Migration and Illegitimate Institutions



Most studies of the role migration intermediaries play in facilitating the access and the stay of illegal migrants in Europe focus on smugglers or NGOs as they are the most controversial channels through which migrants enter and settle illegally in the European countries. There has been little discussion of the role established local institutions play in the settlement of illegal migrants in Europe, sometimes under the influence of NGOs, while often acting independently, and following their own purposes.

Sociologists and political scientists call these institutions, “bastard institutions” which distribute illegitimately goods and services to illegal migrants. Motivations for their actions are diverse. They could express protest against the social or political order, business interests or religious solidarity. These illegitimate actions could be carried out by legitimate actors, or by illegitimate actors rendering legitimate goods and services. Everett C. Hughes, who coined the term “bastard institutions”, defines the latter as “chronic deviations from established institutions or other kinds of escape from the legitimate channels. There are chronic deviations and protests, some lasting through generations and ages…they operate without the benefit of the law, although often with the connivance of the legal establishment. They may lie outside the realm of respectability. Some are the illegitimate distributors of legitimate goods and services, others satisfy wants not considered legitimate. Among bastard institutions are gambling, prostitution, rackets, black markets (of babies, food, and foreign exchange), crime, etc”.[1]

It is argued, here, that these illegitimate actors participate in the networking and settlement of illegal migrants in Europe, with three disruptive effects. First, illegitimate institutions disrupt European societies through a series of criminal activities and informal economy: illegal migration, fake documents, smuggling, etc. establishing a dangerous social mistrust and affecting legitimate institutions as well. Second, they disrupt and sabotage state laws and policies towards migration. Third, they encourage illegal migration in the sending countries, in which large groups of people are vulnerable to rumours, albeit they are safe and stable in their homelands, taking the highest risks to come to Europe, because they believe, once on the European soil, they “could get help”.

It is worth mentioning that these institutions are engaged in providing services and goods to irregular and regular migrants. However, our focus, here, will be laid on how these institutions benefit from and to illegal migrants.

  1. Illegitimate institutions and their roles in the migration process

In the study of illegal migration, few researchers investigated what they call “bastard institutions” or illegitimate institutions. For example, Broeders and Engbersen described them as follows:

There is the emergence and existence of several informal and illegal markets in the spheres of work, housing, relations, and documents. These informal markets can be classified as “bastard institutions” or “parallel institutions”. These are illegitimate institutions in which we can see the same social processes going on that are to be found in the legitimate institutions…  These bastard institutions are developed by irregular migrants, regular migrants, and native citizens in response to the demand that is created by restrictive legislation and the large demand for cheap labor, illegal housing, (false) documents, partners, and so on. Bastard institutions are essential for the travel and residence opportunities of irregular migrants and are very hard for the central state to control. As such, they are archetypical examples of foggy social structures that the state instruments of surveillance and identification have difficulty penetrating. Moreover, there are some indications for a growth of the informal economy in highly developed OECD countries ….[2]

Ruben Hernandez-Leon, working on Mexican migration to the USA, also considers the migration industry as a bastard institution. In his view:

The migration industry can be conceptualized as a bastard institution in that such industry, its actors and infrastructures provide alternatives to state sanctioned mobility across international borders. Often deemed illegal by states, the migration industry as bastard institution enjoys varying degrees of legitimacy and support from migrants, employers, migration entrepreneurs and other actors of the social field of international migration.[3]

Other researchers such as Daniel Veron offered a detailed description of “bastard institutions” in France which work with illegal migrations in the fields of employment and housing. For instance, some illegitimate institutions allow parallel access to employment, especially: “undeclared casual work, street vending, up to access to the legal labor market, often via temporary or daily work agencies – a set of institutions  whose porosity in their different levels of formalisation are strong”.[4]

  1. Black Market work

All over Europe, a prosperous shadow economy employs migrants in underpaid jobs. It is a complex social and economic phenomenon in which different institutions are involved, some of them are legal while others are illegal. Some shadow companies, especially transnational or mobile ones, benefit from the absence of control borders within the EU, and loose social policies to hire people for underpaid jobs, in temporary periods, a win-win situation for undocumented migrants, unable to find permanent jobs through legal procedures. Other employers in seasonal agriculture or restaurants use the lack of control and the complicity of authorities to exploit workers, who are usually on mobility (for example, in Greece, Spain and Italy) or join ethnic restaurants (Turkish, Indian, Syrian, etc.)

