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Migration: The Spiral of (In)Security

by Claudia Aradau

E-journal. ISSN 1505-1161. March 2001.

Sourced from

Jef Huysmans, in an article on migration and European integration, has noted that migration has recently become �located in a security logic�.[1]Discourses of political leaders, feature articles in the media, statistics and communications by police and customs authorities abound in references to the increasing dangers of immigration. Migration, Huysmans argues, is discursively constructed as a threefold danger, in that it posits �existential threats� to the welfare system, to the public order, and to the cultural identity of the community/nation.[2] These new discourses spanning the �European agenda� had not gone unnoticed by the academia. As early as 1993 the Copenhagen School tackled the problem of migration understood in terms of a threat to societal identity. Migration conveniently seemed to fit the �societal security� of Buzan�s famous five-sector formula (with the necessary shift in referent object from state to society). The question whether migration is a �true� or �false� threat was no longer considered relevant as Waever, et al. strove to uncover the security dynamics that turned migration into a �security issue�.[3] In Foucauldian terminology, the Copenhagen School (Waever especially in his later work)[4] were interested in the truth effects of discourse rather than in its veracity. However, Didier Bigo has recently reproached Waever that by focusing exclusively on the discursive practices, he has overlooked the very important non-discursive practices of security formation. Securitization, Bigo contends, cannot be separated from non-discursive practices as �it is of the same nature as non-discursive practices, technologies at work, effects of power, struggles and especially institutional competition within the security field�.[5]

This paper will show that securitization of migration goes beyond the �discursive practice� and that migration is embedded in a �security continuum�[6] which brings together and gives coherence to a set of otherwise heterogeneous practices. After a review of� Waever�s theory, I will locate some of the critiques brought against him especially by Bigo and Huysmans. Then I will look at the securitization of migration in France as both a discursive and non-discursive practice. The non-discursive addendum to Waever�s theory of security as a speech act sheds light on the techniques mobilized to support the securitizing discourse. �Desecuritization� as a panacea for spiraling (in)security cannot be successful unless the whole paraphernalia of securitizing techniques is taken into account.

For Waever, migration as an instance of securitization poses an �existential threat� to the identity of society. Migration comes thus under the famous umbrella of �societal security�[7]. The linkage between the ideal-type �societal security� and migration is uneasy and it raises a number of problems of which the Copenhagen School seems acutely aware. Like societal security, migration should work by �spill-over� effects (a security issue is voiced at the level of society and then is taken up by the state). For the Copenhagen School there is no saying as to �who will voice the "societal security" concerns�.[8] As long as the dynamics of security is visible, securitizing actors such as Le Pen�s Front populaire in France, Vlaams Blok in Belgium, as well as other right-wing extremists would be categorized as successful �security speakers�. As Waever points out in a response to Johann Ericksson�s article, �Observers or Advocates�, in Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe, �[they] consider the risks of legitimizing non-state security policy, theensuing de-legitimization of the state and the potential empowerment of various self-declared �voices of society�, including fascist and other anti-foreigner ones�.[9] However, they argue that it is a risk they have to take as the concept of �societal security� helps them sharpen the analytical tools used in the understanding of security.

