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Poverty and Development

Poverty and Development (3rd edn)

Tim Allen and Alan Thomas
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p. 45621. Migration, Security, and Developmentlocked

p. 45621. Migration, Security, and Developmentlocked

  • Helen Hintjens,
  • Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits
  •  and Ali Bilgic


This chapter situates human mobility at the intersection of security and development. Capitalism prompted much of the population of Europe to move out of rural areas into cities, and from there imperialism led to huge forced and voluntary migration towards settler colonies. By tying development funding and humanitarian aid to cooperation of developing states in migration control, 'the West' uses development aid to criminalize whole categories of migrants, well beyond its borders. Myths around migration perpetuate containment and control that keeps around 90 per cent of forced migrants and refugees in or near their home regions. More humane migration and asylum policies could benefit host and home countries alike, in the long run. Migrants can be viewed as economic assets, a demographic boon, and a source of cultural enrichment.

21.1 Introduction

Increasingly subjected to restrictions on the borders, in camps, detention centres, suburbs of metropolises, and treated as second class citizens, those who migrate because political, economic, and social structures fail to provide them with protection in their countries of origins face ‘containment’ and ‘encampment’ policies (strangely similar to lockdown, but prior to COVID-19). These policies aim to exclude many migrants from more affluent areas and countries; from the Global North. Why do humans displaced within and across international borders come to be viewed as undesirable, ‘unwanted’, ‘threats’ rather than as partners, fellow human beings, and adventurers? This chapter answers this question by situating human mobility at the intersection of security and development; in the development–security nexus.

… it is important to observe that the magnitude of contemporary international migration is not really unprecedented. Modern mass media tend to exaggerate migration-related crises … through suggestive and dramatic images and the common use of aquatic metaphors, such as ‘floods’ and ‘waves’ (de Haas 2007: 821).

As Figures 21.1 and 21.2 suggest, forced migration is utterly tied up with international capital movements and trade, including the arms sales that fuel wars. Directly and indirectly, economic growth and changes in production systems generate pressures on people p. 457to move, both within and across borders. At the same time, the controls on refugees seeking safety and a better life, have become more stringent than ever. Figure 21.2 uses the ‘dramatic image’ of a tidal wave, as mentioned by Hein de Haas in the opening quotation. All these controls, in the name of the supposed interests of the West, are designed to protect not refugees but the citizens of wealthy countries. Yet, ultimately, forcible displacement can happen to anyone, and can happen anywhere. Prior to 2020 it would have been hard to predict that both natural disasters on a huge scale and a pandemic, in the shape of COVID-19, would seriously affect countries like the United States and the UK. But natural and man-made disasters are no respecters of human distinctions; if sea-levels rise further, not only Bangladesh, but also the Netherlands, will become the new Atlantis. Of course, poverty makes a huge difference; natural disasters and pandemics are all the more destructive where people’s livelihoods are vulnerable.

Figure 21.1 Refuge.

Source: Brandon Reynolds, Cartoon Movement.

Figure 21.2 Wave of migration.

Source: Popa Matamula/Cartoon Movement.

After the next section, where key terms are defined, historical data from the era of European emigration is presented in section three, showing how human mobility, voluntary and involuntary, is embedded in the longer-term dynamics of commercial and capitalist development. The fourth section provides an overview of contemporary efforts to control ‘people on the move’, and the consequences of such controls. The fifth section confronts myths that are part of the process of ‘securitising’ migration (i.e. making it into a crisis). This is followed with ‘stories of containment’ in section five, in the form of narratives from Yemen/Libya/Norway, Sri Lanka/Australia, and China. Finally, the chapter concludes by discussing the development–security nexus and imagining some win-win developmental futures that are inclusive of forced migrants. By taking a longer-term historical perspective, drawing on global examples, and through insights from critical security studies, this chapter seeks to unravel a number of puzzling issues, namely:

How, when, and why do people on the move come to be seen more as a threat to wealthier countries and people, than a benefit of development, and part of moves towards a borderless world?

Has migration been turned into a security issue because of the failure of the Western-led development model and the failure to end poverty in the Global South?

