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Migration as a Security Threat

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Certainly in the post-9/11 era, and arguably beginning at the conclusion of the Cold War, it is undeniable that the perception of security has changed. Namely, security is no longer merely characterized as the defense of territory against external state attack; rather, security also encompasses defending against threats stemming from external nonstate actors as well as several internal actors—ranging from substate organizations to individual schemers. Unsurprisingly, migration has risen to the forefront of security discussions, for migration is interconnected to all three of the aforementioned security threats: external states, external nonstate actors, and internal nonstate actors. Additionally, those who migrate often violate the laws of the sending and the receiving state alike, and since migration predominantly travels from undeveloped or developing states to the developed West, migration has become “a serious challenge to the long-standing paradigms of certainty and order” (Erdogan 2009: 1). Of course, one can attribute the rise in migration to a number of reasons, including the widening gap in development and prosperity between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ perpetuated by the capitalist systemic structure, or political instability in several undeveloped states, but the scope of this paper will be to examine why migration is treated as a security threat. However, there is a connection between why migration is on the rise and why migration is perceived as a security threat: above all else, a threat is perceived because the international community—and host countries in particular—are being forced to accommodate peoples who are, for a lack of a better characterization, culturally different than themselves. And while, for example, some host countries are eager to welcome migrants for economic reasons in the case of a labor surplus, the more common reaction that migrants are confronted with is a mix of skepticism and displeasure from the host government and populous. For a multiplicity of reasons, which will be discussed in more depth in the body of this paper, migration is treated as a security threat because it is perceived to threaten the stable order of the respective nation-state. Amongst other foreseeable developments, migration can threaten economic stability by artificially enhancing competition, social stability contributing to a rise in xenophobia or lack of integration, the homogenous welfare state philosophy, and internal security when migrants inevitably clash with natives (Goodhart 2004). Ole Wæver famously acknowledged, “by definition, something is a security problem when the elites declare it to be so”, but the interesting characteristic surrounding migration is that elites do not struggle to gain support for excessive security initiatives: the native populous, generally, dislikes migrants and categorizes migrants as “them” in opposition to a perceived “us” (Wæver 1995). Ultimately, migration does pose political challenges, but migration is only a major security threat insofar as the migrant and/or host is unwilling to integrate with the other party. Herein, Part I will consider the socially constructed distinction between “us” and “them”, Part II will hone in on the practical dilemmas that migration indeed causes, and Part III will consider some possible solutions to effectively accommodating migration.


Part I

            Naturally, people fear the unknown, so it follows that natives tend to exclude migrants. Similarly, when something in society has gone awry, migrants are often unjustifiably blamed—serving as a scapegoat for and suspending self-questioning of the “we”. Of course, this narrative is evidenced strongest in states that “particularly derive their identity and legitimacy from an ethnic version of nationalism”—whereas states that derive their identity from a civic version may welcome migration if migration promises economic growth and international competitiveness (Adamson 1998: 190). Nevertheless, the former narrative is more common because, as aforementioned, migrants are predominantly flocking from undeveloped states without skills—thus implicating that the only people they are going to compete with for jobs are the already poor and marginalized nationals. And even in liberal, civic, democratic states, such as the United States, Samuel Huntington has argued that many on the right feel that migration threatens to “undermine the country’s Anglo-Protestant heritage” (Huntington 2004). Alas, in all societies there will be a varying degree of reluctance in regards to allowing migrants to integrate.

