Foreign Policy Blogs

A Human Weapon: The Nexus of Immigration, Security, and Terrorism

The breadth and scope of the term ‘security’ is often problematic for policy analysts and political scientists. For better or worse, politicians of prior decades had the benefit of cut-and-dry definitions, most often based on war and nation. With the rise of jihadi violence and other amorphous international organizations, many define ‘security’ as survival vis-à-vis any existential threat, be it state or non-state actors. Expanding from this vague, all-encompassing treatment of ‘security’, there has been much discourse on the securitization of fields not previously identified as a ‘threat’. Particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, one area of increasing attention is immigration. Once portrayed as an economic and cultural concern, the ebb and flow of peoples across borders is being recast as a threat towards national security and survival. There are many motivations that may entice a political party, individual, or government to portray migration in a security-oriented context. Conversely, there are many reasons why one might seek to avoid the securitization of this particular field. Regardless of motive, there are lasting effects in both policy and populace in terms of immigration law and law enforcement.

The process of ‘securitization’ occurs when an issue is portrayed as an urgent, fundamental, and profound risk to society, thus requiring special, decisive treatment by leaders and the governing elite. The method through which migration can be framed in a security context is simple; the central thesis being that current immigration is a threat to society through violence, socio-economic failures, and divisions in cultural identity. Migration often arouses the greatest debate because it is the nexus of the government’s responsibility of international security and internal security. This places in to question the fundamental principles of borders, sovereignty, and citizenship. Put simply, immigration has become the new ‘focus for insecurity’ in many western nations. Why would politicians present migration in such a way? What are the benefits?

In terms of practical, policy-oriented benefits, there occurs a consolidation of power by the various security organizations. These agencies are now able to expand their influences and capabilities to the field of immigration policy. This can involve domestic surveillance, border restrictions, and increased policing powers. By framing migration as an existential threat to everyday life, security facets of the government are now able to operate beyond the strict limitations imposed on other endeavors, and are better equipped to deal with specific threats. This can be advantageous on many fronts. Western democracies often view migration (correctly or incorrectly) as a threat to state sovereignty by promoting informal economies (primarily through crime networks and illegal immigration), reducing the state’s capacity to operate as the unitary ‘control maximizer’ (the only party able to exercise physical control and security), and jeopardizing previously existing cultural identities. By placing migration in a security context, the state is now better able to pursue policies that will mitigate these ills; such as deploying the military to the border to reduce illegal immigration. Mobilization, increased legitimacy, power-consolidation, and the ability to pursue harsher policies can be quite beneficial to an administration that lacks in any or all of the four. However, securitizing migration can be problematic on many levels as well.

Critics of this process, such as Alessandra Buonfino of Cambridge University, help us to better understand the limitations and problems caused by securitization of migration. The fundamental contradiction, he argues, is that no government in the west (barring specific right-wing elements, often on the periphery) is advocating the closure of borders or the expulsion of immigrants; the economic necessity is simply too great. Thus, much of this process is only seen on a rhetorical and political level. In practice, not much in migration policy has changed since September 11th, 2001, as many would have expected. Political rhetoric based on fear of difference, with little to no tangible benefits for a weary public promotes an array of problems. It simultaneously decreases the population’s tolerance towards pre-existing migrants; while at the same time increases the population’s tolerance towards governmental abuse of said migrants. This creates further insecurity within the society, a willingness to ignore human rights violations, and an unrealistic, unattainable normative view of how the society ought to operate. Apart from the toleration of human rights violations, the securitization of migration can directly cause these infringements. Examples can be seen in Europe, where an estimated 2,500 immigrants, many from Asia, have died trying to illegally enter Europe in the previous decade. Ultimately, framing migration in a security-based, rhetorical context ‘increase(s) public fear of an already existing process”, and instills within the public an insecurity that can simply not be ‘fixed’ in our current globalizing world.

While securitization can have many advantages for the government and ruling elite, it yields very little benefit for the populace. Politicians are able to mobilize the public through fear and instability, which in turn leads to electoral victories. However, this rhetoric has very little effect on the actual policy that emanates from the victorious administration. In fact, while the increased usage of security terminology in connection with migration has been widespread since Sept. 2001, there has been very little change in policy. One long-term benefit that might exist for the general public would be the increased capability of counter-terrorism measures. These measures, however, would have no effect on the problems being associated with the current immigration policy, such as crime rates or job loss. One could make the argument that all of these developments would be acceptable were the threat from immigration real, and the promises capable of fulfillment. However, it is clear from history and current practice that the promises made on the campaign trail are far from the realities that exist afterwards. The economic necessity, particularly in an aging Europe, is too great to refuse entry to these immigrants. By framing migration as a security threat, the governments of many western nations are able to reap the benefits of a mobilized, loyal population whilst lying to a weary public of the dangers facing them. Thus, it is clear that there are many short-term benefits that a government can reap from posing the issue as such. It can maintain its rule, consolidate its power, and work more efficiently in related fields, such as counter-terrorism. In the long-term, however, the process of immigration will not stop, nor should it. The security context only promotes instability in a population that is increasingly polarized, and makes its citizens afraid of a phenomenon that is inescapable, necessary, and beneficial to themselves and their countrymen and women.



Josh Hammer

Josh Hammer is an International Relations theorist, with expertise in terrorist ideology, American foreign policy, and war / conflict resolution. He currently holds a Master's of Science degree in International Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the George Washington University. Josh's most recent work, his M.Sc. thesis, is a comparative analysis between Marxist / Leninist ideology and Osama bin Laden's global jihadi movement. He currently resides in New York.

Areas of Focus:
Terrorist Idealogy; American Foreign Policy; Conflict Resolution;