The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
The essay’s author Jeff Crisp is affiliated to the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford and Chatham House in London. He was previously Head of Policy Development and Evaluation at UNHCR.
Not only refugees and migrants themselves, but also states and international organisations, stand to benefit from the expansion of regular migration pathways. Yet although the term “safe and legal routes” dominates current mobility discourse, the complexities of creating them and the viability of some of their assumed dividends merit close examination.
The last ten years have brought a growing recognition of the need to address the issue of mixed and irregular migratory movements through the introduction of pathways that enable people to move from one country and continent to another in a safe and legal manner. As well as averting the need for refugees and migrants to embark on dangerous and expensive journeys involving unscrupulous human smugglers, such routes promise to mitigate the negative perceptions of states with respect to the impact of such movements on their sovereignty, security, and social stability.
This essay examines the context in which the discourse on safe and legal routes has emerged and identifies the different types of organised pathways that have been proposed by states and other stakeholders. Focusing particularly on population movements from the global South to the global North, it discusses the opportunities, difficulties, and dilemmas associated with this approach to the governance of cross-border mobility. More specifically, it scrutinises the increasingly popular assumption that the introduction of such routes will lead to significant reductions in the scale of mixed and irregular migration.
In the mid-1980s, the world’s most prosperous states began to express concern about the growing number of foreign nationals arriving irregularly on their territory, many of whom subsequently submitted applications for refugee status. Regarding such movements as a threat to their sovereignty, and believing that many of those applications were unfounded, over the next two decades those countries introduced a range of restrictive measures designed to place new physical and administrative barriers in the way of unwanted new arrivals, especially those originating from the global South.
The limitations of these measures were dramatically exposed in 2015-16, when up to a million people, initially from Syria but subsequently from several other countries, made their way in an unauthorised manner to the European Union, many of them travelling via Türkiye. Reacting to this apparent emergency, the EU adopted a strategy pioneered in earlier years by Australia and the United States, known as “externalisation”. This involved the provision of financial and other incentives to low- and middle-income states on the understanding that they would obstruct the outward movement of irregular migrants and readmit those deported from wealthier states.
At the same time, governments in the developed world were beginning to acknowledge that mixed and irregular movements of people could not be managed by exclusionary measures alone. This recognition was due in no small part to the efforts of human rights advocates, who were concerned about the negative implications of externalisation for refugee and migrant protection. They also wanted to highlight the contribution that foreign nationals could make to destination countries in the global North if they were able to move there in a regular and orderly manner. The common outcome of these different discourses was a growing degree of support for the notion that the establishment of safe and legal routes could minimise the scale and mitigate the adverse consequences of mixed and irregular movements.
This was not an entirely new approach. As then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had argued in the early 2000s, international migration, if governed in an appropriate manner, could have “win-win outcomes”, bringing benefits to countries of origin, countries of destination, and migrants alike. But to attain those outcomes, certain conditions had to be met. In the words of the Global Commission on International Migration (GCM), a body established by Mr. Annan:
It is in the interest of both states and migrants to create a context in which people migrate out of choice and in a safe and legal manner, rather than irregularly and because they feel they have no other option. Regular migration programmes could reinforce public confidence in the ability of states to admit migrants into their territory on the basis of labor market needs. Programmes of this kind would also help to create a more positive image of migrants and foster greater public acceptance of international migration.
Migration governance initiatives
In recent years, and especially since the so-called “European migration crisis” of 2015-16, this notion has been taken up by a number of different migration governance initiatives. Focusing primarily on labour migration, the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration (GCM) cited “enhanced availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration,” as one of its key objectives. Endorsed by the majority of UN member states, the GCM extended this approach to the realm of forced migration, encouraging the international community to “develop or build on existing national and regional practices for admission and stay of appropriate duration based on compassionate, humanitarian or other considerations for migrants compelled to leave their countries of origin.”