            Multiculturalism is context dependent—dependent upon the perceptions and actions of the host and migrant communities. Collective identities are undoubtedly socially constructed, but some of these social constructions are so engraved in societal practices that the host populous practically considers some aspects of identity to be innate. France’s xenophobic policies—in an otherwise rather socially progressive country—are hard to explain if this were not the case, and as a result of such arrogant policy, the Arab and Muslim youth in France, and in similar examples, radicalize due to such unwillingness of the host to integrate. According to Amitai Etzioni, “legitimizing identity generates a set of organizations and institutions, as well as a series of structured and organized social actors, which reproduce the identity that rationalizes the sources of structural domination. Identity for resistance, leads to the formation of communities” (Etzioni 1993). In other words, communities are the byproduct of the perceived domination by others: communities are developed as a self-help support system—often times in opposition to, or at the very least to monitor, elites. The irony behind how this relates to migration is that the classes of natives that form ‘resistance communities’ against migrants are predominantly marginalized—essentially attempting to dominate the migrants in the same manner that they are dominated by elites. Rather, instead of ensuring the continuation of a vicious cycle, if natives and migrants with limited assets joined together to push for policy initiatives that benefited their similar situations, integration would be facilitated and perhaps mutually beneficial in many instances. Instead, the native masses usually do not welcome migrants—and elites proceed to casually remind the masses of their shared history, and allow the masses to do the job of ensuring that the two groups—native masses and migrants—will never join together to challenge their autonomy. Migrants are deemed ‘threats’ by the masses, and in some cases they can threaten access to low-skilled employment opportunities, but, generally, migrants can only be considered ‘security threats’ to the host nation if they integrated with the masses in a manner that sparked a revolution of the marginalized.  


Part II

            Contrary to a realist paradigm, while military threats remain pivotally intertwined with security, threats outside of military threats exist—nonstate and individual actors comprising a couple of these potential threats. And, as presented in Part I, threats can be perceived to exist even when a real threat may not be present. Nonetheless, although it is common for the masses to immediately “other” migrants without evidence for doing so, migration certainly does pose some actual security threats. It has already been said that migrants often compete for scarce resources such as jobs, housing, and public services, but additionally states, when attempting to increase the capacity of their border control, may be forced to cooperate with other states—thus pooling their sovereignty. Europe has served as a good example of how this can be done—dually in providing free movement within the Schengen Area and, in terms of a large-scale pooling of sovereignty, forming and enabling the EU—but many states are either unable or unwilling to pool sovereignty (MPI 2007). Accordingly, in cases where sovereignty is not pooled, security dilemmas ensue—often as a result of a high number of migrants destabilizing labor markets. Moreover, the dilemma is three-fold for the host government, host citizen, and migrant: the government is forced to make border control more rigid—running the risk of and often violating human rights—, citizens feel unprotected, exploited, and face tax increases that go towards funding ineffective policy, and migrants are treated inhumanely and frequently blamed by the host government and its citizens for problems that they have not caused. In addition, rigorous border control directly causes an increase in migrant smuggling and human trafficking. Ultimately, “governments have to uphold migration as a potential security threat”—otherwise they would not be justified in asking for more and more funding to strengthen border control and they would not be justified in blaming migrants for any social problems that may be occurring within the state (Faist 2004: 9). Unfortunately, and this will be further discussed in Part III when solutions are considered, increased border control seems to do more harm than good—especially in the case of the ‘war on terror’ that drastically reduced the rights of host citizens and migrants alike. In short, security threats can arise when governments overextend in labeling something a ‘potential security threat’; in turn, all parties are hindered and a security threat still exists—arguably stronger than before.

            Onward to situations in which states comingle—or at the very least interact—, there are a number of security threats that can arise for sending, receiving, and regional states. For example, a sending state may encourage citizens of certain ethnic or degree-of-wealth backgrounds to emigrate to a neighboring country in order to strengthen its own country and weaken a neighboring rival. Equally, a typical pattern is one in which a receiving country grants refugee status to persons fleeing an adversarial neighboring regime—in part as a means of maintaining a reservoir of opposition (Koser 2005: 19). Such developments—deliberate foreign policy tactics to make relative gains over a rival—creates the potential for retaliation, and transitively due to interdependence, affects regional stability and potentially threatens multiple states’ relationships with the receiver and sender with the prospect of direct or indirect intervention. Hence, in these instances spillover can occur and, as noted by Yannis Stivachtis, “refugees and guerillas often cross borders, and unstable élites seek to bolster their position by cultivating foreign threats” (Stivachtis 2008: 15). As such, unstable elites then call upon regional and global powers alike to put a stop to developments in rival states that the elites actually artificially ‘planted’. Gradually but surely, what was once a marginal domestic problem in a weak state—through forced migration—becomes a regional and perhaps even global security threat.

