The securitization of migration in Western societies: Ambivalent discourses and policies.

Author:Ceyhan, Ayse

What shall we become now without the barbarians?

Those people were a solution, weren't they?

  1. Gavafy, "Waiting for the Barbarians"

The last decades of the twentieth century were marked by a dramatic change led by the development of globalization, the enhancement of transnational flows, and the end of bipolarity. The construction of the European Union, the emergence of new economic agreements such as NAFTA, the deterritorialization of markets, physical borders, and identities, the increase of migration flows, the construction of the Schengen area, (1) and the fragmentation of major states (e.g., the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) have raised questions about many old assumptions, including those made about Westphalian state sovereignty and identity. These phenomena significantly affected the forms and the meanings of borders, individual and collective identities, and the sense and nature of state sovereignty and authority. In the meantime, these changes have recast the domestic order, challenged traditional structures, modified social arrangements, transformed the forces of integration and fragmentation, and accelerated the dynamics of inclu sion and exclusion. In consequence, Western societies are witnessing the emergence of many existential and conceptual anxieties and fears about their identity, security, and well-being. As Martin Heisler asserts, (2) migration is at the focal point of the interrelated dynamics of identity, borders, and orders. By its transnational character, its dynamic, and its impact on people and institutions at all levels, migration is perceived as posing a serious challenge to the long-standing paradigms of certainty and order.

One of the prominent features of Western societies in the post-bipolar era has been therefore the production of a discourse of fear and proliferation of dangers with reference to the scenarios of chaos, disorder, and clash of civilizations. It is easily noticeable in the public sphere that the fear is mainly about the different, the alien, the undocumented migrant, the refugee, the Muslim, the "non-European," the "Hispanic." These different expressions converge on the figure of the migrant, which appears as the anchoring point of securitarian policies and fierce public debates that gained momentum in the 1990s.

Because of the widespread publicization of preventive and repressive immigration policies, a politics of fear was generally considered as being developed specifically in the European context and not in the United States, which was presented as being more tolerant and open to migration. But the production of similar discourses and the adoption of securitarian policies in the United States as well, made it difficult to argue the singularity of Europe. Indeed, although with differences in social and economic contexts as well as in immigration and integration policies, both the EU countries and the United States have been marked, since the 1980s, by a reversal of the image of migrants and asylum seekers in the public space. In both cases, migrants, who were welcomed after World War II as a useful labor force, are now presented in political discourses as criminals, troublemakers, economic and social defrauders, terrorists, drug traffickers, unassimilable persons, and so forth. They are demonized as being increasi ngly associated with organized crime. They are accused of taking jobs away from nationals, taking advantage of social services, and harming the identity of host countries.

Introduced in public debates as a political hot-button topic, migration is thus transformed into a threat not only to the state but also to the security and the identity of the host society. What is important to stress here is that through such a presentation, the migration issue, which was not at the origin inherently securitarian, became one involving new actors and leading to stricter public policies and to new surveillance and control devices. More specifically, it implied the escalation of immigration-control policies mixing restricted "thin" and extended "thick" policing at the border, inside the territory and in migrants' countries of origin via the implementation of a tough visa system. (3) The lumping together of all people who cross the border involved a policy of amalgamation of migrants and asylum seekers, and this led to the perception of migrants as only economic-benefit seekers and to the weakening of the legal status of the asylum seekers. In fact, such a perception conceals the multiple dyna mics of coming and going, being here and there, settling, moving, and leaving. (4)

Why, among the many important social issues in public discourses, is immigration placed at the first rank of social problems to be dealt with? Why is it automatically associated with unemployment, poverty, crime, social exclusion, discrimination, and racism? Why does this issue not disappear from the political debate but--as has occurred strikingly in France--keep on attracting the public attention? (In France, since 1982 immigration legislation has been amended fifteen times up to now.) Why in both the EU countries and the United States does the demonization of immigration lead to the tightening of external border controls despite discourses of globalization and open markets? Several free-trade regimes (e.g., the World Trade Organization) include provisions on the free circulation of service workers as part of the liberalization of international trade and investment. Why is the existence of these provisions little known even among experts on economic globalization and immigration?

According to Murray Edelman, it is possible to assert that a social problem is not a verifiable entity but a construction depending on different interests, and that its explanation must be considered in terms of a process of social construction rather than forming a set of refutable proposals. For Edelman, social problems are created with the precise intention to convince public opinion to accept specific rationalizations. (5) Since the 1980s, migration has become the catalyst supposed to be able to summarize most of the current social problems of Western societies. By a sidestepping of the nonsecuritarian insights of economic, social, and cultural analyses, immigration is now apprehended under the nearly exclusive angle of securitarian and identitarian preoccupations.

The securitization of migration is processed through symbolic politics and implies the transformation of the logic of control and the surveillance of people entering and living inside the territory. Moreover, it involves new discursive strategies and semantic creations.

Securitization Through Ambivalent Arguments

The securitization of migration involves a symbolic process and the deployment of a corpus of rhetorical arguments. It is interesting to notice that the rhetorical arguments put forward in almost all anti-immigration discourses are more or less similar, with various strategies of argumentation according to different contexts and public policies. Often produced by politicians, security agencies, and the media, these arguments are usually articulated around four main axes:

  1. a socioeconomic axis, where migration is associated with unemployment, the rise of informal economy, the crisis of the welfare state, and urban environment deterioration

  2. a securitarian axis, where migration is linked to the loss of a control narrative that associates the issues of sovereignty, borders, and both internal and external security

  3. an identitarian axis, where migrants are considered as being a threat to the host societies' national identity and demographic equilibrium

  4. a political axis, where anti-immigrant, racist, and xenophobic discourses are often expected to facilitate the obtaining of political benefits

Each of these axes is marked by ambivalence.

Some discourses put forward the threat that illegal immigration might constitute for the economy of the developed countries, and they point out its negative impact on employment opportunities and wages for nationals as well as on the welfare system and education. They associate illegal immigration with increase in unemployment and the intensification of the exclusion of many social groups. Moreover, these discourses closely link migrants with informal labor. But the supporters of these theses overlook the fact that the influx of such a cheap and easily exploitable labor force allows the achievement of certain short-term economic goals, such as reduction of production costs, increase of exports, and the economic survival or even the development of many firms.

This complex economic function of migration seems to have been often taken into consideration by politicians--as is clearly suggested, to give one example, by efforts to repress immigration: the repression of illegal migrants does not always match what is expected of the employers who use the migrants, even if the employers are sometimes at the origin of the illegal trafficking. And in general, the repression of the informal labor source is yet quite weak in most Western countries.

Finally, the socioeconomic arguments also do not acknowledge the important role that legal migrants can play in the safeguarding of current welfare and social-security systems threatened by the ageing of Western populations.

On the securitarian axis, the demonization of immigration relies on the fear of a loss of sovereignty, the fear of crime, and the fear of the weakening of border controls. These fears provide a powerful narrative and, as Peter Andreas reminds us,

the stress on loss of control understates the degree to which the state has actually structured, conditioned, and even enabled (often unintentionally) clandestine border crossings, and overstates the degree to which the state has been able to control its borders in the past. (6)

To resettle the symbolic representation of state authority in today's context of globalization and deterritorialization...

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