Strict Visa Norms Can Increase Illegal Migration: Study

Restricting family and low-skilled visas may reduce overall migration, but it also leads aspiring migrants to illegal channels, according to a recent study.


Visa restriction policies imposed by governments may reduce overall migration to some extent but they are not very effective, and may even lead immigrants to find illegal ways of entering a country, a recent study has shown.

The study revealed that strict visa-related rules for students and high-skilled workers have little impact on overall volume or composition of immigrants. However, restricting family and low-skilled visas appears to reduce overall migration, but also diverts a significant portion of aspiring migrants to unauthorized channels, the study by a team from the University of Birmingham, University College London (UCL) and Royal Holloway, University of London, found.

“Illegal reorientation is especially problematic when government restrictions are placed on family reunification, where roughly a quarter of all those who would have migrated legally would, instead, move abroad through illegal channels,” the report, titled “A data-driven computational model on the effects of immigration policies,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Aug.6, said.

The researchers found that a baseline policy scenario, when anyone could migrate as long as they met minimal visa eligibility requirements, would result in 44 percent of aspiring migrants moving abroad through legal channels. Addition of stringent visa rules for migration of low-skilled workers or family migration reduced total immigration by 21 percent and 32 percent, respectively, from baseline levels but also increased illegal immigration by 14 percent and 24 percent, respectively.  

“Our research clearly demonstrates that, while restrictions on immigration do decrease legal migration, this has unintentionally led to an increase in illegal immigration flows which results in a costly and unsustainable need for greater border enforcement,” co-author David Hudson, professor of Politics and Development at the University of Birmingham, said in a statement.

The study also found that tackling unauthorized migration would not be an efficient solution as over 80 percent of illegal migrants would need to be caught to offset the increased inflow due to restrictions, such as limiting work allowances for student migrants or increasing sponsorship requirements on families abroad.

“We show that even minimal visa requirements can significantly reduce immigration, but this comes at the cost of reorienting aspiring migrants towards unauthorized channels,” lead academic Miranda Simon of UCL said in a statement.“When restricting immigration policy, governments need to consider that they are also reducing aspiring migrants’ already limited options for legal migration.”

The study was conducted using a data-driven, agent-based computational model (ABM) to examine migration of individuals from one origin country to one destination country to examine the effects of immigration policy restrictions on common channels such as family reunification, student, low-skilled work and high-skilled work across major destination countries.

“Our empirical results indicate that most people who wish to move abroad are not willing to consider migrating illegally,” co-author Dr Cassilde Schwartz of UCL said. “Using experimental survey techniques, we found that fewer than 20 percent of aspiring migrants are willing to consider illegal channels. Of course, when visa policies become too restrictive, they are left with few options.”

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