Potential speakers of security concerns are not a �risk� per se according to Didier Bigo. Felicitous enunciation of security issues is not sufficient to turn one into a successful security speaker. Certain voices are inherently endowed with more weight than others due to the �symbolic capital�, which is the equivalent of positions of authority. In the wake of Bigo�s criticism, in the 1998 book, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Waever takes up the notion of �social capital of the enunciator�.[10] Bigo�s �symbolic capital� nevertheless differs from Waever�s �social capital� in the sense that it links authority to a special kind of knowledge, which is needed to support and perpetuate it. The state is no longer the unitary actor praised by realist theories of international relations. There are positions of authority within the state, from which �security issues� can be voiced. This multiplicity of positions from which security discourses can be voiced leads to struggles between competing discourses to gain legitimacy and to become the discourse. The securitization process is not reduced to simple rhetoric, but implies extensive �mobilization� of resources to support the discourse. It depends on the capacity of actors to produce a �power/knowledge�[11] that brings together threats from different sectors (terrorism, crime, unemployment etc.) in the image of the immigrant. The �power/knowledge� links all the threats in a coherent discourse that provides an explanatory grid of the world.[12] The actors come up with statistics, relate them, establish on �scientific bases� the �truth� concerning immigration. Those actors who are endowed with both the �symbolic capital� and the capacity to inter-link heterogeneous discourses are the �professionals of security�.[13] Concerned with the production of power/knowledge, Jef Huysmans has also acknowledged that the construction of migration into a security issue involves the mobilization of particular institutions as the police and of a particular form of knowledge:

�Security agencies, such as the police, do not develop purely reactive policies triggered by terrorism, drugs or migrations, for example. The knowledge they produce and the technologies they deploy also fabricate the threat migration represents (for example, a statistical representation of asylum seekers or of illegal migrants in a discourse on social instability, or, categorizing migration together with drugs trafficking, international criminality, and terrorism.�[14]

The institutions that father professionals of security are actually bureaucratic ramifications of the state. Deprived of its Cold War exterior enemy, the bureaucratic fragmented state needs to find another �enemy� in order to fulfil its essential role of society protector. The enemy outside becomes the enemy within, disrupter of order and harmony. But this time the enemy is no longer easily identifiable; it has become the category of the immigrant.

�The new enemy is not clearly identifiable nor associable to a particular state�, and, therefore, potentially omnipresent, transnational and already infiltrated; the police (and especially the secret services are the obvious agents of defense against a threat which leaves the army powerless.�[15]

On the one hand, the capacity to produce security knowledge depends on the institutional positions that the professionals of security hold; and on the other, the production of knowledge is necessary to maintain these positions. Anthony Downs has adopted the concept of �territoriality� to characterize the activity of bureaucracies which, like animals or nations, �stake out and defend territories surrounding their nests or "home bases"�.[16] A territory in which to establish positions of power is the guarantor of institutional survival; territory should nevertheless be seen as a �symbolic territory�, a set of problems to be dealt with and solved. The threat posed by the �immigrant� requires the professionals of security to turn their �know-how� into discourse/practices of assurance/reassurance, protection and anticipation of the danger.[17] They reinforce legal measures and multiply identity checks (not only at the border, but also across the whole territory of the state) to make themselves visible in the roles of protectors. The danger is ominous, but the police, for example, are taking care of it.

In order to integrate heterogeneous facts into a �security continuum�/coherent discourse, the professionals of security draw on the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Ordinary threats are constructed in a �spiral of insecurity� to culminate in the image of the immigrant as the nexus of all fears. Thus crime, immigration and illegality become connected. Waever has also noticed that certain objects which are considered threatening (tanks, hostile sentiments etc.) are �facilitating conditions� for successful securitization.[18] Securitization of migration links together everyday fears into an over-arching fear of migratory flows and migration. The professionals of security create an artificial continuity between disparate series of events; they need to persuade that the danger is all-pervasive, it is drawing near and needs to be dealt with. Statistics show that not only is the number of immigrants increasing, thus endangering the integrative capacities of the society, but they are perpetrators of criminal deeds: they pickpocket, steal, rob, rape, etc. At this point, the security agencies (local and national police forces, customs authorities, and intelligence services) struggle on the security battlefield to eradicate the threat. However, will to fight is no longer sufficient; new practices and institutions need to be created to deal with this quasi-ubiquitous danger. The army is powerless in the face of an enemy who is no longer a superpower, but a �volatile� enemy for which a paraphernalia of techniques of localization and identification need to be deployed. Thus, the establishment of a system of surveillance disrespectful of individual privacy becomes legitimized, acquires legal acquiescence and makes �the professionals of security� thrive. Actually surveillance is legitimized in as much as it is targeted at the other, the enemy, the migrant, although it does not spare the nationals either. Marrying an immigrant, for example, can turn the national into a possible �accomplice�. The logic of suspicion behind this reasoning is the same as for dealing with criminals and their accomplices. Ironically, this kind of logic does not spare even the judges who are suspiciously lax towards the immigrants. Actually the system of surveillance built on this logic of suspicion is the condition of exception, which breaks the rules of normal politics.