At the same time, the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), also adopted in 2018 and which was even more widely endorsed by the international community, underlined the necessity for people who were fleeing persecution and armed conflict to have access to safe and legal routes. “There is a need,” it said, “to ensure that such pathways are made available on a more systematic, organised and sustainable basis, that they contain appropriate protection safeguards, and that the number of countries offering these opportunities is expanded overall.”
Similar approaches have emerged in the context of regional migration governance initiatives. The EU’s 2011 Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, for example, acknowledged the importance of “preventing and reducing irregular migration and trafficking in human beings” by “organising and facilitating legal migration and mobility.” The more recent EU Pact on Migration and Asylum also “aims to reduce unsafe and irregular routes and promote sustainable and safe legal pathways for those in need of protection.” “Developing legal pathways,” it says, “should contribute to the reduction of irregular migration.”
In 2022, the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of states that focussed on the issue of human mobility in the western hemisphere, endorsed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection. Using language similar to that of the EU Pact, it committed participating states to “a shared approach to reduce and manage irregular migration,” and to “promoting regular pathways for migration and international protection.” Signatories expressed their commitment “to strengthen fair labor migration opportunities in the region,” and “to promote access to protection and complementary pathways for asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons.”
As indicated by the declaration’s reference to “labor migration opportunities”, the recognition of the need for safe and legal pathways to be established is closely linked to another recent development: a growing and global shortage of workers. In many industrialised states, members of the existing labour force are aging, taking retirement, quitting, or changing their jobs. The Covid-19 pandemic prompted those countries to introduce new border controls and stricter limits on immigration. Taking advantage of these circumstances, employees have been able to demand better wages and working conditions, thereby pushing up the cost of producing goods and providing services. Confronted with these threats to their profitability, the private sector has been placing growing pressure on governments to remove such restrictions and to open the door to foreign labour.
Safe and legal routes
As demonstrated by the migration governance initiatives described in the previous section, there is now a broad international consensus on the need to provide safe and legal routes for people who wish or feel obliged to leave their own country. There is also an agreement, supported by a growing volume of academic research, that the provision of such routes has a role to play in reducing the scale of mixed and irregular migration and in boosting the economies of destination states. But what specific forms might those safe and legal routes take? The next section of this essay answers that question by describing the principal proposals made and actions taken in that respect.
Labour migration programmes
One such proposal has been labour migration programmes established on a permanent, temporary, or seasonal bases. The rationale for such programmes is that they would allow people from poorer countries who are in need of employment to fill gaps in the labour markets of more prosperous states. As well as boosting the economies of destination countries, such programmes would allow the migrants concerned to enhance their skills and to support their countries of origin by means of remittances.
Until recently, for example, there have been only limited legal opportunities for the citizens of Central and South American countries, especially those with lower levels of skill, to join the US workforce. At the 2022 Summit of the Americas, however, President Biden indicated that he would introduce a package of measures designed to manage northward migration more effectively, including the establishment of safe and legal routes for Latin Americans. According to one US spokesperson, “we will have announcements related to labor pathways as part of the Los Angeles Declaration, designed to ensure that those pathways meet the highest labor standards and are not used for abuse or for a race to the bottom.”
Mexico, another signatory to the declaration, has already taken steps in this direction, offering border worker visas to Guatemalans and Belizeans wishing to work in the country’s southernmost states—an initiative intended to meet the labour needs of the area while reducing the number of people from those two countries arriving and working in an irregular manner.
Turning next to Germany, in 2015-16, at a time when the country was receiving large numbers of new arrivals from the Western Balkan states, most of whom submitted unsuccessful asylum claims, a new employment regulation was introduced. This opened the labour market for nationals of those countries, on condition that they had a valid job offer from a German employer.
