Shaivya Verma
August 11, 2019


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Every year, millions of people migrate between and within nations, some are forced, and some voluntarily migrate. The two world wars, decolonization process, internal conflicts, climatic disasters, development projects have all contributed to increasing internally displaced people, and external migration. The numbers are rapidly increasing every year. The UNHCR estimates the number of forced migrants at about 2.5 million in the 1970s, which increased to about 18 million in 1992 and further to about 65 million in 2017. In the contemporary globalized world, forced migration is an issue of concern in various parts of the globe, including in the Indo-Pacific region. For example, the situation of Rohingyas from Myanmar and Afghan refugees have sparked a debate on refugees in South Asia.

Forced migration involves cross-border movement and impinges negatively on the rights and interests of citizens and non-citizens. Much of the forced migration literature assumes a bottom-up approach while ignoring a top-down approach to understand the response of states towards forced migrants. In the first section, this article looks at forced migration from traditional approaches of security. The next section discusses the traditional theory of security, followed by the limitations of traditional state-centric approaches. The second section looks at a case study from the perspective of traditional theory, followed by conclusion.


Recent literature in International Relations (IR) on forced migration have focused on the security aspect. Security, according to Betts (2009) is “an object’s degree of vulnerability to a threat” (p. 60). This definition has two important elements: threat and a referent object which is vulnerable to threat such as states, regimes, identities, individuals, and groups. Security can be understood from various theoretical perspectives of IR, but this article focuses only on the traditional theory to security. The traditional IR theory takes nation-states as a referent object. Literature in this area explored the empirical relationship between security-related issues and forced migration. In other words, the traditional theory explores the conditions under which forced migrants pose a threat to national security.

Traditional theoretical approaches to security originate from the Realist perspective, which takes nation-states as the principal referent object. It perceives forced migrants as a threat to “national security” and state’s nationals. At the inter-state level, the pursuit of national security leads to the balance of power, which will lead to the absence of conflict (Betts 2009). Much of the literature on security and forced migration has taken refugees as an independent variable related to sources of insecurity. Scholars argue that migration has caused conflicts between and within nations and refugees have often been manipulated by great powers for strategic purposes. Furthermore, forced migrants are frequently been used as resources of war by groups in exile. For exiled rebel groups, refugees provide a shield against external attacks, international legitimacy, and potential recruits and sources of food and medicines. Since forced migrants do not have much to lose and have a grievance against the state, camps become important areas for recruitment for rebel movements. Examples can be Cambodians in Thailand, Afghans in Pakistan and Rwandan Hutus in Congo. The circumstances under which forced migrants become militarized become an important catalyst for consequent conflict. Similarly, authors like Salehyan (2007) find a direct link between political violence and refugee flow in the host countries. The protracted refugee situations leave young people with bleak prospects and fewer opportunities.


Betts (2009) points four limitations of the traditional state-centric approaches:

First, the traditional approach to security does not take non-military threats into account. All threats are not always related to military security. State security can also have societal threats such as identity threats and community threats. Additionally, the state’s economic security frequently leads to a competition for resources between the displaced and host communities (Martin 2005, Betts 2009).

Secondly, the traditional approach to security assumes that individual security is equivalent to national security. In reality, the origin of forced migrants illustrates the opposite. Often states are not able to ensure security to individuals, which results in forced migration. Similarly, destination countries often treat forced migrants as a threat to the state rather than vice versa.

Thirdly, traditional studies of security depoliticize the concept of security. Traditional studies assume a single notion of security. It presumes threats are uniform and objective to the entire society. In practice, “security” is used for political purposes that benefit a particular group and disadvantage others, hence imparting legitimacy to their actions. For example, forced migrants have frequently been constructed by media and politicians to sell newspapers and for electoral gain.

Fourthly, traditional studies sideline the role of perception. In practice, security and insecurity are subjective concepts and do not exist as purely objective standards. Threats have political consequences. In forced migration, securitization is based on perception and not on empirical fact. Public language and discourse are used to describe forced migrants and how they are perceived and their relationship to security.


The 1993 attempt to attack the World Trade Centre, 9/11 attacks, successive bombing in Madrid on March 11, 2004, and London on July 11, 2005, led to the enhanced securitization in liberal democracies to converge on deterrence policies against forced migrants. Even though no forced migrant was involved in the 9/11 attacks, the 7/7 London attacks implicated a Somali asylum seeker. Furthermore, the widespread perception of forced migrants as Muslims and Arabs have also contributed towards the negative perception of refugees as a possible source of national threat. Many countries in the name of “securitization” have moved towards deterrence policies. Countries such as Canada have increased the surveillance on immigrants, and the EU has started extra-territorial processing of asylum claims. The security points at Canada-US borders have also increased after the September 11 attacks.

The increased securitization was also observed in Australia, which well precedes 9/11 attacks. In Australia, the concern apropos refugees started in 1999 with the arrival of asylum seekers from Afghanistan. These spontaneous arrivals led to policy and media debates on asylum seekers, and they were referred as “infectious disease”, “queue jumpers”, “bogus”, “illegal immigrants”, and “phoney”. The debates constructed citizens/non-citizens binaries and separated asylum seekers into various categories of good/bad, legal/illegal, bogus/genuine refugees.

When analyzing migrant security in Asia, it is important to look at the role of Australia, Indonesia, and Malaysia in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia is one of the few countries which are signatories of the international refugee convention and has its own refugee settlement determination in Asia. Australia is using many deterrent measures to keep asylum seekers out of its territory. Mandatory detention, funding of immigration detention facility (these have also deterred Indonesia from joining international refugee convention), and the denial of family reunification have become popular methods against refugees in Indonesia. Australia has adopted a push-back operation for unauthorized maritime arrivals to the other islands in the region such as Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef, where the human rights standards are not followed. Australia’s “no advantage” policy is aimed at the asylum seekers who reach the shores of Australia to convey the message that the asylum seekers will not get more material advantages in comparison to the countries of the first refuge or from the country where their claims are processed. Asylum seekers in Malaysia, which is destination country for many refugees from Myanmar, are treated as irregular migrants and do not receive any support while Indonesia is a transit country to Australia or New Zealand. Australia under the Bali process entered an agreement with Malaysia over the exchange of asylum seekers arriving by boats on Australia’s shores with the intention of burden-shifting than with the intention of burden sharing, which did not succeed eventually.

Scholars argue that Australia, being a developed country in the region, should be doing more for the refugees and asylum seekers and take a leading role rather than adopting deterrent policies.


The aforementioned examples discuss the concept of security in forced migration studies. Security has no neutral and single definition. Forced migration has spillover effects and leads to insecurities, such as providing safe havens to combatants and arms trafficking. Traditional notions of security are criticized on various grounds and can be understood through other approaches such as the normative concept of human security, but this is beyond the scope of this piece.

*** The author has PhD and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Texas at Dallas. She attended Sri Venkateswara College, the University of Delhi and received B.A. (Hons.) in Political Science before receiving M.A. in Political Science from the University of Delhi. Her dissertation focuses on migration, comparative politics, constitutions, and international relations. ***

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