Securitization does not nevertheless remain the exclusive domain of the professionals of security; it is taken up by political leaders, too. The promise of a threat-free society can be an inspired way to win votes. France, for example, has witnessed this strategic exchange between the professionals of security and the professionals of politics. The official discourse of politicians and, by extension, the legal discourse, explicitly link migration with fraud, clandestinity, delinquency and integration to construct a complicated network of signifiers with a sole signified, namely the securitized migrant. It is interesting to notice that the French equivalent of �immigrant� is �immigr� (roughly �immigrated�), which freezes the migrant�s identity in an everlasting alterity. The migrant is doomed to be the other, source of the menace, never one of us. If �immigrant� hints to a temporal situation, �immigr� is definitory and fixed. The much contested Debr� law in France not only legalized the juridical definition of the �immigr� category, but it also conspicuously reinforced the powers of the national police. Two of the fundamentally innovative measures as presented by M. Debr� himself concern the new competencies acquired by the police forces. By virtue of article 3 of the Debr� law, police officers are allowed to proceed to car checks on an area of 20 km around the internal borders of France. The measure is deemed necessary to stop the �recently detected practices of clandestine immigration�.[19] The other fundamental measure laid down in article 10 was the extension of identity controls by police authorities on production and construction sites, with the exception of domiciles. This measure would supposedly entail �significant progress in the fight against clandestine work and illegal employment of foreign work force�.[20] By virtue of the same article, the police authorities are entitled to have access to all �useful documents�. Moreover, the law opens the possibility for the �immigr� to be labeled as a �menace to the public order� and thus be refused the �carte de s�jour�.[21] Monica den Boer has emphasized the labeling and stereotyping undertaken by the police, as well as the creation of a �double suspicion� on the immigrant by explicitly criminalizing it. On the one hand, criminalization of migration, as the Debr� law makes crystal clear, �allows for a slippage of the allegation of illegality to much larger numbers of (legal) immigrants, which furthermore allows for the a priori justification of systematic controls by law enforcement authorities�.[22] And, on the other, it clothes the migrant�s status in an ambiguous �legality�. The migrant therefore is glued a label, which collectively identifies the category of migrants as threatening.

The official discourse of politicians in France and the institutional one go hand in hand. Alongside the legislative proliferation begun in the early �90s, France has also witnessed extensive institutional formation and reallocation of competencies. In 1996 a Central Office to Fight Against Clandestine Migration was established, while the customs authorities and frontier police were expressly relegated extra-competencies to deal with migration. Under the name of DICCILEC, they were to become a special agency of the national police, having networks in the territory to survey the high-risk regions. The reform of the national police implied the same extension of competencies, almost all special agencies becoming entitled to deal with migration in one way or another. Moreover, police techniques did not stop at the national level, they went on to create a network of surveillance at the European level (informal European cooperation groups on terrorism, Stars groups, Clubs of Berne and of Vienna, MAG 92, Europol). This continuous reinforcement of police competencies and the cross-European police cooperation made Bigo speak of a �police archipelago�[23], uneasy reminiscence of Soljenytsin�s �gulag archipelago�.

