What is human migration

Immigration, Displacement and Asylum: Current Issues

Christiane Fröhlich

Dr. Christiane Fröhlich is a research associate at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies. Her research interests include peace and security, research into the causes of flight, forced migration in the context of political and ecological crises, and the effects of the North-South conflict on human mobility.

As a rule, people flee their country of origin in order to find safety. However, their safety during and after their escape is often further threatened.

Search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast west of Tripoli in early 2018. The migration process itself can also be marked by violence. (& copy picture-alliance)

Migration movements [1] have received increasing attention for some years, especially when it comes to immigration from the Global South to the Global North. A distinction is usually made between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" (or "legal" and "illegal" / "irregular") migration. The migration of highly qualified people and the flight from violence and political persecution protected by international law are usually considered "legitimate". On the other hand, immigration is seen as "illegitimate" by people who leave their country of origin due to difficult living conditions, structural disadvantages and lack of prospects. At the same time, migration is increasingly associated with (a lack of) security, among other things in the host societies. The underlying security understanding is central here: Who or what should be protected from whom or what? [2] The various answers to this question form the basis for very different policies towards immigrants.

State understanding of security

In current political and media debates about migration - not least in Germany - a state-oriented understanding of security prevails. The typical characteristics of states - national people, national territory, state authority - are the focus when it comes to who or what should be protected. In addition, a "state" or (imagined) "cultural nation" is often seen as "worthy of protection". Depending on which of these two exemplarily chosen terms you look at, it is, for example, a community of belonging that is defined by the political characteristics of a society (e.g. democracy, rule of law) or by a common language, religion or culture. Where an understanding of security dominates that focuses on the state, the immigrant can be perceived as a threat to various elements of a state and immigration in general as a threat to the common culture and society of the host country. This can currently be observed in right-wing populist and xenophobic parties across Europe. The view is exclusively inward, i.e. directed towards one's own safety. The security of immigrants plays a subordinate role - if at all.

Human security

On the other hand, there is the concept of human security, which focuses on the individual instead of the state. [3] The aim here is to "secure" people, regardless of individual characteristics such as nationality, skin color, age, gender or state of health. This understanding of security focuses on the security of the immigrants themselves. In the sense of Johann Galtungs [4], security is understood as the absence of physical, psychological and structural violence. Structural violence - a concept that is not undisputed within violence research - is the result of social conditions. This is an understanding of violence that sees individuals or groups exposed to various inequalities and discrimination based on structural categories such as age, gender, state of health, nationality or religion. This in turn can mean that they are denied access to opportunities for social participation and basic services, so that their elementary human needs are not met. Structural violence limits the possibilities for development and self-realization. This understanding of violence opens up the view for social injustices in the national, regional and global context and thus reasons for flight that cannot be traced back to direct acts of violence carried out by clearly identifiable actors. As part of a structural understanding of violence, it would also be possible to include structures of violence that are not taken into account in the definition of refugees in the Geneva Convention, for example, patterns of violence in places that are generally classified as "safe".

From the perspective of a security concept that primarily focuses on human security, migration can be viewed (1) as an escape from violence, (2) as a violent process in itself, and (3) as a path into violence. All three aspects are explained below.

(1) Escape from violence
The reasons for migration and the decision-making processes involved - who goes where, when, who stays? - are complex. In order to understand migration that is caused by violence, it is necessary to examine who is perpetrating the violence that leads to migration. Are they state and / or non-state actors? What forms of violence are used and which do they cause migration? The spectrum ranges from armed conflicts and political persecution to social and socio-economic structures that enrich political elites but make it increasingly difficult for the rest of the population to survive. Another relevant question is when a level of violence or insecurity will be reached that leads to migration, and who will ultimately migrate. Because many people would perhaps like to migrate due to the security situation in their country, but do not have the necessary means. These are the so-called "trapped populations". [5] Their immobility increases their vulnerability.

(2) Migration as a violent process
Leaving a country where your own life is threatened or where there are no prospects for the future does not automatically mean an increase in security. Instead, the migration process itself can be characterized by violence. Crossing borders, crossing the Mediterranean and the political economy of human trafficking can be seen as just as violent and unsafe as the situations that people try to escape through migration. What violent structures can be found, for example, on the boats that people use to cross the Mediterranean? What systems of violence are in place in reception camps? To what extent are attempts to isolate themselves from migrants through restrictive border regimes in connection with experiences of violence in the migration process? These are some of the questions that an analysis of the conditions of human security in the process of migration brings to the fore.

(3) Migration as a route to violence
On the migration routes and at the places of arrival of migrants, political orders emerge both between the various actors who are entrusted with the protection and care of immigrants and between the various groups of migrants themselves. [6] The dynamics of power in refugee camps, for example, are largely determined by the socio-structural composition of the residents. They cement previously existing inequalities and social hierarchies, which in turn contain structural violence. In addition, the basic needs of the residents are met in reception camps, but other fundamental rights, such as freedom of movement, are lost. Actors who are entrusted with humanitarian aid for refugees or their protection should take this into account in their work so as not to perpetuate structures of violence if possible.

Finally, migration can also be a trigger or be instrumentalized for violent structures, processes and practices. For example, the simultaneous flight of hundreds of thousands of people across the Mediterranean with terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, among others, has led to xenophobic, Islamophobic and racist opinions have become (again) socially acceptable in Europe. The fear of terrorist attacks is often used as an instrument to criminalize male migrants in particular and to force a stricter EU immigration policy. This is happening even though neither crime statistics nor research confirm the picture of a dramatic crime trend as a result of the influx of refugees in 2015/16. [7]

In addition, due to the international legal situation (not least) some reasons for fleeing and thus some people seeking protection are seen as more legitimate than others. [8] People who live in absolute poverty and flee for this reason - i.e. due to conditions that are partly due to global phenomena such as climate change and the historically grown asymmetry between the global north and south stemming from colonialism - are generally considered to be in Europe as "illegal immigrants", even if, like people who fall under the definition of refugees in the Geneva Convention, they flee for their survival. [9] This has tangible consequences for the respective realities of life, since the legal classification of an immigrant determines the right to stay, school and university access as well as access to the labor and housing market.

Summary and Outlook

Many people around the world leave their countries of origin because their security is threatened - for example by war and persecution or structural violence that denies them access to key areas of society (e.g. education) or resources to meet basic needs (e.g. food, drinking water). Leaving the country of origin does not automatically mean that people are safe. Rather, a look at dangerous migration routes and power asymmetries at places of arrival shows that the security of migrants can continue to be threatened both during and after their flight. It is a common assumption that violence ends and security is achieved as soon as a migrant reaches a place that is not at war. However, from the perspective of human security, it turns out that this is not necessarily the case. Therefore, the human security of migrants should urgently receive greater attention. Because that could open our eyes to the fundamental inequalities between the global north and south, which lead to the fact that today, alongside the flight from physical violence, new forms of (forced) migration have emerged. Against this background, it also seems necessary to develop a new framework for classifying various forms of migration. For this purpose, on the basis of an expanded understanding of security as outlined here, in-depth knowledge of the types of violence from which people flee is necessary.

This article is part of the Policy Brief "Migration and Security".


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