21.2 Defining terms

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) defines migration as:

The movement of a person or group of persons from one geographical unit to another across an administrative or political border, who wish to settle definitively or temporarily in a place other than their place of origin (IOM 2003: 6–7).

Migrants have different categories. The 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, which was p. 458extended beyond Europe by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who:

… owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. …

Prior to obtaining refugee status or otherwise being recognised as at risk, the migrant who applies for asylum is defined as an asylum-seeker. In the post-Cold War migration era, refugees and asylum-seekers are not the only category of migrants who seek protection. They are joined by Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who ‘stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement’ (UNHCR 2019a).

Statelessness is another term used to define individuals not considered citizens or nationals under the laws of any country (UNHCR 1954). Explaining statelessness, the UNHCR suggests: ‘The main reason people are stateless is because of discrimination; because of their ethnicity; because of their religion; because in some countries women cannot pass their nationality on to their children’ (UNHCR n.d.). This shows how gender, identity and origin all relate to migration and nationality laws (UNHCR 2017a; DAWN 2003). Furthermore, there are trafficked persons. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation (UNHCR 2000 Article 3: paragraph a).

Forced migrant is a useful umbrella category. It includes IDPs, asylum seekers, refugees, trafficked persons, stateless migrants, and those displaced by development, whether internationally or domestically. According to the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM), forced migration is

a general term that refers to the movement of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects (IASFM n.d.).

The very broad category also includes those who are trafficked.

The category of development displacees is included in forced migration and refers to anyone ‘for whom there is no protective regime. Many of them end up drifting into urban slums, or becoming part of floating populations, which may spill over into international migration’ (Castles 2004). The term is thus useful since it covers all those whose choices to migrate, internally or across international borders, are severely constrained by elements of overt and structural force (or as Johan Galtung terms it, structural violence, 1969). In other words, they are forced to choose to migrate because of myriad reasons such as poverty, violence, lack of future prospects, or because of war or persecution. Data is gathered annually and quarterly, worldwide, on these different categories of forced migrants by the UNHCR (UNHCR Stats 2016), which uses the umbrella term ‘forced displacement’ to cover all categories of internally and externally displaced persons worldwide. This suggests the opposite of the orderly, well-regulated migration that the UN, and other international actors lobbying for a Migration Agreement, seek to construct among states. In contrast, migration is often involuntary, unregulated, and therefore often also unpredictable, chaotic, and highly contested, as well as conflict-ridden, even when it may appear ‘freely’ chosen. Despite the clear and persistent legal distinction between a refugee—who is persecuted—and a migrant—who is not, in practice the line between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration is not at all clear-cut.

In the last decades, migration has increasingly been portrayed as a security risk or threat to the Global North politically, economically, and socially. In Critical Security Studies, this process is called ‘securitisation of migration’. A working definition of securitisation is ‘the process by which political elites frame an issue as involving fundamental issues of security and survival against an existential threat … the issue (e.g. migration) may have no … obvious connection to security’ (Swarts and Karakatsanis 2012: 98; see also Huysmans 2006; Karyotis 2007). The existential threat that securitisation implies is to a referent object, something or some group (e.g. the host community, women of the host society, jobs and welfare benefits, or national sovereignty) purportedly needing protection through exceptional security measures. Securitisation of migration means removing human mobility as a policy concern out of the normal p. 459sphere of political debate and treating it with extraordinary measures to tackle the supposed security ‘threat’ to a loved ‘referent object’. Sometimes, of course, special security measures are justified, as with pandemics, to control human movement. The threat can certainly be real. Yet the specific security responses of governments are always socially constructed. Securitisation of migration is further discussed later in the chapter.

A common security policy is containment of migrants to prevent and pre-empt their movement towards the Global North. Containment implies: ‘Southern populations are … expected to live within the limits of their own powers of self-reliance’, and not to leave their countries or regions (Duffield 2007: 68).

Asylum seeker: A person who fears persecution in their home country and seeks protection by claiming refugee status outside their own country.

Containment: The enforced encampment of unwanted populations of migrants, IDPs, and refugees, close to zones from which they have fled or moved; their reproduction in situ.