Since that time, EU member states more generally have begun to acknowledge the need to recruit employees from outside the bloc. Thus in April 2022, the European Commission launched what it described as “an ambitious and sustainable legal migration policy,” including “specific actions to facilitate the integration of those fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into the EU’s labour market.” In the emphatic words of the commissioner for home affairs, “legal migration is essential to our economic recovery […] while reducing irregular migration.”
A more preemptive approach to the issue has been taken by Australia, whose Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme allows businesses to recruit seasonal and temporary workers from ten Pacific island states. The purpose of the scheme is to meet Australia’s domestic labour market needs, to promote regional cooperation and development, and, in doing so, to avert the kind of instability that might provoke unpredictable and irregular movements of people.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, large numbers of people displaced by the hostilities began to make their way to neighbouring and nearby member states of the European Union. While the EU has made vigorous and often inhumane efforts to exclude asylum seekers originating from other parts of the world, even if they had strong claims to refugee status, in the case of Ukraine steps were quickly taken to regularise the situation of the new arrivals. Refugees from Ukraine were allowed to enter the EU without a visa, to enjoy residence and work rights there for up to three years, and to move freely from one member state to another.
This arrangement, known as “temporary protection”, was based on a number of considerations: the geographical proximity of Ukraine to the EU, the great difficulty that the EU would have had in trying to obstruct the movement, a humanitarian concern for people who had been obliged to flee by the conflict, and a particular readiness to support the citizens of a friendly country that was suffering from the aggression committed by Russia, a state with a long history of enmity to the EU and NATO. While it remains to be seen how effectively the Ukrainians can be absorbed into the economies and societies of EU member states, in the short term at least, the temporary protection system provided a means of channeling a very large and rapid movement of people into routes that were safe and legal.
Looking beyond the specifics of the Ukrainian situation, UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, has in recent years made regular calls for governments—predominantly but not exclusively in the global North—to establish and expand the scale of state-sponsored refugee resettlement programmes. Such efforts enjoy limited success, however, partly because of the serious cuts made to the US resettlement quota by the Trump administration, and partly because of the restrictions on movement introduced by many other countries as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the aftermath of the 2015-16 “migrant crisis”, moreover, European countries were reluctant to consider the admission of additional refugees, even if they were to arrive in an organised manner.
In a more positive development, the decade since the beginning of the Syrian refugee emergency in 2012 has delivered a new focus on the establishment of privately- sponsored resettlement programmes, enabling families as well as neighbourhood, community, and faith-based groups in the global North to sponsor the reception and initial integration of refugees from countries of asylum in the global South. Canada has taken a particular lead in this respect, establishing private sponsorship programmes for Afghan, Syrian, and Ukrainian refugees, with Australia, the US, and some European countries also experimenting with this particular form of safe and legal route.
A similar approach can be seen with respect to the notion of “humanitarian corridors”, an initiative taken by Italian church-affiliated groups. Self-funded but closely coordinated with the government in Rome, this programme has enabled religious communities in Italy to welcome hundreds of refugees from Ethiopia, Greece, and Lebanon. Discussions are currently underway with a view to expanding this model to other European states.
Recent years have seen a growing interest in the notion of labour mobility for refugees, arrangements whereby refugees with specific skills and qualifications are allowed to leave their country of asylum in order to take up pre-arranged employment opportunities in another state. An approach first proposed more than a decade ago but largely unimplemented since that time, the potential of such initiatives has now been recognised by Australia, Canada, and the UK, all of which have recently established pilot programmes of this type.
In similar vein, humanitarian organisations have promoted the notion that refugees in developing countries of asylum should be able to benefit from scholarship programmes in states that are better equipped to provide them with appropriate education at the secondary and tertiary levels. The implementation of this approach has been boosted considerably by the emergencies in Syria and Ukraine, both of which have prompted universities around the world to make special provisions for refugee students.