The �gulag� could as much describe a society afflicted by excessive securitization, moving towards �closure against things perceived as threatening�, as Buzan and Waever have remarked in a recent article.[24]A society assaulted by threats of all kind lives in a permanent fear. Constructing migration, for example, into a �security issue� does not paradoxically lead to a state of �security� for the society, but to an ever-increasing state of �insecurity�.[25] Migration cannot just be stopped, the control of borders is illusory, and therefore the threat becomes self-perpetuating. The migrants within are an inescapable threat, the ultimate Janus-faced enemy. The securitization of migration actually reifies identity. In the case of France, the �immigr� is denied the possibility of being anything else but a �immigr� once the �imagined community� becomes impermeable in terms of identity. But the societal identity undergoes the same kind of process; it becomes frozen too in the desperate attempt at preservation. The Copenhagen School seems aware of the vicious circle created by reified identities:

�For threatened societies, one obvious line of defensive response is to strengthen societal identity. This can be done by using cultural means to reinforce societal cohesion and distinctiveness, and to ensure that the society reproduces itself effectively�.[26]

Securitization of migration thus leads to an ongoing clash between identities which have become reified. Paradoxically, identities are constructed only to be eventually reified. Securitization makes change in identity impossible. From �fluid or changing�, identity turns into �solid and constant� (solid and constant should be read as inflexible).[27] Clothing migration in security logic proves thus to be a dangerous undertaking in the sense that the only solution that exists is �ever more security� triggered by �ever more insecurity�. The reification of identities creates the premises for spiraling (in)security within society, which becomes a Hobbesian �state of nature� imbued with the logic of war/security. Migration becomes thus embedded in the logic of what Jervis called the �spiral model� with reference to inter-state security dilemma.[28] While Jervis� model presupposes benign intentions on the part of the states concerned, this is no longer the case with migration. Besides the fact that what is or is not benign is immaterial, migration is constructed as an inherently malign and destabilizing influence.

How can one therefore exert a �disclosure� of the �imagined community�, �desecuritize� it in terms of �existential threat� to identity? The answer to �excessive securitization� of societal threats has been long proposed by classical liberal theorists. In �Liberalism and Security: The Contradictions of the Liberal Leviathan�, Buzan and Waever� acknowledge the role of the liberal project as an essentially �desecuritizing� one:

�As far back as Hobbes�s Leviathan, clasical liberalism was a project for �desecuritization� � understood mainly as reducing the number of issues over which force could legitimaly be used. Liberals wanted to restrict the rhetorics of threat and survival to the military sector and the state, in order to open up space for a civil society in which individuals did not deal with each other in the security mode.�[29]

Michael C. Williams agrees with them on the �desecuritizing� role of liberalism, and contends that �liberal sensibility� was characterized by a �conscious attempt to exclude identity concerns from the political realm, or [by] what might be called a negative identity practice�.[30]

However, Buzan et al. argue, in terms of costs and benefits, the liberal project is no longer a viable alternative. The classical project underwent numerous changes and �real existing liberalism� entails a widening of the security agenda, a �reinvention of security in terms other than military�[31] after having desecuritized military threats. Although liberalism is not to blame for securitization of new issues, its motto � free movement/circulation � was an element of threat used in the securitization of migration, for example.

If liberalism is not a viable desecuritizing project anymore, Jef Huysmans advances the possibility of a �political aesthetics of everydayness�[which] defines the public, political sphere in terms of the complexity and plurality of daily human practices�.[32] Migration could thus be desecuritized by embedding it in everyday practices: the migrant would no longer be the ultimate enemy, but just another person, facing problems like the rest of �us�. Huysmans� project is a less ambitious form of liberalism, and maybe a more feasible one. Nevertheless, none of the desecuritization strategies take into account the institutional dimension of security.

