Securitising migration

About the author
Alessandra Buonfino is a doctoral researcher at the Centre of International studies, Cambridge University, focusing on the political discourse of immigration in Europe. She is co-author of People Flow (with Tom Bentley and Theo Veenkamp) and managing editor of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

According to the United Nations, there are more than 180 million international migrants around the world, including refugees – equivalent to almost the entire population of Brazil. Lack of opportunities, conflicts, persecution, environmental degradation, extreme poverty in many countries in the world are all factors that can push individuals to move.

Unless these phenomena disappear in less developed countries, international migration is here to stay. European states are experiencing the political tension created by growing numbers of economic migrants and asylum-seekers. They have often responded by treating immigration as an inescapable burden, a question of both international and domestic security. Today, immigration has become one of the most politicised expressions of globalisation.

After 11 September 2001, immigration began to symbolise all the dangers any nation might ever experience: the scapegoat for all kinds of European feelings of instability. The erosion of national identity, terrorist threats, crime, threats to employment are fears high on the agenda of many European electorates, seeking public order and domestic security. Such fears are often adopted and reinforced by the mass media and then reflected back to them by governments who feel themselves compelled to respond.

It is not my intention to make a case for why states should ‘want’ and ‘accept’ immigration from third countries. Instead, my argument is that a politics based on unsubstantiated fear of difference can only lead to further insecurity, increasing blindness towards poverty and human rights, and a fatal misunderstanding of how our societies are changing, and the value of this change. Being impermeable to change does indeed make change more difficult, but it is also not sustainable in the long term.

Restricting immigration out of fear, and ‘securitising’ the issue of migration – the ultimate goal of the restrictionists – might be successful in the short-term but ultimately what this does is increase public fear of an already existing process. Scaremongering about ‘invading migrants’ can only, in the context of the fact of migration in our modern world, increase distrust and endanger peaceful coexistence – between all levels of society.

Lets leave aside for the moment the economic argument for migration, and the much-disputed question of its relationship to the ageing process of European populations. Instead consider the human rights argument for accepting immigrants and asylum-seekers in our societies.

The drive towards the securitisation of migration (understanding migration only as an issue of security for the host country, and considering migrant peoples an implicit danger to that security) has contributed to the re-positioning of human rights as a secondary concern. As Saskia Sassen recently argued in openDemocracy, it is estimated that more than 2,500 would-be immigrants died trying to enter Europe over the last decade. The death of so many (see the recent tragic deaths of the Chinese migrants at Morecambe bay), and the rise of illegal trafficking as a popular means of entering Europe are partly the result of the restrictive and static policies of their reluctant hosts, the member-states of the European Union.

The rhetoric of misinformation

Insecurity is increased by misinformation. It is the official casting of migration as an issue of security, and the rise of populist rhetoric in public discourse that focuses on crime, violence and the danger to ‘national identity’ posed by migration, rather than migration itself, that increases social insecurity and anxiety.

In recent years there has been a rash of books aimed at a general reading public in both Europe and America which casts immigration as an issue of security, and whose explicit aim appears to be to ratchet up insecurity and ignite the latent potential for racialised fears of the ‘other’ (in particular around the idea of Islam, or Islamisation, which have become so prominent through the geopolitical rhetoric of the war on terror).

These usually poorly-researched and ideologically-motivated books – examples include Michelle Malkin’s book, Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (2002) and Ashley Mote’s Overcrowded Britain: our immigration crisis exposed (2003) – feed the myth that immigration can only be discussed in relation to national security, and have been finding large audiences precisely because they feed of the anxiety that they themselves have helped create. In Italy, as elsewhere, the events of 11 September 2001 have had a significant social and political impact. It is the aim of this genre of writing to link these events closely with the quite different and many-sided issue of immigration.

One recent example of this trend from my own country is The Silent Invasion (L’invasione silenziosa) by journalist Alberto Carosa and Catholic scholar Guido Vignelli, published in 2002. This text would under normal circumstances not merit discussion, but in the context of a rising popular anxiety about immigration, even its lightweight and fatuous arguments can gain popularity and have an impact far out of proportion to their inherent value. Discuss it we must, if we are to understand the damage books like these cause to such a delicate area as the debate on immigration.

Fear of the stranger

The Silent Invasion, subtitle: resource or conspiracy?, is nothing more than a shockingly ill-informed bundle of opinions laid end-to-end which attempts to demonstrate the dangers of migration to Europe and Italy, in particular.