When people move from one country to another in the context of a refugee crisis, a common consequence is for family members to be separated, either because some have been left behind in the country of origin, or because they lose contact with each other during their journey to a safer place. In response to this humanitarian issue, the international community has for many years supported the notion of family reunification programmes, organised with the support of entities such as the International Organization for Migration, UNHCR, and the Red Cross movement. Most recently, there has been a recognition that such programmes also have a role to play in reducing the scale of irregular movements, given the frequency with which people engage in such journeys in an attempt to reunite with their relatives.
Relocation and evacuation programmes
Other arrangements have been made to enable refugees and migrants to relocate in a safe and legal manner from countries that are not in a position to provide them with the support that they need. In the EU, efforts—albeit largely unsuccessful—have been made recently to establish redistribution programmes, relocating people from front-line states such as Greece and Italy, which have large refugee and migrant populations, to parts of Europe that are under less pressure in this respect.
In a more dramatic context, UNHCR has established an evacuation programme for refugees and migrants in Libya, where they are at serious risk of detention and human rights abuses, and where escape from the country by boat also presents them with enormous dangers. A safe and legal alternative has been found in an arrangement whereby the most vulnerable of these people are transferred to emergency transit centres in Niger and Rwanda, pending the time when other countries accept them as permanent residents.
Finally, proposals have been made with respect to the establishment of arrangements that would allow people who are at risk in their country of origin to move elsewhere in a safe and legal manner. For individuals and families, this objective could be attained by means of humanitarian visas issued by the overseas embassies of states that wish to provide sanctuary to people who are threatened in their homeland.
On a larger scale, orderly departure programmes might be established for designated categories of people who feel obliged to leave their own country and who might otherwise have no alternative but to move by irregular means. An important—but as yet unreplicated— precedent was set in this respect by a 1980s programme that allowed some 800,000 Vietnamese citizens to relocate to the US and other western countries with the authorisation of the Hanoi government, sparing them from the dangerous journeys that the “boat people” had undertaken in earlier years.
The potential of regular pathways
It is not surprising that the notion of safe and legal routes has attracted so much attention in recent years. They are in the interest of refugees and migrants, who would otherwise have to embark on difficult and often dangerous journeys. They are in the interest of states, who have much to gain from the orderly and authorised movement of people. And they are in the interest of international organisations that are struggling to respond to large-scale and unpredicted movements of people, and which are trying to ensure that human mobility is governed in a more effective, human and equitable manner.
At the same time, there is a need to scrutinise the popular assumption that such measures can substantially reduce the scale of mixed and irregular migratory movements, and to address the many difficulties and dilemmas associated with the establishment of such pathways.
Despite all of the rhetorical support given to the notion of regular pathways in recent years, the number of people who are able to access them is still very modest. And there are a number of reasons why they might not be scaled up to any great extent. First, the Covid-19 pandemic, which erupted unexpectedly not long after the GCM and GCR had been negotiated, caused many governments to act with a new degree of caution in relation to the cross-border movement of people. And while the pandemic has subsided, states may well prefer to retain some of the immigration restrictions they introduced in the context of the pandemic.
Second, and more recently, the need for states in Europe and beyond to admit large numbers of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine seems certain to limit their enthusiasm and capacity for the establishment of safe routes for people from other parts of the world. With many thousands of people from those two countries left without jobs and in temporary accommodation, the introduction or expansion of other pathways would simply exacerbate this problem.
While the admission of overseas workers appears to be a way of addressing the demographic deficits and labour market needs of the industrialised states, are the citizens and politicians of those countries ready to acknowledge the need to admit more foreign nationals, even if they arrive in a managed manner? Immigration has become a toxic issue in many of the world’s more prosperous states, and few governments or opposition parties are willing to run on electoral platforms that advocate an increase in the number of new arrivals from other parts of the world.
In the context described above, it should come as no surprise that most of the orderly pathway initiatives introduced in recent years (such as privately sponsored resettlement, humanitarian corridors, evacuation, and relocation programmes) have all operated on a modest scale and have often been established on a pilot basis, with no guarantee of them being expanded.