Development displacee: Refers to anyone ‘for whom there is no protective regime. Many of them end up drifting into urban slums, or becoming part of floating populations, which may spill over into international migration’ (Castles 2004).

Forced migrant: Includes refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless people, undocumented people, as well as those whose choice to move is brought about by economic, environmental, and other pressures.

Internally Displaced Person(s) (IDP): ‘persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border’ (UNOCHA 2001: 1).

Migrant: Someone who moves from one region or country to another, to settle temporarily or permanently, for whatever reason.

Referent object: The entity, idea, or persons declared vulnerable and in need of protection from an existential threat, part of the securitisation process initiated by key actors (e.g. politicians, media, UN agencies).

Refugee: A person who has a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’, and has been granted refugee status, for example after asking for asylum, or through UNHCR.

Securitisation: The process of declaring something or someone a crisis, emergency or security threat to a referent object (something valued) and acting accordingly, with public support.

Statelessness: A state affecting a person not considered a citizen of any country.

21.3 Cross-slicing historical data on migration

From the fifteenth century onwards, imperialism and capitalism combined to uproot most of the earth’s people from an almost exclusive reliance on the land. Over time, populations displaced into towns and cities became dependent on wages, trading, or other forms of paid activities. As is the case today, those moving were sometimes viewed as threats to culture, economy, and sovereignty of host or home countries. Today, a high-income IT whizz-kid from India, working in Silicon Valley, may seem to have little in common with an undocumented Filipina migrant domestic worker in the Gulf (Harris 2001; Legrain 2006: 318–32). Yet both are just one or two generations away from the transformative revolutions that displaced their parents and grandparents from the land. Both can become unemployed due to an economic crisis or a pandemic such as COVID-19. Major shifts in livelihoods, from pastoralism to urban residency, or from shifting cultivation to small business in the city, involved migration from rural to urban areas. This made migration ‘both cause and effect of broader development processes with which it is intertwined’ (de Haas 2007: 838). Often, these economic changes were hastened by forms of violence. In cities and towns, as markets emerged for work and housing, education and health, people competed for access to jobs that exploited them as well as services and opportunities for ‘improvement’ which failed to materialise. The case of China reviewed later in this chapter shows a contemporary example of this. As Polanyi suggested, ‘the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organisation on society for noneconomic ends’ (2001, orig. 1957: 258).

Rapid changes associated with capitalism’s rise in Europe prompted millions to move out of rural areas into cities, and from there to ‘empty’ land in settler colonies. Between 1788 and the late 1800s, an estimated 162 000 convicts were forcibly sent to Australia’s ‘penal colony’ from the UK. Capitalist imperialism simultaneously displaced a large part of the population in the colonies, starving them, killing them through disease, or shortening their lives through indenture, forced labour, and slavery. As the tentacles of imperial control over labour grew, again in Polanyi’s words: ‘The spreading of market p. 460economy was destroying the traditional fabric of the rural society, the village community, the family, the old form of land tenure, the customs and standards that supported life within a cultural framework’, in colonial settings like India and Kenya, as well as in Britain, Ireland, or France (ibid: 303ff).

The example of Sri Lanka, reflected on later in the chapter, exemplifies how impoverished, debt-stricken rural south Indians were transported as indentured workers to tea plantations in rural Sri Lanka. Although labour rights have improved, such ‘enclave economies’ operate along similar lines today, and still help feed an extractive trading system. Just as poverty is transmitted inter-generationally among African Americans, so too, generations later, descendants of those transported from India to Sri Lanka still live a ‘barricaded, impoverished life’ as virtual colonies within colonies (Jayawardena and Kurian 2015).

Recent forced migration trends make more sense when viewed from a longer-term historical perspective. And policymakers tend to draw on past models, even when challenges they face are wholly new (Duffield 2005: 150). Since 2012 or so, reversing a previous downward trend in refugee arrivals in Europe, the number of forced migrants has started to increase dramatically (Chapter 11, Figure 11.1). UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2018, there were 20 million refugees worldwide (compared with 10.5 million in 2012), 3.5 million asylum seekers (compared with 943 000), and 41.3 million IDPs (compared with 17.7 million) (UNHCR 2019b). These figures exclude 5.5 million Palestinians under UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) special mandate.