A report by Rossana Cillo and Fabio Perocco published ten years ago by the European Commission, estimates the informal economy in Western Europe to be around 20% of the GDP.[5] They also asserted that in „2007 at least 600,000 immigrants in possession of residence permits and 2,320,000 retired persons worked without any type of contract, while at least 6,000,000 regularly employed workers held second jobs without contracts”.[6] The report has identified three sectors in which illegal migrants are employed: construction, domestic/care work and agriculture, noticing that in most cases, informal economy is related to some sector of formal economy[7], and therefore, formal economy outsources and benefits from informal economy, and consequently from illegal migration.

In Finland, press reported that “numerous asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants are being paid no more than a couple of euros an hour for cleaning shops, schools and activity centres, and cooking and washing dishes in restaurants with greater Helsinki alone is believed to be home to hundreds of asylum seekers who are employed in the shadow economy”.[8] Such economy is not temporary, but years of illegal migration and disposition of a stock of employable migrants, led to the establishment of “a permanent underground labour market in Finland”.[9] Helsinki Times reported several cases of migrants, including one “who has appealed the decision to deny him asylum in Finland, revealed that he has worked in a restaurant in Helsinki for more than six months for an hourly wage of 2.5 euros. He typically works six to seven days a week, often as much as 12 hours a day”.[10]

A more shocking data was revealed in Germany where “thousands of migrants are exploited as illegal workers, underpaid or face poor working conditions, estimating between 10 and 50 percent of refugees work illegally in states including Niedersachsen and Berlin”.[11] Thus, the Willkommenskultur could be just a cover of a low-cost shadow economy that would support a formal economy. Germany has made it recently possible for asylum seekers to work. However, there is no gain for Germany to employ migrants in the formal economy with similar salaries to those of native Germans. Formal economy employs few migrants whose skills are needed. As most migrants are not qualified for formal economy, vulnerability pushes some migrants to take any job on the black market, in any conditions and with any salary possible.

Migrant shadow economy benefits as well to transit countries such Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey. Migrants, being on the move, accept any work at any conditions to collect money to pay smugglers or the trip. Employers are aware of these fragilities and exploit them. A research by Stefan Seifert and Marica Valente in the southern Italian regions of Sicily and Apulia argues that:

In the 2011 post-Arab Spring migration wave, over 64,000 migrants landed on the southern Italian coast, with many of them potentially working illegally on farms through caporalato, a widespread system of illegal recruitment of underpaid farm labour run by Italian agrimafias[12]. Based on a dynamic panel data model, labour productivity is estimated to increase by about 11% on average for 2011 and 2012. We show that this corresponds to a total of around 10 million unreported work hours, or 21,000 full-time employees, in each year. We interpret this as an increase in employment of illegal workforce due to the migration wave”.[13]

Migrants are usually aware of the conditions of work in the shadow economy. Many of them are well-informed and join immediately the places of work with low salaries, while some of them prefer to work in ethnic business (Turkish restaurants, etc). for lack of qualification or language skills, as these salaries are compared to those they could get in their countries of origin. Logically, many migrants would prefer, after they obtain a residence permit, social welfare, to feeding a shadow economy.

  1. Prostitution

According the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), “migrants account for 65 per cent of sex workers in western Europe”.[14] In 2014, a controversy erupted when asylum-seekers in Ireland, still at the asylum centres, practiced prostitution, justifying it with the low allowance they were offered.[15] A sex worker at an Irish asylum centre said that “in the UK and many other places, cuts and austerity are driving women into prostitution – that’s the reality and what we hear is that our only way of survival, by selling sexual services, should be criminalised, leaving us even more destitute”.[16]

There is a reason why criminalisation has been suggested as a dissuasive measure. Far from being a matter of survival, prostitution involves established criminal local networks who know well the territory, the access to clubs, sex shops, and other similar places, can avoid police and authorities in general, and can offer protection from persecution. Migrants, on the other hand, cannot embark in sex selling unless trusting the local network, either because they share the same origin or common connections. Thus, demand and offer are interrelated and each agent benefits from this illegitimate business.