�Desecuritization� as promoted by both Waever and Huysmans is an impossible project, caught in-between clashes of reified identities and the �culture of security experts�. Without taking into account the role of the �professionals of security� in the securitizing process, there is no viable desecuritization. The emphasis Bigo has placed on the institutional formation of security enhances the bleak picture of a society at the mercy of bureaucratized network which thrives on unsolvable security issues. The bureaucratic �power/knowledge� could still be challenged by counter discourses promoting a different �power/knowledge�. Yet, as Huysmans points out, the existence of alternative practices does undermine the dominant discourse. Counter discourses or alternative forms of �power/knowledge� are part of the political game. They do not necessarily undermine the authority of the securitizing discourse. In a commentary on �human rights� as an alternative discourse, Didier Bigo has remarked that �it is difficult to oppose the ideology of security and human rights because these speech acts often have more in common than their authors would like to admit. They have the same idea of what is "insecure" and diverge only for their "solutions"�.[33]

To sum up, we have seen that the securitization of migration could not be reduced to simply discursive practices. Although they play an essential role in the process of �threat-fabrication�, they are necessarily reinforced by non-discursive practices that imply the construction of a particular �power/knowledge� by professionals of security. It is this �power/knowledge� that embeds migration in a �security continuum� and links the threat to identity with crime, terrorism, drugs. The migration threat is no longer reduced to a question of defending culture with culture on a more abstract level; the threat becomes physical and urgent. The anti-migration war is waged with the weapons deployed by the police to fight crime: increased controls, surveillance, gathering of information. One becomes thus wary of Waever�s optimism concerning the possibilities of �desecuritization�, namely the undoing of migration as a threefold existential threat (to the welfare state, the public order and the identity of the nation). �Desecuritization� is primarily impeded by the bureaucratic perpetuation of the �professionals of security� who need a set of issues to deal with and thus justify their raison d�√™tre. Therefore successful �desecuritization� of migration can only be effected if one takes into account both a change in discourse and a relocation of �symbolic territories�, conquered by the �professionals of security�.


[1] Jef� Huysmans in Miles, Robert and Thr�nhardt, Migration and European Integration. The Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1995):54.

[2] Huysmans, European Identity and Migration Policies: Socio-Economic and Security Questions in a Process of Europeanisation, Working Paper No. 9 (Budapest: Central European University, 1996).

[3] Ole Waever, Barry Buzan, Morten Kelstrup & Pierre Lemaitre, Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe (London: Pinter Publishers, 1993).

[4] Ole Waever, �Securitization and Desecuritization� in Ronnie D. Lipschutz, On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

[5] Didier Bigo, "Securit� et immigration�, Cultures et conflits (1998):27.

[6] Didier Bigo, �L�Europe de la s�curit� int�rieure: penser autrement la s�curit� in Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, Entre Union et nations. L�Etat en Europe (Paris: Presses de Sciences politiques, 1998).

[7] Waever decided to use Buzan�s coinage of �societal security� to avoid confusion, although his preferred term was �identity security�.

[8] Waever & al., Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe (London: Pinter Publishers, 1993).

[9] Ole Waever, Cooperation and Conflict, p. 337.

[10] Buzan, Waever & de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis, p. 33.

[11] The concept �power/knowledge� was coined by Foucault and taken up by Bigo.

[12] Bigo in Anne-Marie Le Gloannec (1998):70-71.

[13] Ibid, 71.

[14] Jef Huysmans, �Deseciritization and the Aesthetics of Terrorism in Political Realism� in Millenium, vol. 27, no.3 (1998):572.

[15] Bigo �The European Internal Security Field: stakes and rivalries in a newly developing area of police intervention� in Malcolm Anderson & Monica den Boer, Policing Across National Boundaries (London: Pinter, 1994):166.

[16] Quoted in I. M. Destler, �Organization and Bureaucratic Politics� in Little and Smith (eds.), Perspectives on world Politics (London: Routledge, 1994).

[17] Bigo, �Securit� et immigration�, Cultures et conflits (1998):23.

[18] Buzan et al., Security: A New Framework, p. 33

[19] M. Debr� in a reasoned opinion on the draft law,

[20] Ibid.

[21] Article 4 of the Debr� law,

[22] Monica den Boer,�Moving between bogus and bona fide: the policing of inclusion and exclusion in Europe� in Robert Miles and Dietrich Thr�nhardt, Migration and European Integration. The Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1995):101.