The majority of forced migrants either flee to neighbouring countries or the largest group of all—remain as IDPs, ‘contained’ within their own countries, often under conditions of war. According to UNHCR estimates for the end of 2018:

The vast majority of newly displaced people remained close to home. For example, most Syrians fled to Turkey, where there were half a million new refugee registrations and asylum applications. Most of those forced to flee South Sudan went to Sudan or Uganda, and those displaced from DRC also headed to Uganda.

At the end of 2018, Syrians still made up the largest forcibly displaced population, with 13.0 million people living in displacement, including 6.7 million refugees, 6.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 140,000 asylum-seekers. Colombians were the second largest group, with 8.0 million forcibly displaced, most of them (98 per cent) inside their country at the end of 2018. A total of 5.4 million Congolese from DRC were also forcibly displaced, of whom 4,517,000 were IDPs and 854,000 were refugees or asylum-seekers. Other large displaced populations of IDPs, refugees or asylum-seekers at the end of 2018 were from Afghanistan (5.1 million), South Sudan (4.2 million), Somalia (3.7 million), Ethiopia (2.8 million), Sudan (2.7 million), Nigeria (2.5 million), Iraq (2.4 million) and Yemen (2.2 million).

(UNHCR 2019b; see also Popstats n.d. for country and regional breakdowns over time since 1951.)

These figures can be compared with the movement of people out of Europe in the late nineteenth century, when millions fled religious wars, landlessness, persecution, and harsh poverty laws that obliged the poor to work as virtual slaves. Migrants included all those forced out of Europe—unaccompanied children, people starving to death from famine, especially the Irish Famine (see Ó Gráda and O’Rourke 1997). Others were convicted criminals sentenced to transportation, religious minorities fleeing intolerance and death, or seeking the kingdom of heaven on earth. Between the 1840s and 1940s, the population of Ireland was halved, from over 8 to around 4 million, through famine and mass emigration. Figure 21.3 conveys the sheer numbers involved in European out-migration, though it does not specify to which countries migrants were emigrating.

Figure 21.3 Out of Europe: number of European emigrants, in thousands per year.

Source: Reproduced with permission from Williamson, Jeffrey G. (2006) ‘Global Migration’, Finance and Development, 43 (3), September:

As one IOM study specifies: ‘Over the whole period—1846 to 1939—well over 50 million people left Europe. Major destinations included the US (38 million); Canada (7 million); Argentina (7 million); Brazil (4.6 million); Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (2.5 million)’ (IOM, c. 2003). Until at least the 1960s, racial preferences for whites remained in place, favouring European settlement overseas. The same study explains that: ‘Legislation and programme criteria were specifically formulated to enable migration from Europe and to restrict migration from other parts of the world’ (IOM c. 2003: 17). Within Europe, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most migrants came from Eastern and Southern Europe. Saskia Sassen (2014: 16–18) argues that the discrimination aimed at Southern Europeans and at the Irish often resembled more contemporary forms of racism, identifying them as ‘unassimilable’, and as threatening the societal and cultural norms of the ‘host’ society. In other words, migration was being p. 461securitised, even then. These historical roots still shape migration myths today (as shown in Section 21.4).

One study of the Canadian experience showed that ‘the twentieth century opened with the arrival of nearly 42,000 immigrants in 1900. Numbers quickly escalated to a record high of over 400,000 in 1913’ (Boyd and Vickers 2000: 3). Net migration accounted for almost half (44 per cent) of total population growth in the country during the early 1900s: ‘a level not reached again for another 75 years’ (ibid). At the same time, Canadian statistical research reveals that Chinese migrants were deterred by head taxes aimed specifically at them, Japanese migrants were also kept out, following an agreement between the Japanese and Canadian governments, and Indian migrants were hindered by a rule that made it illegal to pass through another country on the way to Canada (ibid: 5). Such regulations, designed to exclude specific groups, viewed as ‘undesirable’, remain part of border control policies today, and are often more effective in keeping people out than physical barriers like walls and the policing of physical borders.

