explain it? – were raised again. Combining the results of the contextual study and the fieldwork concerning Amsterdam and Madrid, an attempt was made to establish possible relations between the structural characteristics of the two contexts and the different irregular migration realties that emerged within them. As a result, a differential, systemic explanation of irregular migration was proposed, and its advantages, in comparison with more “orthodox” explanations, were discussed. Finally, combining the results of the theoretical and empirical studies, and by means of a process of abstraction, a preliminary theoretical typology of irregular migration realities in relation to the structural characteristics of the contexts was suggested.