For example, when in 2021 the British home secretary introduced a new labour mobility programme for refugees, she boldly announced that “those displaced by conflict and violence will now be able to benefit from access to our global points-based immigration system, enabling them to come to the UK safely and legally through established routes”. In fact, only 100 Syrian refugees from Jordan and Lebanon will benefit from the programme over the next two years.
And the UK is not an isolated case. According to a recent study, in 2019 the OECD countries provided complementary pathways to fewer than 156,000 people from seven major refugee-producing countries. Two-thirds of them were admitted on the basis of family reunion, with the remaining third split equally between people granted visas for work and for educational purposes. That 156,000 constituted just 0.6 percent of the global refugee population.
Reducing irregular migration
Even if safe and legal routes could be established and expanded, what impact would that have on the scale of irregular migration? That is a difficult question to answer, partly because the evidence on this issue is so limited, and partly because it is methodologically challenging to establish causal linkages between these two phenomena, as demonstrated by two recent studies.
With respect to the German labour programme in the Western Balkans, one analyst has suggested that although the number of asylum applications from that region did indeed drop after the new initiative was introduced, “one cannot credibly single out the exact effect the Western Balkan Regulation had on reducing irregular migration from the region to Germany”. The author goes on to say that “the regulation was only one of many policy measures at the time, including many restrictive measures and faster processing times of asylum applications as well as the ‘closure’ of the Western Balkan route.” Consequently, “it is not possible to isolate the exact causal role the Western Balkan Regulation may have played.”
A case study of Mexico and the US reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting “there is evidence that lawful channels for migration between Mexico and the US have suppressed unlawful migration, but only when combined with robust enforcement efforts,” including the intensification of border controls that facilitated the apprehension and return of migrants crossing the frontier in an irregular manner. This conclusion on the close relationship between safe pathways and enforcement, shared by both studies, is ironic, given that some of the strongest NGO advocates for the former are most vocal in their opposition to the latter!
A more general review of the evidence on this matter also casts doubt on the notion that an expansion of safe and legal routes will necessarily lead to a reduction in irregular movements. Looking specifically at labour migration programmes, the study says that they are often proposed “on the basis of an assumption of a rerouting effect, whereby migrants who would otherwise arrive and enter the asylum system or stay in a country without legal status will be incentivised to try and access a legal work permit from home rather than migrate illegally.” But the validity of that assumption “will depend on the capacity of legal pathways to accommodate the number of low-skilled workers who want to migrate, but lack permission to enter their desired destination.”
That statement concerning the number of people who would like to or have been obliged to migrate but who have been unable to do so in a safe and legal manner is readily substantiated in numerical terms. Most estimates suggest that around 15 million irregular migrants are to be found in the US and Europe alone, with millions more in countries such as India, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. According to UNHCR, there are some 30 million refugees worldwide and more than 4.5 million asylum seekers who are waiting for their applications to be processed. A worldwide survey undertaken in 2018 concluded that some 750 million people, 15 percent of all the world’s adults, would move to another country if they had the opportunity to do so.
Given the growing demand for migration opportunities in poorer regions of the world, coupled with the general reluctance of the industrialised states to facilitate the large-scale admission of people who want to move there, it is difficult to see how this square can be circled. The most likely scenario is that the supply of opportunities for regular migration will be unable to meet the demand, meaning that aspirant migrants who are not selected for regular entry will still have a strong incentive to move in an irregular manner.
Indeed, it can also be argued that the establishment of safe and legal routes intensifies the social networks linking countries of origin and destination, enabling those migrants who move in a regular manner to inform the compatriots they have left behind of the opportunities that exist in the countries to which they have moved and to send remittances to people at home that can be used to pay the costs of a clandestine journey to the same location. In this respect, instead of reducing levels of irregular migration, the establishment of safe and legal routes might actually contribute to their growth.