Like other examples of its genre, it works over the same ground – racial paranoia revitalised by 9/11, a resurgent notion of a ‘white Christian’ identity that lies at the embattled heart of Europe, the attempt to link violence, vice and racial difference – as that exploited rather successfully by the emergent European far right. In vulnerable times such heady cocktails, spiced with shocking anecdotes and sensationalist headlines, can find a ready audience eager for some certainties to grip hold of in the era of globalisation. It should then come as no surprise that The Silent Invasion received a glowing review on the website La Padania online: la voce del Nord (La Padania: the voice of the North), Italy’s right wing coalition partner.

The book is unforgivably biased in its review of the relevant academic literature, misinformed where it isn’t actually false, and self-contradictory. Its achievement is to make anyone who reads it frightened for his or her Italian identity and terrified of his or her migrant neighbour.

What are the most evident faults of this book? Vignelli and Carosa write of an invasion of Europe on an ‘unprecedented scale’, while omitting to give the reader any idea of the actual scale let alone the unevenness of this process. It is true, for example, that the number of people travelling to Europe seeking asylum has increased since the 1980s.

However, as Gil Loescher observes, the increase has not been consistent. Asylum applications to European Union member-states grew by some 50,000 in 1983 to more than 684,000 in 1992. After 1993, however, as increasingly restrictive measures were adopted throughout Europe, the numbers steadily declined, to around 276,000 in 1996. Since then, the total has slowly climbed again; reaching almost 381,600 in 2002 – a level that is only 56% of the 1992 peak figure. The suggestion of a huge and increasing flood of migrants serves the authors’ ideological agenda, but not the facts.

Under the guise of a scientific study which aims, in the words of the authors, to examine the facts and the fundamental problematic behind the phenomenon of immigration in order to ‘simply raise questions for debate’, this book provides the reader with a series of carefully selected anecdotes – stories of crimes and murders committed by migrants as reported by national newspapers, thus lending apparent verification to their larger claims – to prove that immigration is dangerous for Italy.

Far from a rigorous method aimed at stimulating questions, this tactic provides instead its own unassailable answer: immigrants are dangerous. The authors’ aim is clear: to persuade people that they are uncovering an underlying reality, suppressed by those who argue for tolerance, “because from our point of view, uncontrolled immigration is dangerous for the actual survival of Italy and of its civilisation, heir of the Christian tradition.”

The ambition to defend the nation may be a noble one – but from whom? It seems this is to be effected by dismissing all ‘pro-immigration arguments’ as propaganda from the left (in Italy this sinistra is represented by the coalition of l’Ulivo, composed of the Democrats of the Left; la Margherita, the Green federation; the party of the Italian Communists; and the Social Democrats) who, according to the authors, have no interest in protecting ‘innocent Italian citizens’.

But despite their avowed purpose of raising ‘some questions’, they in fact avoid some of the most fundamental. Who should Italy be defended from? Who are the migrants? Why are they coming? How many are there? What makes them need to move in the first place? Does Italy need them? There are then few facts to confuse the ensuing message: “what is irrational about not wanting delinquents in our own home (casa propria)? We would like to be able to express these ideas even in Italy without being accused of racism or xenophobia.”

Despite the lack of a well-sourced, clear definition of who constitutes the threat to Italy’s citizens, and what relation migrants have to these threats, the authors are nonetheless very ready to draw conclusions about the consequences of migration to Italy (and by extension, to the rest of Europe). They are, in descending order: delinquency, the irretrievable loss of Italian (European) identity, prostitution and HIV/Aids. But there is no attempt, as you would have to do, to interrogate this reality from different angles. In The Silent Invasion, there is no space for interpretation, or for the consideration of counter arguments. The authors have all the answers, already.

What is urgently required in Italy is precisely the reverse. Following the October 2003 proposal of Alleanza Nazionale’s leader, Gianfranco Fini, to extend voting rights to migrants, and the ensuing political debate that saw fierce opposition from the Northern League (its partner in Italy’s coalition government), what we need are much more in-depth reflections on the question of immigration, Italian identity, and the relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, just as a small step like this was finally being taken to recognise the more active involvement of third-country nationals in Italy and the changing nature of Italian society, events triggered by the case of Adel Smith dashed all hopes of such an opening up of the national debate.

