Beyond the Shadows: Unlawful Migrant Workers in Australia



Time to read

5 Minutes

Post by Marie Segrave. Marie is an Associate Professor in Criminology at Monash University, Melbourne, she leads the Trafficking and Slavery Research Program, is a Deputy Director of the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre.  Marie’s research and publications primarily focus on the intersections of mobility, regulation, abuse and exploitation: in particular on trafficking, labour exploitation and slavery-like practices, as well as the intersections of gendered violence and migration law and regulation. Her most recent book is Sex Trafficking and Modern Slavery: The Absence of Evidence, with Sanja Milivojevic and Sharon Pickering, published by Routledge (2018). This is the first installment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Transforming Borders From Below, organised by Marie Segrave and Nancy A. Wonders. The series includes short posts written by international scholars who discuss and develop ideas contained in articles published in a special issue of Theoretical Criminology on Transforming Borders From Below: Theory and Research from across the Globe.

In 2011, I interviewed three men in Immigration Detention in Australia, all of whom had been detained for overstaying their visa and were awaiting removal. One of them had been working in Australia for seven years as a car mechanic and when he spoke of his family I asked if he had seen them over the course of his time in Australia and how he managed the distance and separation. He explained that every year his family- his wife and children- came to Australia for a holiday, and they would have a summer holiday exploring Australia together. In that same interview, I asked the three men about coming to work in Australia on a tourist visa, as they all had, with the intention of working and whether the knowledge of being unlawful impacted their daily lives. The response was as follows:

P1: Just depends on your luck, you can stay one year, you stay, you can stay five years, ten years, depends how you stay, you know.

P3: it’s not a big problem for us – if we get busted, we go back - we go back, it’s not a big deal. (11 December 2011, Immigration Detention, 3 male workers)

This interaction led me to think much more about the experience of living and working in Australia as someone who is ‘unlawful’. Building from this conversation, I developed a project that sought to focus specifically on worker experiences of labour, migration, exploitation, and regulation as well as the experiences of employers, law and migration enforcement and policy. This was the focus of a project undertaken across Australia between 2014 and 2018.

In this blog I draw on my recent article published in Theoretical Criminology, as part of the special issue: Transforming Borders From Below. Much of the work of border criminology scholars has focused on the restrictive, negative impacts of border control practices. While this is important, exclusion cannot be the only lens through which experiences are understood and framed. Daily life for many non-citizen migrant workers who are working without the legal right to work (as overstayers, undocumented workers or lawful migrants whose visa does not grant work rights) is also characterized by their experiences of being part of a community and being productive workers, valued and remunerated to varying degrees. I explore this by drawing on and extending the concept of differential inclusion, developed by Mezzadra and Neilson.

The concept of differential inclusion, at its essence, captures the dynamics of borders and bordering practices- where exclusion and inclusion are simultaneously produced. As that interview excerpt from 2011 highlighted, while law and law enforcement seek to exclude unlawful noncitizens - this is never full achieved. Many of those who are excluded via law, are in fact included in communities to varying degrees every day until or if, they ‘get busted’. Through examining the strategies and sites where differential inclusion occurs, the aim was to bring to the fore how non-citizens (workers) and citizens (in this case, employers) alike ‘can transform the intention of law and policy to exclude and create alternative spaces and forms of inclusion and, indeed, protection’.

As part of the project, I spent time in Victoria and New South Wales, travelling to meet with unlawful noncitizens to talk about work and living in Australia in 2016. I spoke with 50 people about their experiences, conducting focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. I write about sites and strategies of differential inclusions that occur in three areas I focus on: non-citizen or migrant worker networks, the workplace and the broader community, including both public and private spaces designed to be accessed by all to obtain goods and services and to facilitate various forms of social interaction. For this blog, I focus on the site of the public and private space of community.

Every migrant worker I spoke to was well aware their migration status made them targets for non-payment and poor treatment and most had experienced this kind of exploitation. Yet while being unlawful was omnipresent and exploitation occurred, participants spoke about the ordinary experiences of working, shopping for necessities and travelling. Differential inclusion was as a strategy of necessity: ‘in the everyday practices of being a consumer and a member of a community (which may range from attending church to accessing public spaces) inclusion is both experienced and practiced by unlawful migrant workers.’ (Segrave 2019)

Participants did not talk about hiding away from the community or living in the shadows: they often sought to be invisible while being part of the everyday life and practices of any community- shopping, going to church, going to a club. Safety and invisibility are never absolute: they are temporary and shifting, but simply being in public spaces, being unchallenged and engaged as consumers, customers, participants in events, drivers on the road are strategies of inclusion that counter the exclusionary intent of internal bordering practices.

Why does this matter? For border criminologists, there is an affirmation for the importance of continuing to look beyond the physical border and to bring to the fore the subjective and experiential aspects of lives that can be portrayed as existing in the ‘shadow’ of exclusion, that are in fact filled with daily everyday encounters with and experiences alongside those who are privileged as formally welcomed and included migrants and/or those who are citizens. This highlights how unlawful migrant workers live and work successfully within the constraints of illegality. There is no sign, no physical demarcation that renders this exclusion via the administrative determination that someone is unlawful, immediately knowable. Many of us are dependent on and engage with unlawful migrant workers without knowing this- they are customers, fellow road users and church goers, another person on the street and in this invisible everydayness are in fact, subverting the exclusionary practices and intent of the state that seek to identify and deport. Exclusion is predominant in state infrastructure for migrants deemed low skilled, and low priority: unlawful migrants are the worst of these, they are the people ‘taking our jobs’. Yet, there is the reality of inclusion simultaneously on offer, as evidenced by unlawful migrant workers everyday experiences of living and working in Australia.


This research was funded by the Australian Research Council via a Discovery Early Career Research Award, for the research project entitled, The exploitation of unlawful migrant labour: Regulation, exploitation, vulnerability (ARC DE1411279).

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Segrave, M. (2019) Beyond the Shadows: Unlawful Migrant Workers in Australia. Available at: (Accessed [date])

Found within

Migrant workers
Border criminologies


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