Selection criteria and processes
In addition to the scale of the routes that might be established and their potential impact on levels of irregular migration, a number of other issues must be considered in the context of this discourse.
First, the notion of safe and legal pathways is based on the idea that states should control the arrival of foreign nationals on their territory, determining how many should be admitted, what countries they should come from, why they wish or need to move to another country, what their demographic profile is, and what skills they should have. In other words, for safe and legal routes to work effectively, states and other stakeholders have to establish selection criteria and processes that allow the admission of some people who would like to move, while refusing entry to others. This is not a principle accepted by some refugee and migrant advocates, for whom the notion of safe and legal routes has become a disguised proxy for “open borders”.
Almost inevitably, moreover, different constituencies within receiving states will be pushing for priority to be given to certain categories of people. Humanitarians will want the emphasis to be on refugees. Diaspora families and communities will favour family reunification programmes and community-sponsored resettlement. The private sector will argue the case for the admission of people with the skills and capacity to fill gaps in the labour market in a cost-effective manner. Universities will argue the case for visas to be granted to refugees and other foreign citizens with the necessary qualifications or academic aptitude. The selection process is therefore likely to be a contested and controversial one, potentially limiting governmental enthusiasm for the notion of safe and legal routes.
Status and rights
Second, as the attempt to regularise migratory movements proceeds, some important questions will have to be addressed in relation to the status and rights of the new arrivals and the organisation of such programmes. In the context of labour migration programmes, for example, would people be admitted on a temporary or permanent basis, and in the latter case would they eventually be able to acquire permanent resident rights or citizenship? Would they be tied to a single employer or allowed to move freely in the labour market? Would they enjoy the same pay, rights, and working conditions as citizens of the countries in which they are employed?
A somewhat different set of issues arises in the context of labour mobility initiatives for refugees. Will they be allowed to leave their countries of asylum by the governments of those states and, more importantly, would they be able to return to it if employed abroad on a temporary basis? As some refugee lawyers have mooted, would they be at risk of being deported to their country of origin, and thereby be at risk of persecution, if their country of first asylum refused to readmit them? And if they were readmitted to their country of first asylum, would they have full access to the labour market there, or find themselves returning to a refugee camp or informal urban settlement where only informal and low-income livelihoods opportunities exist?
With respect to privately sponsored resettlement, there is some evidence, especially from Canada, that refugees who arrive by this route fare better than those who are admitted by means of state-sponsored programmes. But there are also risks involved, especially in emergency situations where the citizens of resettlement countries are, for good humanitarian reasons, eager to welcome refugees into their homes and neighbourhoods, and where the state is only too happy to devolve responsibility for refugees to members of the community.
A particular case in point is to be found in the UK’s sponsorship scheme for Ukrainian refugees, in which some of the new arrivals have found themselves matched with inappropriate sponsors in isolated rural locations and with few affordable options available with respect to their long-term accommodation.
Third, the establishment and expansion of safe and legal routes could have adverse consequences if misused by destination countries. With respect to resettlement, for example, UNHCR has always insisted that refugees should be selected on the basis of their vulnerability, and not in terms of what the organisation describes as their “integration potential”.
That principle might prove more difficult to uphold in a context where alternative pathways are being discussed, specifically targeted at people on the basis of their skills, qualifications, language abilities, family connections and value to the labour market. Rather than expanding their refugee resettlement programmes, as UNHCR would like them to do, will destination countries prefer to make use of pathways that enable them to cherry-pick new arrivals on the basis of perceived value to the economy and society?
At the same time, there is a risk that states will use the establishment of organised pathways as a pretext for the exclusion of asylum seekers who arrive in an independent manner and by irregular means. That has long been the approach adopted by Australia, whose policy of interception at sea and relocation to remote offshore processing facilities is justified by the government on the grounds that the country has a substantial refugee resettlement programme. Rather than taking to boats and “ jumping the queue”, the authorities say, refugees should wait their turn to be resettled from their country of asylum, however difficult that might be in practice.
