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Borders Start With Numbers: How Migration Data Create “Fake Illegals”

Savatic, F. ORCID: 0000-0002-9311-0916, Thiollet, H. ORCID: 0000-0002-4151-007X, Mesnard, A. ORCID: 0000-0001-6899-9138 , Senne, J-N. ORCID: 0000-0001-9477-9606 & Jaulin, T. (2024). Borders Start With Numbers: How Migration Data Create “Fake Illegals”. International Migration Review, doi: 10.1177/01979183231222169


Sudden rises in migration across the borders of the Global North have persistently attracted substantial media attention and fueled hostility toward “irregular migrants” and “bogus refugees.” While existing qualitative studies have extensively criticized the migrant-refugee distinction, we offer unique quantitative evidence of how migration numbers and labels construct impressions of increased irregular migration while in fact creating “fake illegals.” We conduct a two-stage mixed-method analysis, demonstrating first that data on “irregular/illegal border crossings” (IBCs) published by Frontex have become an authoritative source of information on migration flows cited in a corpus of mainstream news media articles. We then posit that, while persecutions and violence in countries of origin may trigger migration, it is policies in destination states that determine who “is” and “isn’t” a refugee. In turn, we develop a novel method to divide IBCs into those who would likely obtain asylum in 31 European destination states (“likely refugees”) and those who would not (“likely irregular migrants”) across time given asylum acceptance rates by nationality. We estimate that between 2009 and 2021 most border crossers labeled as “irregular/illegal” (55.4%) were actually “likely refugees,” a proportion we estimate to be 75.5% at the peak of arrivals in 2015. Thus, we find that sudden and large increases in border crossings concentrated in space likely concern forced rather than irregular migrants. Altogether, our constructivist approach reveals how migration data and categories both influence and are influenced by securitized border policies and that, in this respect, borders start with numbers.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright © 2024, the authors.
Publisher Keywords: irregular migration, refugees, data, border, Frontex, Europe
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
J Political Science > JN Political institutions (Europe)
J Political Science > JV Colonies and colonization. Emigration and immigration. International migration
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs
School of Policy & Global Affairs > Economics
SWORD Depositor:
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