International migration is increasingly being viewed through the prism of national security.
Linking migration and security is not new – overseas nationals were interned in the UK and the USA during the Second World War, for example, and certain diaspora organizations were associated with terrorist attacks in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s.
But the link is more widespread today than ever before, in the media, in political statements, and in popular discourse. Some of the reasons may be the increasing number of migrants worldwide and their increasing diversity, as well as a general preoccupation with security in the post 9/11 era.
Perhaps more than any other area of migration, unsubstantiated myths abound with respect to the security implications of migration, for example that migration imports ethnic tensions or potential terrorists, that migrants pose health risks to the societies in which they settle, or that migrants are disproportionately involved in criminal activities. Worldwide there is virtually no evidence to support these assumptions. Nevertheless they are pervasive and they need to be confronted.
In response, one of the work streams of the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD) focuses on migration, security and development, with the aim to develop a better understanding of these linkages in order to dispel some of the myths, and equally focus policy attention on areas where there may be genuine concerns.
What has become clear even at the early stages of our research is how politically sensitive this debate is. For many commentators and advocates it is unacceptable even to conjecture about links between migration and national security.
Certainly we are aware of the risks of securitizing migration.
First, there is the risk of ‘blaming the victims’, by ostracizing still further people who may have fled for their lives, endured arduous journey, and face discrimination in destination countries. When looking at the security aspects of migration, we should not forget that it is often the migrants who are at risk or flee for safety reasons.
Second, there is the risk of fuelling media hype and public sentiment against immigration, and also mobilizing further support for political parties that are currently making capital from opposing immigration.
Third, there is the risk that labelling migration as a national security issue may be used to legitimize extraordinary responses in order to overcome the risk. It may be argued that border enforcement, detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants, and accelerated return procedures, are all examples of security-led responses to a largely humanitarian issue.
But the myths will never be exploded or the misperceptions corrected without research. We are currently studying eight different case studies, covering different migrant categories and different concepts of security, in order to try to articulate a more informed debate about migration and security.
And there may be circumstances where migration does indeed pose a risk for national security, for example where large-scale irregular migration challenges the exercise of sovereignty, or human trafficking intersects with other criminal activities, or massive refugee settlements impact in the local environment.
To deny the possibility that sometimes migration may have security implications, is as narrow-minded as assuming that migration has become a critical threat to national security. Our KNOMAD project seeks to provide a sound empirical basis for an objective discussion on migration and security.