Taking its cue from Australia, the UK is in the process of establishing a formalised two-tier asylum system. On one hand, “bespoke” admissions programmes will be established for refugees from countries in which the UK has a particular geopolitical interest, most notably Afghanistan and Ukraine. On the other hand, the asylum claims of people arriving in the UK in an irregular manner, such as by boat across the English Channel (including those from Afghanistan and Ukraine) are now deemed inadmissible, and many of those arriving in this way are detained and liable to deportation to Rwanda without the possibility of returning to the UK, even if their refugee claim is recognised by the authorities in Kigali. At the time of writing, however, there is no evidence that this policy will have its intended effect of deterring irregular arrivals, nor indeed whether it will ever be implemented, given the legal challenges to which it is being subjected.
Finally, while much of the recent discourse on irregular migration has focused on the extent to which its scale and impact can be minimised by the establishment of safe and legal pathways, it must not be forgotten that many destination countries already have substantial populations of people who are officially not authorised to be there: so-called “illegal immigrants”, unsuccessful asylum seekers, and foreign nationals who have overstayed their visas, to give just three examples.
No serious attempt to address the issue of irregular migration can avoid the situation and status of such people, although questions relating to their regularisation, whether by means of amnesties or by other measures. have not featured at all prominently in the recent discourse on international mobility.
Interestingly, the GCM avoids the issue completely, presumably because it is deemed to be a matter that lies within the jurisdiction of sovereign states. If an attempt had been made to include the question of regularisation in the compact, it would almost certainly have been endorsed by fewer states. Nevertheless, any discussion of irregular migration must involve a consideration of those people who are living and working in countries where they do not have a legal status, as countries such as Spain, Ireland, and Italy have started to recognise. It is an issue that warrants much more attention at the national and multilateral levels, irrespective of its controversial nature.
A strong case can be made for the introduction and expansion of safe and legal migratory routes, as has been recognised by a plethora of recent initiatives relating to the governance of international mobility. But expectations of them should be modest.
While such routes may have a limited role to play in reducing the scale and impact of mixed and irregular movements, they appear unlikely to have the transformative effect that some participants in the migration discourse have suggested they might have. Such routes are also likely to be a contentious matter, with some states using the notion of safe and legal routes as a pretext for the introduction of draconian approaches to the issue of irregular migration, and with migrant advocates employing the same concept as a means of avoiding the more controversial slogan of “open borders”.
As indicated in the introduction, this essay has focused to a large extent on mixed and irregular migration from the global South to the global North, as it is those movements that have prompted much of the recent discourse on safe and legal routes. But it should not be forgotten that most migratory movements currently take place within the global South, and that some 85 percent of the world’s refugees are to be found in low and middle-income countries.
Looking at the migration and refugee scenario in the developing world, there are perhaps greater grounds for optimism than can be found by focusing on the industrialised states. With some exceptions (South Africa being a prime example), countries in the global South are less exercised by the issue of irregular migration.
Two regions—South America and West Africa—have established rather successful freedom-of-movement arrangements for their citizens. And despite some restrictive tendencies, encouraged in many instances by the externalisation policies of the global North, developing countries have kept their borders relatively open to refugees, as demonstrated by the presence of so many Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, South Sudanese in Uganda, Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon, and Venezuelans in a host of neighbouring and nearby states.
In an ideal world, the cross-border movement of people would indeed take place in an exclusively voluntary, safe, and orderly manner. But that scenario cannot be envisaged in an era that is characterised by failures of global governance, widespread armed conflict, growing regional inequalities, intensifying environmental disasters, and the climate crisis, not to mention the general unwillingness of politicians and the public to countenance large-scale immigration and refugee arrivals. Looking to the future, there is every reason to believe that large numbers of people will have to move out of necessity rather than choice, in an unpredictable and irregular manner.