A report by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK about sex workers in the UK justifies migrant prostitution by a series of arguments such as “working in the sex industry is often a way for migrants, especially if undocumented or partially documented, to avoid the unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in the low skilled jobs available to them, such as: waiting in restaurants and bars, cleaning, food packaging etc.”,[17] or “working in the sex industry can also be a way to minimise the risk of being subject to deportation, when undocumented”[18] or “by working in the sex industry, many migrants are able to maintain dignified living standards in the UK while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin”.[19] However, the report acknowledges that many migrants in the prostitution business “underlined that the combination of the stigmatisation of sex work and lack of documentation made them more vulnerable to violence and abuse from customers, which is an exception to relations usually characterised by mutual consent and respect”.[20]

  1. Pro-migrant citizen initiatives

These initiatives could be taken by leftist associations or political parties, mobilising few people with similar ideological or political views on migration or could be endorsed by students or neighbours who, then, create ad hoc support committees, which claim support for migrants, but do not have any immediate political agenda. The latter are more frequent while the former are better organised and mediatised. When leftist parties are in opposition, the frequency of such pro-migrant initiatives is higher, which they use as an instrument to put pressure on right wing parties, to agitate the political debate and to gain popularity (assuming that they are more ethical than the right wing parties). Both initiatives, partisan and non-partisan, led by associations or independent citizen initiatives, could be considered as illegitimate institutions in the sociological and the legal sense as both prevent police from implementing law, and create parallel communities although in a democratic society people are free to express their contestation of governments policies. It could be, however, considered as a “bastard political instrument” if it uses democracy to contest state law or sabotage public security.   

In the recent weeks, two of such initiatives have been observed in France and Belgium respectively. First, the French Communist Party, which is a marginal political force in France, similarly to other leftist parties (even the Socialist Party does not play right now a central role in French politics), organised a human chain to protect and support illegal migrants near a migrant camp in Aubervilliers (Seine-Saint-Denis) where thousands of migrants are camping in tents and under the risk of expulsion.[21] This initiative attracted around 40 people, a limited number after all; it is illegitimate as it protects illegal migrants rejected by the law of Asylum and immigration submitted by the French government in April 2018 to the Assembly. For the actors behind this initiative, there is no migratory crisis, but only a crisis of welcoming.[22]

A much larger initiative was taken in Brussels, when a human chain of a thousand people surrounded the Maximilien Parc, a camp of migrants, in May 2018. The initiative was taken by the Plateforme citoyenne. It is an association with a pro-migrant political agenda, but the people who formed the chain are mostly simple citizens.[23] The Plateforme citoyenne insists that “although it has proved its worth, the Platform does not wish to take the place of the Belgian State, which has a series of obligations towards asylum seekers according to European and international regulations. Nevertheless, the momentum of solidarity towards the people forced to flee and the awareness of the flaws of the Belgian migration policy remain”.[24] That is to say, it is aware of the illegitimate action it generates. It is, however, from the standpoint of the Belgian federal government a distortion of truth: these migrants staying at Maximilien Parc are transmigrants, who want to join the UK, waiting for better conditions to cross the border.[25] As the police attempts to exclude illegal migrants from public places and/or arrest them, the human chain prevents it from doing its work when the human chain opposed a major police action planned on Sunday 21 January, 2018 to arrest illegal migrants in the area of the Gare du Nord and Maximilien Parc.[26]

To illustrate how these citizen pro-migrant initiatives help illegally migrants and form a parallel smuggling economy of migrants, let us consider the following testimony by Medhi Kassou one of the activists of the Plateforme citoyenne:

“This mobilization was still a success. For us, it’s a success, what is important is to remember that there is always this mobilization, that we are a group of 40,000 people, that we count 5000 hosts, drivers … who oppose this migration policy. Here, the conclusion is that we will still ask for a meeting with the Prime Minister, to oppose him with very logical arguments on the investments made in repression or police intervention. We made a quick calculation: 130 places were released this last week, just to lock transmigrants. It costs 192 euros per day and per person. This represents 25,000 euros per month, we are ready to invest 25,000 euros simply to lock up people where it costs four times cheaper to welcome them, so we will expose these arguments and hope for more structural solutions”[27]

The fallacy of this argument is that it forgets, in the first place, that the state applies the law and has the resources to enforce it. When a state applies the law, it ensures order, and cannot avoid applying the law because it is costly, knowing that an illegal migrant will cost to social security much more and that a welcoming migration policy is a self-defeating policy as can one observe in Germany. As illegal mass migration infringes on the law, and in particular it threatens public security, the normal reaction of any state is to protect its citizens, although some argue that illegal migration is a civil violation, not a criminal offence. Still, it is a threat to public security.