[23] Bigo, �L�Archipel des Polices� in Le Monde Diplomatique,

[24] Buzan & Waever, �Liberalism and Security: the Contradictions of the Liberal Leviathan�,

[25] I use �insecurity� in the sense attributed to it by Waever, namely as a threat to which there is no response in terms of capabilities to deal with it.

[26] Waever et al., Identity, Migration�, p. 191.

[27] Paul Roe, The Intrastate Security Dilemma, Journal of Peace Research, vol.36, no.2 (1999):193.

[28] Ibid.,186.

[29] Buzan & Waever, �Liberalism and Security: The Contradictions of the Liberal Leviathan�.

[30] Michael C. Williams, Identity and the Politics of Insecurity, European Journal of International Relations, vol.4, no.2 (1998):205.

[31] Buzan et al., Security: A New Framework, p. 210.

[32] Jef Huysmans, Desecuritization and the Aesthetics of Horror in Political Realism, Millenium vol. 27, no.3 (1998):588.

[33] Bigo in Huysmans, Dire et �crire la s�curit�: le dilemme normatif des �tudes de s�curit�, Cultures et Conflits (1998):190.


Boer, Monica den, �Moving between bogus and bona fide: the policing of inclusion and exclusion in Europe� in Miles, Robert and Thr�nhardt, Migration and European Integration. The Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1995).

Bigo, Didier, �L�Europe de la s�curit� int�rieure: penser autrement la s�curit� in Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, Entre Union et nations. L�Etat en Europe (Paris: Presses de Sciences politiques, 1998):55-88.

Bigo, Didier, �The European Internal Security Field: stakes and rivalries in a newly developing area of police intervention� in Anderson, Malcolm & den Boer, Monica, Policing Across National Boundaries (London: Pinter, 1994).

Bigo, Didier, �Les D�bats en relations internationales et leur lien avec le monde de la s�curit�,

Bigo, Didier, �L�Archipel des polices�, in Le Monde Diplomatique October 1996,

Bigo, Didier, �L�Illusoire maitise des fronti√®res� in Le Monde Diplomatique October 1996,

Buzan, Barry, Waever, Ole and de Wilde, Jaap, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (London: Lynne Riener Publishers, 1998).

Buzan & Waever, �Liberalism and Security: the Contradictions of the Liberal Leviathan�,

Destler, I. M., �Organization and Bureaucratic Politics� in Little and Smith (eds.), Perspectives on world Politics (London: Routledge, 1994).

Huysmans, Jef, �Dire et �crire la s�curit�: le dilemme normatif des �tudes de s�curit�, Cultures et Conflits (1998):177-202.

Huysmans, Jef, �European Identity and Migration Policies: Socioeconomic and Security Questions in a Process of Europeanization�, Working Paper #9 (Budapest: Central European University, 1996).

Huysmans, Jef, �Desecuritization and the Aesthetics of Horror in Political Realism� in Millenium, vol.27, no.3 (1998):569-589.

Huysmans, Jef, �Migrants as a Security Problem: Dangers of �Securitizing� Societal Issues� in Miles, Robert and Thr�nhardt, Migration and European Integration. The Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1995).

Roe, Paul, The Intrastate Security Dilemma, Journal of Peace Research, vol.36, no.2 (1999).

Waever, Ole, �Ins�curit�, identit�: une dialectique sans fin� in Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, Entre Union et nations. L�Etat en Europe (Paris: Presses de Sciences politiques, 1998):91-136.

Waever, Ole, �Securitization and Desecuritization� in Ronnie D. Lipschutz, On Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995):46-86.

Waever, Ole, Buzan, Barry, Kelstrup, Morten & Lemaitre, Pierre, Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe (London: Pinter Publishers, 1993).

Williams, Michael C., Identity and the Politics of Insecurity, European Journal of International Relations, vol.4, no.2 (1998): 204-225.

***, Debr� law,

(c) Rubikon 2001. All rights reserved.


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