            Furthermore, diaspora groups can also greatly affect a state’s foreign policy and consequently its security threats—the obvious case being Jewish migrants in the United States lobbying for Israel’s security concerns to be synonymous with American security concerns. And for the most part, the United States obliges: resulting in security threats from the likes of Iran and Palestine that would not be as significant if diaspora groups had limited influence. After all, studies show that external threats are met with “belligerent solutions directed at the threatening individuals or group” (Coser 1956). And finally, in an alteration of perspective, actors can often have significant cross-border influence over the diaspora groups that affect domestic and foreign policy—examples include the Jewish population in the United States, the PLO in Lebanon, or the Taliban in Pakistan. In sum, migration is a symptom of ever-increasing interconnectedness; and, as is the case when things get closer and closer together, the potential for security clashes rises exponentially.


Part III

            As has been illustrated, migration is treated as a security threat because, in many respects, it is a phenomenon that does pose legitimate security threats. Actors can deliberately ‘place’ migrants in other states in order to cause problems, and equally migrants—like any other citizen—can choose to cause security problems of their own in support of an actor independent of the host state. In spite of this, enhanced securitization, border control, and “othering” scapegoat tactics have dominated the ineffective policy initiatives that have been implemented in response to the rise in migration. Rather, although this upcoming prognosis would force elites to be accountable for their actions regarding migration security, desecuritizing strategies that rely upon publicizing statistics that “convince natives that migrants are not dangerous” should be sought after (Echavarria 2010: 4). Obviously it is not feasible to eliminate the human disposition to categorize people into groups of “us” and “them”, but instilling the awareness that such fears of migrants are unfounded can only minimize the security threat of migration. Lastly, international cooperation between states should be effectively utilized whenever possible, and “agreements that combine migration policy with trade and development programs” such as The Cotonou Agreement whose aim is to promote sustainable development between Africa, the Carribean, and the Pacific have begun to surface (Kicinger 2004: 5). Australia also serves as a model example as their bilateral approach has a “focus on education and development [in countries migrants are coming from]” and “promotes regional dialogue and partnerships” (Koser 2005: 13-7). Since the trend is for migrants to migrate from undeveloped to developed lands, it follows that confronting the potential security threat of migration begins with cooperating to develop its source: the home country. And once the migrant is at the host’s doorstep, it is sensible for that government to treat the migrant with moderation; indeed, migrants can be a security threat, but only marginally moreso than a multitude of threats that would not have been deemed ‘threats’ prior to the contemporary state of such interconnectedness.


Adamson, F., “Crossing Borders International Migration and National Security”, International Security. 31. 1. (2006). 165-199.

Coser, L., The Functions of Social Conflict. New York, NY: Free Press. (1956).

Echavarria, J., “Migrants as Threats: How Security Discourses Define Self and Other”, Shelter Project. (2010). 1-4.

Erdogan, I., “Migration: As a Threat to Security?”, The Journal of Turkish Weekly. (2009).

Etzioni, A., The Spirit of Community: rights, responsibilities, and the communitarian agenda. New York, NY: Crown Publishers. (1993).

Faist, T., “The Migration-Security Nexus: International Migration and Security Before and After 9/11”, School of International Migration and Ethnic Relations. (2004). 1-19.

Goodhart, D., “Too Diverse?” Prospect. (2004).

Huntington, S., Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. (2004).

Kicinger, A., “International Migration as a Non-traditional Security Threat and the EU Responses to this Phenomenon”, Central European Forum for Migration Research. (2004). 1-10.

Koser, K., “Irregular migration, state security and human security”, Global Commission on Migration. (2005). 1-33.

MPI, “Europe’s Disappearing Internal Borders”, Migration Policy Institute. 20. (2007). 1-8.

Stivachtis, Y., “International Migration and the Politics of Identity and Security”, Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences. 2. 1. (2008). 1-24.

Wæver, O., “Securitization and Desecuritization”, Columbia University Press. (2005).



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