  1. Housing

Housing has been one of the earliest social problems in connection to migration in Europe: dispersal or regrouping, insalubrity and contagion, slum production and reproduction, management of mobility and insertion in the city, etc.[28] It gave rise to a shadow economy of housing, where locals rent to migrants insalubrious and cheaper flats, without informing the authorities. Usually, documented migrants take advantage of the new-comers, proposing accommodation without the basic needs. For example, in France, press reported that:

A couple who took advantage of the migrants’ distress was arrested in Seine-Saint-Denis. They housed the undocumented migrants in eleven unhealthy apartments in the neighbourhood of Pantin and received cash payments. Large sums of money were found at their home. An Indian lived in an apartment of 14-square-meter with two other people. The walls are decrepit and the bed on the floor. The rent requested by the owner is 500 euros per month. They threatened the migrants to call the police if they do not pay, or they change the locks. Some apartments would be even unhealthier and accommodated nine or ten occupants.[29]

In any case, one can expect such housing mafia to develop since the “welcoming governments” of illegal migrants overlook the fact that the latter cannot obtain a proper accommodation either because it is expensive for them, or because they are undocumented. In addition, accommodation is particularly expensive in the major cities of Western Europe, except in the neighbourhoods inhabited by migrants, where the flats are often unhealthy. In such neighbourhoods, insalubrious housing added to unemployment lead often to illegal economy, including drugs, which is an evident factor of insecurity. This is the case of the neighbourhood Kalliste in Marseille where it was reported by French media that:

“A hundred migrants live in an insalubrious building. The mayor suspects the existence of a mafia network. Samia Ghali, the senator of the Bouches-du-Rhone in a letter sent on January 12 to the Secretary of State to the Minister of Cohesion of the territories said “In the neighbourhood Kalliste, if you do not intervene, Marseilles will be like brother of Calais”. Since last summer, a hundred migrants settled in an insalubrious building in the city of Kalliste, in the 15th arrondissement of Marseille. They were a dozen at the start but every week new people arrive. This decrepit building has been demolished for nearly seven years as part of the city’s urban renewal program. The owning company, Marseille Habitat, bought the majority of the condominium’s apartments at prices lower than those of the market. Some residents refuse to sell their homes at the proposed rate. Thirteen families live together with migrants who have taken their place in the empty and abandoned apartments”[30]

Infomigrants also reported that the “local residents living around the Kalliste projects are uncomfortable with the developing situation with some even claiming that they live in fear.  The residents also blamed migrants for damaging the building, especially as there is no electricity or heating in these apartments, with some saying that the situation is going to explode.[31]


Whether operating as networks of insalubrious housing, pro-migrant initiatives, prostitution or black market employment, illegitimate institutions play a vital role in the settlement of illegal migrants in Europe. It is, however, a win-win situation in which both the illegitimate institutions and the illegal migrants make a profit. Moreover, informal economy benefits to and from the formal economy. Therefore, one can pose the question on the interests the pro-illegal mass migration actors put forward. Illegitimate institutions or “bastard institutions” as social scientists, call them, have social assets and local anchors in the European societies, and explain, in part, the need for illegal migration.

This study contributes to our understanding of the functioning of parallel societies. The principal implication of this study is that parallel societies are not only created by migrants, but are an outcome of complicity between some sectors in the host societies and the illegal migrants. The former’s business and interests flourish in the fragile conditions of illegal migrations. These results suggest several courses of action for the future: the rejection of illegal migration not only protects legal institutions and society from parallel/criminal societies, but it is also ethical in that it refuses to exploit illegal migrations.

[1] Everett C. Hughes, The Sociological Eye, London and New York, Routledge, 2017 (reprint of the edition of 1971), pp. 98-99.

[2] Dennis Broeders and Godfried Engbersen, „The Fight Against Illegal Migration: Identification Policies and Immigrants’ Counterstrategies”,  American Behavioral Scientist 50 (12), 2007, p. 1597.

