Why do we use the term ‘irregular migration’ and can it be translated?

By Edanur Yazici and Bridget Anderson.

The term ‘illegal immigration’ is often used in discussions about immigration but is widely agreed to be pejorative, misleading, and stigmatising by scholars, refugee and migrant groups, and across the third sector. Instead, ‘irregular migration’ has become the preferred term, especially in Europe. However, this term can be confusing and unclear – especially when translated into different languages, as we are doing in our work with the PRIME Project to understand employers’ use of migrant labour.

As one employer told us: ‘I can’t give an answer to this, I don’t know. I just don’t know the difference between regular and irregular.’

This post looks into how we define irregular migration in different contexts and examines the challenges and insights gained from translating the term into five languages in a survey of employers.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Surveying employers: defining irregularity

Choosing and defining a term is political, and what is chosen might not always be clear to everyone. There is increasing recognition that ‘who counts as a migrant’ is very uncertain: is a ‘migrant’ defined by their citizenship, how long they’ve stayed in a place, or their intentions to remain? In addition, in migration studies, there’s an increasing recognition of the critical role race plays in how we understand migration. This perspective considers how border policies and practices contribute to the construction of racial identities. Additionally, it emphasises that the term ‘migrant’ itself acts as a form of racialisation.

This uncertainty around the term migration, as well as its association with race, is compounded by the term ‘irregularity’ and other frequently used descriptors such as ‘illegal’, ‘undocumented’ and ‘sans papiers’. These descriptors, including ‘irregularity’ (the term we adopt in PRIME) do not describe a fixed category. They are instead ambiguous, contested, and exist on a spectrum. Types and degrees of irregularity are continuously shaped and reshaped by various stakeholders, including policymakers, migrants, and employers.

The PRIME Project is working to explore how national and sector-specific institutions shape employers’ engagement with migrant labour. As a part of this we are conducting a survey of employers to find our about their labour needs. Before launching the survey, we ran a three-stage pilot. We used the pilot to understand how employers think about migration and what terms make the most sense to them. All pilot respondents employ migrant workers and most of them have contributed to national-level policy debates on migration. Piloting the survey highlighted key issues with terminology and translation. Below, we describe what the pilot asked employers about and how employers understood the terms chosen.

How do employers understand the term ‘irregular migration’?

To start with, we need to understand what employers think about when they describe ‘irregular migration’ and how they understand irregularity.

Our pilot survey asked respondents to tell us who they thought would be categorised as ‘irregular’ and gave them a list of descriptions such as ‘a worker who entered the country illegally’ and ‘a worker who is an asylum seeker.’ Of the pilot respondents, all but one said that they didn’t know.  

We revised the question to ask who they would ‘describe as an illegal migrant’ (with the caveat that ‘defining who is an “illegal migrant” can be complicated’), and this was considered much more accessible.  While more readily understood, the decision to use terminology that has been rejected as stigmatising poses its own set of ethical and definitional challenges. In particular, it raises the question of how migration scholars communicate their ethical and political standpoints to audiences who may not always share their preferred terminology when conducting research.

Who is a citizen?

To analyse factors shaping how and why employers recruit (irregular) migrant workers, we also need to understand how and why they employ non-migrant workers. To do this, we need to understand how employers think about different categories of citizenship and belonging. Different national assumptions about this became evident in the translation.


In the UK English language version of the survey we piloted, we asked: ‘Do you find it difficult to recruit workers with British citizenship?’. All pilot respondents reacted negatively to this phrasing, variously suggesting that we use ‘domestic workers’, ‘workers within the UK’, or ‘national workers’ instead. One respondent suggested PRIME might distinguish between ‘native British citizens’ and ‘British citizens who are foreigners’.

We reformulated the question to ask: ‘Do you find it difficult to recruit British workers?’. This particular wording reveals the different ways that migration status and race intersect. Who, for example, are respondents likely to imagine when asked about ‘British workers’ and what alternative assumptions would have been made if we had decided to use ‘national worker’ or ‘domestic worker’ – each with their own particular nativist underpinnings?


The term ‘Swedish workers’ (Svenska arbetstagare) presented a problem for the survey in Sweden. One pilot respondent suggested re-phrasing the question to ask about ‘workers born in Sweden who speak Swedish as their mother tongue’. This suggested re-phrasing carries assumptions about place of birth and linguistic ability as intrinsically related to ‘Swedishness’. Swedish official categories add another layer of complexity, particularly for comparative international research. Official terms used by state actors in Sweden are: ‘foreign background’ (a person born outside of Sweden or born in Sweden with two foreign-born parents) and ‘Swedish background’ (a person born in Sweden with one or two parents also born in Sweden). Foreignness, birth, and background each point to how the state and official agencies relate to race, migration, and citizenship, each with distinct implications for how irregularity is conceptualised across different national and sectoral contexts. 

The terms Austrian/Italian/Polish workers were not problematic, but the term ‘migrant worker’ raised queries.

Who is a ‘migrant’ worker?


In Polish, ‘migrant worker’ was translated into ‘foreign worker’ rather than ‘migrating’ or ‘migrant’ worker. In Polish ‘foreign worker’ (pracownicy cudzoziemscy) is more readily understood and the alternative ‘migrant worker’ risks being confused with ‘migrants’, which some interpret as non-citizens and others interpret as Polish citizens who have returned to Poland having been migrant workers in other countries.


As in Polish, in Italian, ‘migrant worker’ was translated to ‘foreign workers’ (stranieri/e). This was preferred because it is the term used by the Italian Statistical Institute. As in the Swedish context, the adoption of state-sanctioned terminology has implications for conceptualising ‘migrantness’ and ‘foreignness’. These differing conceptualisations are exposed by translation. In this way, the process of translation itself becomes a site of data collection.


Decisions made about translation and what they communicate about national and institutional contexts are also evident in word choice. In the Austrian context, three variations of the German for ‘migrant workers’ were piloted before settling on a term (migrantische Arbeitskräfte – which roughly translates to migrant worker) that respondents would feel relatively comfortable with.

Looking forward and implications for research

Translation highlights how we attempt to strike a balance between familiarity for respondents and accuracy and ethics for researchers. It opens up questions about the constraints and limitations of methodological nationalism, current academic orthodoxy, and the way the vernacular shapes how we think and know.  

Designing, translating, and piloting the PRIME Employer survey has helped us think through some of these challenges. As we move forward with data collection and analysis and later use survey findings to begin qualitative data collection, we will no doubt encounter barriers and opportunities when conceptualising (ir)regularisation and researching the intersection of race and migration status.

As the study progresses, we will continue to reflect on what our linguistic and methodological choices mean for how we understand and ask for irregularity. We will interrogate what has informed our choices and question how respondents have reacted to them.

Can you help us connect to employers?

The PRIME Employer survey is open until July for employers and labour providers in Austria, Italy, Poland, Sweden, or the UK working in any of the following sectors:

  • agriculture and food processing;
  • older adult care;
  • restaurants; and
  • waste management and recycling sectors.

If you know an employer in the categories above who would be willing to share their experience, please ask them to complete the survey here:

In English | In German | In Italian | In Polish  | In Swedish

Edanur Yazici is a Research Associate on the PRIME Project based in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, co-PI of the PRIME Project and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol.

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