Legal vs irregular migration: Case studies from Poland and the US

On October 30th 2023, the College of Europe in Natolin hosted a seminar titled: “Two Case Studies in New Trends in Global Migration”. Two experts – Patryk Kugiel, a researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, and Jennifer Babaie, Director of Legal Services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center – were invited to discuss two migration patterns on the rise: South Asian migration to Poland and the pushbacks on the US-Mexico border. While the first trend has developed in recent years in a context of relative legality, the second has attracted increasing attention due to the US administration’s efforts to criminalize and disincentive it. Overall, despite the clear differences between the two migration patterns, both interventions focused on the general trends and criticalities of both approaches, sparking a lively debate on the governments’ migration policies.

South Asian Migration to Poland: A new legal pattern on the rise

The seminar commenced with Patryk Kugiel shedding light on a relatively recent and less recognized migration trend towards Poland and Central and Eastern Europe. Over the past decade, there has been a significant rise in the influx of migrants from South Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. This dynamic surge has positioned them as the third-largest migrant group in Poland, following Ukrainians and Belarusians. Notably, the largest contingent within this group is made up of Indians, totaling over 16,000 individuals as of September 2023. Primarily driven by young working-age individuals, mostly men in the 20-39 age range, this trend is characterized by their reliance on temporary residence permits. Initially concentrated in major urban centers, there has been a noticeable shift over the last few years with a more widespread distribution across Poland – which serves as an indication of the growing integration of this demographic into Polish society.

This new migration pattern has boomed between 2015 and 2017 and has kept rising until now. Indians – whose entry numbers have skyrocketed between 2021-2022 – are leading this trend, and today their number in Poland is seven times higher compared to ten years ago. The exception to this general trend is Afghani nationals, whose numbers have surged only in 2021 in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, and who are relying largely on refugee status rather than temporary residence permits. This novel type of migration is transforming Poland from a net emigration to a net immigration country. In 2022, it has become the third migration EU destination for Indians – after Germany and Ireland – despite its administration being not very active in issuing Schengen visas compared to other EU countries.

Indeed, as highlighted by Kugiel, the surge in migration to Poland has occurred despite the policies implemented by the previous government. Although the Law and Justice (PiS) party assumed power in the wake of the so-called 2015 migration crisis with the promise of curbing such inflows, the actual situation seems to diverge from its rhetoric. Therefore, to comprehend the drivers of this upswing from 2015 onwards, it is necessary to examine two primary factors: the demographic challenges faced by Poland and its economic success. Uninterrupted GDP growth since the 1990s on the one hand, and Poles’ emigration, low fertility rates, and an aging population on the other, have created a large demand of workforce in Poland, which is not controlled by the state but rather by the market. This in turn has attracted migrants from, inter alia, South Asia and has led to a rise in legal entries.

Pushbacks on the US-Mexico Border: Examining expedited removals and detention center conditions

In the second part of the seminar, Jennifer Babaie shifted the attention to the US-Mexico border, which has been at the center of contentious debates regarding immigration policy and the treatment of migrants. In particular, the seminar has focused on three key points: first, the practice of pushbacks by the US government, second, the increasing use of expedited removals as part of the Biden Administration’s “Asylum Ban”, and last, the conditions in detention centers for migrants.

The practice of pushing back migrants at the border has been increasingly drawing attention from critics and human rights advocates. While aiming to maintain border security and control over the flow of migrants, the means to achieve them raise concerns about their impact on individuals’ rights and safety. Pushbacks often – if not always – result in asylum-seekers being returned to potentially dangerous situations in their home countries without due process. Moreover, this practice has faced criticism for failing to adequately address the root causes of migration while only putting at risk the protection of vulnerable populations.

In the context of pushbacks, a tool much used by the Biden administration has been the one of “expedited removals”. This legal process to fast-track deport unauthorized migrants without a hearing before a judge has been on the rise ever since the Clinton Administration introduced it in 1996. However, these proceedings have received a new lease on life since the Biden Administration promised to “enhance” expedited removals, while de facto introducing new programs to speed up proceedings and step up punitive conditions.

Expedited removals are a part of a larger plan launched by the Biden Administration known as the “Asylum Ban”. While in the 2020 election campaign, Biden had promised he would roll back the harsh migration policies adopted by Donald Trump, once in power he has not delivered, and some argue that he has even contributed to the worsened conditions for people trying to enter the US. Although the plan aims to replace Title 42 introduced by Trump, it recycles many of the measures of the previous administration, first and foremost, the “third country transit ban”. This rule would bar asylum for anyone who has transited through another country without applying for and being denied asylum there first. This new rule presents several issues. On the one hand, the transit ban would de facto violate the historical right to seek asylum upon reaching US soil. On the other, when paired with expedited removals, this ban increases the likelihood of refoulement, since the risk of being subject to danger in the country of origin will not be assessed thoroughly as long as the home country accepts the migrants’ deportation. Nowadays, this is the basis in countries such as Mexico and Venezuela.

Lastly, the seminar has brought attention to the issue of conditions of detention centers along the US-Mexico border. Overcrowding, lack of basic necessities, and inadequate healthcare have raised concerns about the treatment of migrants held in these facilities. While the Biden administration has taken steps to address some of these concerns, challenges persist. A comprehensive approach to detention center conditions would involve increased funding, improved oversight, and efforts to reduce the number of individuals held in these facilities. Alternatives to detention, such as community-based supervision, could be explored as a way to alleviate the strain on the system and provide migrants with a more humane experience.


To conclude, this seminar has juxtaposed two very different migration trends – one predominantly legal and another irregular – as well as the different approaches adopted by the governments of Poland and the US. Nevertheless, the South Asian migration to Poland offers a compelling lesson that could be instructive for the US administration: a higher prevalence of legal migration tends to reduce irregular entries. This thesis aligns with the principles outlined in the Global Compact for Migration, ratified by the UN General Assembly in 2018 – a pact opposed by the US delegation, not by coincidence. However, the fact that since then the new US administration has still not changed course in its migration policy appears worrying, and one can only aspire that the Polish scenario might serve as a positive model for future policymakers.

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