The Adel Smith case

The controversy erupted in late October following a court order to remove crucifixes from classroom walls in a state-run nursery and primary school near the city of L’Aquila, in the region of Abruzzo. The ruling by the presiding judge at the tribunal in L’Aquila upheld a complaint by an Italian citizen, Adel Smith, president of the Union of Italian Muslims (already well-known in Italy for his 2001 appearance on the political talk show Porta a Porta, where he was involved in a televised row with other guests), whose children are pupils at the school. The judgement provoked rage, opening a bitter debate about maintaining Catholic symbols such as the crucifix in schools where a growing number of Muslim children attend classes.

Except for Rifondazione Comunista, the left-wing, radical and ‘pluralist’ party led by Fausto Bertinotti, Right, Centre and Left all agree up to a certain point that such religious symbols are a fundamental aspect of Italian identity, accepting that those symbols should have their place in the culture to which newly-settled communities are introduced as part of their integration process. Not surprisingly, then, the ruling was revoked. But what was really interesting was the reaction that this issue provoked across all levels of society.

Italian identity, which might have seemed ‘dead’ (to borrow a term from Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a well known liberal intellectual, professor and Corriere della Sera commentator) – or at least in crisis since the second world war, suddenly revived – motivated by the threat of the silent take-over of the nation by Muslim migrants.

As a result of this ‘threat’ – from Otherness and Islam – Italian identity seems to have become stronger overnight and once again, ever more rooted in Christianity. Now we are witnessing some sort of retreat to the old foundations of Italianity. National identity in Italy, of course, has always been intimately related to the survival of the nation and the self-preservation of its ‘wholeness’. However, it seems that peaceful multiculturalism has an even longer way to go now before establishing itself in Italy.

To return to the issue that I set aside earlier, what of the economic arguments for migration? A final, damning criticism of this book concerns the use of the terms ‘immigration’ and ‘migrant’. Nowhere do the authors differentiate between asylum-seeker and economic migrant. Given the type of argument made in the book, the distinction should be fundamental. The migrants Vignelli and Carosa seem most concerned to write about, and reject, are those belonging to the category of labour migrant: someone who travels to Europe in order to look for better opportunities of work and quality of life than those his/her country of origin could ever offer.

The authors ignore the fact that this particular type of migrant is in fact increasingly sought after by many governments in Europe (including Italy), where an ageing population and gaps in the labour market are such that documented migrant workers would bring (and do bring) substantial benefits to their host countries. A clarification of these arguments and definitions would certainly go a long way to helping us assess who the actors are in the subtle and dangerous invasion outlined by Carosa and Vignelli.

The same lack of clarification leads to a very evident dehumanisation of the migrant figure. The migrant is basically a ‘problem’: a criminal, a carrier of disease, and an importer of weapons. While this particular discursive strategy might create feelings amongst the public that make the process of ‘securitisation’ easier, it avoids all confrontation with human rights issues. It is part of a calculated attempt to create an enemy image out of migrants while at the same time denying them an identity with any positive content at all. The reader is asked to see migrants as malign rational actors plotting the take-over of Italy. Vignelli and Carosa leave little space for understanding the true motives of migrants, let alone for the kind of empathy the public might extend to their recognisable human feelings.

Raising the drawbridge on Fortress Europe

Nowadays, securitising migration is a frequent response of European governments to people flows. However, securitisation of migration creates more instability than it does security. It enhances fears of the Other and exacerbates difference, thus endangering peaceful coexistence. It is more than ever important for the intellectual and academic community to attempt to give accounts of immigration which are fair and balanced, or at least whose arguments are based on reliable material.

For this if no other reason, Vignelli and Carosa’s book is profoundly irresponsible. By feeding uninformed and alarmist fears on such a politically and socially vulnerable issue, one can argue that people who write books of this kind are doing no favours to the country as a whole. It is they who are ‘anti-Italian’.

The authors need to understand that those who are ‘pro-immigrant’ (as they call it) are under no compulsion to be ‘politically correct’, but instead, recognising the fact that there are gaps between rich and poor countries, choose not to close the door on another’s necessity. They need to understand that everyone is a citizen of a nation but also that we are all global citizens; that the world is changing, and that our ever-changing identities will continuously be re-negotiated. Static policies will never work. We must look to migration as an enriching experience for the migrants and their countries, as well as for our own economy, our society – our ‘civilisation’ as these authors call it.

Above all, it means understanding that human rights are global and not confined to small territories. Seeing immigration as an expression of globalisation which we can live with and which we can help improve, is not only a political challenge. It is a question affecting our quality of life. Is it ‘anti Italian’ to suggest that migration can enrich (and is enriching) our societies all the time, making Italian society even more interesting, even stronger? Surely not.