When is Migration a Security Issue?

Khalid Koser
Khalid Koser Executive Director - Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund

March 31, 2011

While from many perspectives the present situation on Libya’s borders is a clear humanitarian issue, in this space last week Beth Ferris explained that the prospect of large-scale migration as a result of the crisis in Libya is also perceived as a security issue in Europe. This perception has only heightened since her comments were published, as the first significant waves of Libyans and migrants working in Libya have now arrived in Lampedusa, Italy – some 2,000 on 27 March alone – adding to over 15,000 people, mainly Tunisians, who have arrived since the beginning of the year. In response, the Italian Government has temporarily suspended transporting migrants from Lampedusa to reception centers in Sicily and on the mainland, and the European Union’s border management agency, Frontex, has extended its support to Italy’s coastguard and border authorities until August. Meanwhile, countries that neighbor Italy, including Switzerland, have begun to move personnel and equipment to these borders to reinforce them against the possibility of large-scale migration from North Africa.

The securitization of migrants and migration is nothing new: German citizens resident in the UK were interned there during World War II on the grounds that they may have been ‘fifth columnists,’ while Kurdish and Algerian diasporas were associated with terrorist attacks in Western Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. But the perception of migration as a threat to national security has certainly heightened in recent years, in part as the security agenda has become more prevalent across many aspects of policy, and in part in response to the rapid rise in the number of international migrants (214 million in 2010 according to the International Organization for Migration) and especially of ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal’ migrants (estimates vary from 30-50 million worldwide).

Labeling any issue a security threat has significant implications in terms of the laws, norms, policies, and procedures that become justified in response. In the migration context, for example, the label has been used to justify greater surveillance, detention, deportation and more restrictive policies. Such responses in turn can impact the migrants involved, for example, by denying asylum seekers access to safe countries, driving more migrants into the arms of migrant smugglers and human traffickers, and by contributing to a growing anti-immigrant tendency among the public, within the media, and in political debate in many countries.

Given such consequences, it is worth asking whether, and if so when, migration really does represent a threat to national security.  Common responses to this question are that migration can be a vehicle for importing terrorists and criminals, or for spreading infectious diseases. These are dangerously misleading perceptions, but nonetheless widespread. First, there is very little evidence from any country in the world that there is a greater concentration of terrorists, potential terrorists, or criminals among migrant populations than among local populations. Similarly, only in very exceptional circumstances have migrants been found to be carriers of diseases that threaten to infect significant numbers of people. Second, imputing migrants with tainted intentions without substantiation risks further antagonizing public attitudes towards them. Third, to focus only on these extremes risks diverting attention from circumstances where migration can actually pose a threat to national security.

Irregular migration, for example, can legitimately be viewed as undermining the exercise of state sovereignty, as any state has the right to control who crosses its borders and is resident on its territory. It is worth observing that the majority of irregular migrants worldwide have not crossed a border without authorization, but rather remain or work without authorization. Still, failing to control and manage migration risks undermining public confidence in the integrity of government policy. The burgeoning migrant smuggling and human trafficking industries can pose a genuine threat to law and order, especially where they are related to organized crime and intersect with the movement of illicit goods, including weapons and drugs. In this case, it is not the migrants, but those who take advantage of them, who are criminals.

The arrival of large numbers of migrants, especially from very different social or cultural backgrounds than the receiving communities can also pose serious challenges to social cohesion. This can have practical implications for states, for example, regarding the allocation of resources as well as more conceptual implications regarding models of integration and national identity. Migrants can compete with locals in the labor market, especially during periods of recession, and thus become magnets for resentment. Where significant numbers of people are settled in a restricted area for a long period of time, as is the case in some refugee and IDP camps, they can have a detrimental effect on the local environment.

In other words, migration can be a threat to national security, but not usually for the reasons normally assumed. The threat is not systematic, but instead arises in particular circumstances. This could be where migration is irregular, occurs on a large scale, brings together groups of people with very different backgrounds or little previous contact, takes place during a period of recession, and so on.

Arguably some of these circumstances now pertain to Southern Italy: arrivals are irregular; and they take place against the backdrop of a stuttering economy. Significant challenges confront the Italian government and local authorities in Lampedusa, Sicily, and Southern Italy today, for example as regards accommodating the migrants and trying to distinguish the refugees among them. On the other hand the numbers are still relatively small – although there are genuine concerns about far greater numbers in the near future, most of the migrants originate in countries with close historical, political, and social links with Italy, and they being settled in reception centers and with no access to the labor market. Neither can it be argued that the arrival of migrants in Lampedusa really represent a serious threat to any country in Europe beyond Italy.

The question is whether viewing the current migration crisis through a security lens is likely to promote the most effective responses. As Beth Ferris has suggested, it is more accurately considered a humanitarian crisis, comprising migrants in need of assistance and refugees in need of protection. The threat to human security is still far more real than any threat to national security.