Undocumented migrants suffer from serious identity problems

Undocumented migrants suffer from serious identity problems

30 Jan 2017

The European Union is home to millions of undocumented migrants. Exact numbers are difficult to estimate, because there are no official records or registers on undocumented people living in Europe. In addition, it is now yet known how the European refugee crisis of 2015 affected the total number of undocumented migrants. Postdoctoral Researcher Inka Kaakinen from the University of Tampere, Finland, is working with funding from the Academy of Finland to explore the everyday lives of undocumented migrants living in the European capitals of Helsinki and Vienna. A significant theme in Kaakinen’s research is the sense of identity of these ‘paperless’ people.

“For an undocumented migrant, there’s the me then and the me now. There’s the old life to which they rarely can return, and the new would-be life that often doesn’t start the way they would’ve hoped. Being undocumented chips away at their sense of self, offering no new desired identity worth identifying with. Such identity issues are also related to the tensions between being visible and being invisible. For the undocumented, being invisible to authorities is an advantage, but they too also feel the need to be identified and recognised, to be seen and heard, to be treated as equal members of society. How undocumented migrants negotiate their lives, participate in society and seek out alternative identities are key questions in my research project,” Kaakinen explains.

The term ‘undocumented migrant’ does not only refer to asylum seekers who have received a negative asylum decision. Anyone who lives in a country without the legal right to do so is an undocumented migrant. Either the authorities have denied the migrant’s right to reside in the country, or the migrant’s residence is unknown to them. Even tourists or students may end up living undocumented in a country after the expiry of a visa. A failed marriage may also lead a person to become paperless. Legislative changes may overnight turn a documented immigrant into an undocumented migrant. The nongovernmental Finnish Refugee Advice Centre coordinates the Project for Undocumented Migrants, which also takes into account people who are in a similar position as undocumented migrants.

Kaakinen explains: “Even EU citizens may be regarded as undocumented, if they have a residence permit but no health insurance. It’s not always easy to define who is undocumented, and the practices vary considerably between different countries and authorities.”

Lack of due documentation may drive migrants to despair

Kaakinen says that she found it difficult to find people to interview for her research project. It is likely that most undocumented migrants choose to stay silent and invisible for fear of getting caught. On the other hand, many may not want to share their often painful experiences with strangers. For instance, they may have a hard time trusting that the information they provide will not be used against them. Or, some may feel that the research project, while not harmful, is of no use to them. Those who did choose to participate in Kaakinen’s study felt that it was time to discuss the issue of undocumentedness openly. The participants even agreed to stay in touch with Kaakinen afterwards.

“There are as many faces to undocumentedness as there are undocumented people, and how they experience their status varies a great deal. Much depends on how independent they are and what being caught and deported would entail for them – how high they perceive the risk to be and to what extent fear controls their lives. What the interviewees have in common is a crippling sense of insecurity and impermanence. In such a condition, they’re unable to make any plans for the future. One interviewee likened their life to living in an airport departure hall: airplanes take off and land, people come and go, but the interviewee’s own flight never gets called. When will life change? When will it start? Prolonged undocumentedness leaves migrants destitute of any visible future, which then can spiral into utter despair,” Kaakinen says, explaining the real concerns of the undocumented.

During the course of her research, Kaakinen has also dug into the immigration and migration policies of different countries. Each EU country applies its own immigration policy. According to the EU-funded project Clandestino (2007–2009), the EU countries can be divided into three groups based on their immigration policies. The Nordic countries represent a group that offers some legal immigration channels. Southern European countries are categorised into a group of countries that offer fewer legal channels but that occasionally grant residence permits to undocumented residents retroactively. Eastern European countries in turn represent a group of countries that offer hardly any legal channels of immigration or legal documents for undocumented migrants.

“For the paperless, the countries with the best practices are naturally those that are committed to offering as extensive social rights as possible also to undocumented residents. Undocumented migrants also value good employment opportunities, and in that sense Southern European countries are more open-minded than their northern counterparts – the informal economy is much larger and much less controlled in Southern Europe. On the other hand, finding employment is much easier if you have good networks of relatives and friends, and those can be found in other regions as well.”

Long-term research into public spaces

Kaakinen’s field is urban geography, and her previous projects have all been focused on urban studies. Her doctoral dissertation and first postdoctoral project, funded by the Kone Foundation, both dealt with urban spaces, their organic nature, regulation and conflicts as regards use, as well as the limits of permissiveness in different public space contexts, such as street vending or public drinking.

“Public spaces are a fascinating research topic: they speak volumes about society, about its structures and values, and they never stop evolving. Before my current Academy-funded project, I also worked on Professor Tommi Inkinen’s research project Innovative Regions and Economic Development in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. It was an interesting glimpse into the geography of innovations.”

Kaakinen made her first foray into researching the world of undocumented migrants while collecting material for her dissertation on the use of public spaces in Latin America. She interviewed illegal street vendors who dreamt about getting to the United States. For many of them, it would have meant choosing a life as an undocumented migrant.

“I started to think about how many of the vendors would actually turn their dreams into reality; how many would survive the perilous journey; and what kind of reality they would face after arriving in the US. Without legal protection, how can undocumented migrants survive in an entirely foreign society?”

Original Finnish text by Leena Vähäkylä

Photo by Tuula Kaakinen

Last modified 30 Jan 2017
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