[3] Ruben Hernandez-Leon, „The Migration Industry as a Bastard Institution”, available at

http://www.antiatlas.net/tag/migration-industry-en/ (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[4] Daniel Veron, „Cartographie de la frontière et topographie clandestine”, Hommes et migrations 1304,  2013, p. 21.

[5] Rossana Cillo and Fabio Perocco, “Migrant Labour in the Underground Economy: Between Processes of  Irregularization and  Informalization”, p. 12. available at: https://ec.europa.eu/…/migrant_labour_in_the_underground_economy_1.pdf (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Rossana Cillo and Fabio Perocco, “Migrant Labour in the Underground Economy”, 38.

[8] HS: Migrants earning few euros in shadow economy

http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/finland/finland-news/domestic/14698-hs-migrants-earning-few-euros-an-hour-in-shadow-economy.html  (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[9] Idem.

[10] Idem.

[11] Thousands of refugees exploited as illegal workers in Germany: report


[12] Seifert and Valente call agrimafias „Italian agricultural firms in the south of Italy which recruit and exploit underpaid workforce”.

Stefan Seifert and Marica Valente

An Offer that you Can’t Refuse? Agrimafias and Migrant Labor on Vineyards in Southern Italy, p. 2.

https://www.diw.de/documents/publikationen/73/diw…/dp1735.pdf (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[13] Idem.

[14] “Don’t criminalise us, protect us,” say Europe’s migrant sex worker

https://www.equaltimes.org/don-t-criminalise-us-protect-us?lang=en#.Wx7Nc0MrXfw (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[15] Idem.

[16] Idem.

[17] ESRC releases first findings on “Migrants in the UK Sex Industry”

http://www.sexworkeurope.org/es/news/icrse-past-articles/update-esrc-releases-first-findings-migrants-uk-sex-industry (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[18] Idem.

[19] Idem.

[20] Idem.

[21] Paris: le parti communiste organise une chaîne humaine en soutien aux migrants http://www.leparisien.fr/paris-75019/paris-le-parti-communiste-organise-une-chaine-humaine-en-soutien-aux-migrants-28-04-2018-7688427.php (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[22] Idem.

[23] Chaîne humaine autour du parc Maximilien: “Accueillir les migrants coûterait moins cher”

https://www.rtbf.be/info/regions/detail_une-chaine-humaine-d-un-millier-de-personnes-autour-du-parc-maximilien?id=9916962 (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[24] Plateforme Citoyenne: Qui sommes-nous ?

http://www.bxlrefugees.be/qui-sommes-nous/ (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[25] Chaîne humaine autour du parc Maximilien: “Accueillir les migrants coûterait moins cher”

https://www.rtbf.be/info/regions/detail_une-chaine-humaine-d-un-millier-de-personnes-autour-du-parc-maximilien?id=9916962 (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[26] Parc Maximilien: 2500 personnes forment une chaîne humaine en soutien aux migrants

http://www.lalibre.be/actu/belgique/parc-maximilien-2500-personnes-forment-une-chaine-humaine-en-soutien-aux-migrants-5a64d31dcd70b09cefc82ae5(last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[27] Chaîne humaine autour du parc Maximilien: “Accueillir les migrants coûterait moins cher”

https://www.rtbf.be/info/regions/detail_une-chaine-humaine-d-un-millier-de-personnes-autour-du-parc-maximilien?id=9916962 (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[28] Claire Lévy-Vroelant, „Migrants et logement : une histoire mouvementée », Plein Droit 1,  2006, p. 5.

[29] Seine-Saint-Denis : un couple arrêté pour avoir loué des logements insalubres à des sans-papier

http://www.rtl.fr/actu/justice-faits-divers/seine-saint-denis-un-couple-arrete-pour-avoir-loue-des-logements-insalubres-a-des-sans-papier-7778889909  (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[30] Dans une cité du nord de Marseille, la situation d’un groupe de migrants inquiète

http://www.infomigrants.net/fr/post/7218/dans-une-cite-du-nord-de-marseille-la-situation-d-un-groupe-de-migrants-inquiete  (last accessed 17 June, 2018).

[31] Idem.

Photo: Ekathimerini