Frontiers and Threats: Should Transnational Migration Be Considered a Security Issue?

By Caryl Thompson - 20 November 2013
Frontiers and Threats: Should Transnational Migration Be Considered a Security I

Caryl Thompson asks whether transnational migration should be considered a security issue?

Scrutinize the curriculum of nearly any security studies postgraduate degree programme and you will invariably discover a litany of module options related to warfare, military strategy and intelligence, defence policy, terrorism and counter-terrorism. But does this adequately reflect contemporary real-world security issues? In this blog post I will examine how migration has increasingly been regarded as a matter of security by governments and in academic circles globally. I will briefly outline some of the ways in which migration may be considered a global security concern for states and for some migrants themselves. I will also examine how the issues are reflected in the different theoretical approaches to the migration-security nexus. Yet, I contend that there are also dangers in depicting migration as a “security” problem.

According to recent estimates by the UN, there are currently approximately 232 million migrants worldwide (from an estimated 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990). Globalization has not only accelerated the numbers of people migrating, but has led to an increase in the number of sending and receiving nations, and a greater diversity in the types of migrants, including an increase in female migration. Technological and communication advances such as cheap airfares and access to information via the internet has helped to facilitate increasing migratory movements.

The response of governments around the globe has been to introduce increasingly restrictive immigration regulations to control and manage who is allowed into their sovereign territory. Huge sums of money are spent “securitizing” borders, be it the construction of physical barricades, militarized technological security apparatus for maritime and border surveillance or attempts to “Stop the Boats” or encourage migrants to “Go home”.

Yet, while governments are busy securing their borders, the number of migrants fleeing their homelands as a result of threats to their personal security is increasing. With global forced displacement at an 18 year high according to the UNHCR, millions around the world live in stateless limbo, often as a result of a global failure to address humanitarian crises and meet international commitments, such as the UN Refugee Convention. The all too frequent, almost daily, reports of the tragic loss of life of those desperately fleeing conflict (see, for example, the recent Lampedusa boat disaster, the deaths of migrants in the Sahara, or the deaths of Rohingya off the coast of Myanmar) would suggest that arguably threats caused by migration are often greater to the human security of migrants themselves than to national security.

As a result of this increasingly globalized phenomena, according to some International Relations scholars, “International migration has moved to the top of the international security agenda...International scholars and policy makers are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore the relationship between migration and security in a highly interconnected world defined by globalization processes” (Adamson, 2006:165-167). Yet, human migration has taken place since time immemorial and has not always been considered a threat – in fact, quite the opposite, especially historically,to settler societies such as, for example, Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Undoubtedly, the increasing transnational interconnectedness and interdependency resulting from globalization has led to increased flows of people across national borders.

Within the academic field of security studies, it has been argued, that there has been “a tectonic conceptual shift in immigration research...since the late 1980’s, with a disproportionately large and growing number of studies framing migration as a security issue” (Alexseev, 2006:6). The duality of threats apparently caused by migration to both national sovereignty and human security are largely reflected in much of the recent academic literature. Approaches to migration as a security issue vary considerably depending on who or what is considered to be threatened.

Migration as a security issue has remained largely peripheral to traditional International Relations approaches, such as neo-realism, which focuses on the security of the nation state in an anarchical international system and regards security issues largely as external military threats from other states. However, some within the field have adopted a state-centric position to the issue of migration and security and are closely aligned with traditional realist International Relations theory, but acknowledge that non-state actors, in this case migrants or at least certain categories of migrants, can pose a threat to the autonomy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the state with the potential ability to cause disputes or even conflict between countries. A variation on this “state-centric’ approach was introduced via the “securitization’ framework of the Copenhagen School, which broadened the range of threats to include not only military but economic, political, environmental and societal threats and who addressed the migration/ security nexus in their "Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe" (1993). Studies that place the state or society as the referent object of security have often sought to establish or contest the levels of threat manifested by the range of pernicious activities that migrants are frequently accused of (often misleadingly) by politicians and in the populist press - invading borders, burdening health, education, welfare and social services, endangering health, escalating crime, generating unemployment amongst the local workforce by competing for jobs and causing wage deflation, placing additional strains on housing and jeopardising the language, culture and social values of host societies as well as transnational issues such as human trafficking and terrorism.

An alternative approach to migration as a security issue has been to place the migrant as the referent object of threats and assess the human security aspects of migration. The structural violence that causes many to migrate, the impact of deportation and detention policies and the hazards to personal safety of migrants resulting from the increasing reluctance of states to offer sanctuary to those genuinely in need are just some of the aspects of the nexus between migration and human security.

However, it could be argued that labeling migration as a security threat is potentially harmful as it reifies an issue that is not intrinsically threatening. By describing migrants as threats they become constituted as a dangerous “other”, leading to anti-immigrant sentiments and increasing xenophobia, an all too apparent phenomena in many contemporary societies. Moreover, it ignores the significant economic, social and cultural contributions that migrants make in their adoptive countries and the significant financial contributions that they make in their home countries through remittances. Paradoxically, much of the growing body of academic literature examining the economic, political and societal security threats allegedly caused by migration often put forward arguments and empirical evidence that support the view that the actual level of threat is significantly less than that perceived by the public, espoused by political rhetoric or manifested by the growing security apparatus that is being introduced to control it.

In summary, migration as a security issue is complex and contested. Those who do consider it a security concern debate the nature and level of the threats it poses, and who or what is threatened. However, depending on one’s ontological position it is arguable whether it should be considered as a security issue at all. Perhaps if migration wasn’t labeled as a security threat, we could have a more balanced, honest and less alarmist public debate about it.


Caryl Thompson is a Doctoral Researcher in the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies in the School of Politics & International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She is currently located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she is undertaking research at the University’s Malaysia campus.


Adamson, F. B., (2006), "Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security". International Security, 31: (1): 165-199.

Alexseev, M. A. (2006). "Immigration Phobia and the Security Dilemma", (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Wæver, O., Buzan, B., Kelstrup, M. & Lemaitre, P. e. (1993). "Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe", (New York: St Martin's Press).


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