Manipulating historical data

Figures 21.4 and 21.5 show different ways to depict data around movements into the US. From the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, migration from Europe into the US was gradually replaced by movement from the Global South, especially from Mexico. The two different ways of presenting the data can be compared, to show how perceptions of ‘threat’ from some groups of migrants can be manipulated or exaggerated.

Figure 21.4 Immigrants obtaining resident status in USA from main countries of last residence (millions).

Note: Countries shown figured among the top three in at least two decades. Flows of less than 100,000 per decade not shown.

Source: Redrawn from an idea by, with updated data from the 2019 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security.

Figure 21.5 Immigrants obtaining resident status in USA from main countries of last residence (per cent of US population).

Note: Countries shown figured among the top three in at least two decades. Flows of less than 0.1% not shown.

Source: Redrawn from an idea by, with updated data from the 2019 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security.

Each figure presents a very different picture, showing the powerful impact of data representation (Zinovyev 2010: 6). The second reflects the relative importance of immigration into the US across the entire historical period from 1820 to 2010. In practice, relative numbers are rarely used. Instead, total numbers are often presented, creating an impression that is both ahistorical and exaggerated. In fact, relative rates of immigration have declined as the US population and world population has grown. Of a world population estimated at 1 billion 20 years earlier, by 1820 the total US population (excluding slaves and indigenous people) was just 9.9 million (Worldometers 2018). By the 1840s, following the exodus caused by the Irish famine, the estimated population of the US was 17.5 million, rising to 23.5 million by 1850 after the European revolutions of 1848. By 2000 or so, the population was estimated at 336 million, and the world population around 6.1 billion (ibid). Yet a kind of ‘moral panic’ at post-war immigration has arisen, less because of numbers than because of shifting demographics within the US between those defined as ‘white’ and those defined as ‘non-white’. Resentment at the outsourcing of jobs to China cannot, however, explain the ‘nativist’, white resentment in the US towards immigrants from poorer countries; indigenous Americans and African Americans are treated little better, as their extremely high relative death rates from COVID-19 suggested (Kendi 2020).

p. 462When media and government present data in alarming ways, as in Figure 21.4, they distort the degree of threat to native populations. How data are presented influences perceptions around security and insecurity in relation to how poverty, wealth, and development are distributed in the world. What is missing from both figures is the dramatically different picture for the pre-1820 period, when almost all migration into the US colonies was forced and was from Africa. One study reports that: ‘about 11.3 million journeyed p. 463to the New World before 1820, of whom 8.7 million were African slaves’ (Williamson 2006). They were not counted in the census at all in 1820. Some indentured European and Asian convicts also arrived alongside African slaves. ‘Thus, coercion and contracts were the chief means by which the labour-scarce New World recruited workers before the 19th century’ (ibid). This evidence is obscured by data being cut off before the 1820s, so that, unintentionally, perhaps, the early contributions of Africans to populating and developing the US is removed from the historical picture seen today.

21.4 Contemporary migration management: intended and unintended consequences of ‘containment’

Human mobility is a fact of life. With the emergence of modern ‘sovereign’ state borders, however, mobile humans have been converted into ‘migrants’, with a special political, social, and legal status. In other words, ‘borders make migrants’ (De Genova 2015: 4) and divide them up into different categories. Both industrialising and imperial European states and the US experienced labour migration from poorer regions like Ireland, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Mexico, China, and South East Asia. These ‘economic migrants’ were joined by ‘refugees’ in the post-World War Two political context, fleeing the Holocaust and Soviet expansionism. After WWII the UNHCR was created.

As economic growth slowed in the Global North following in the early 1970s, following the OPEC price shock, Western states developed more restrictive labour migration and citizenship policies. For example, from 1974 onwards, European states ended most ‘Guest Worker’ schemes that provided them the industrial and services labour force needed for post-war recovery. New visa regulations were imposed, and it became difficult and expensive to secure ‘family unification’ in the North. Becoming a refugee was often the only remaining option for those who sought permanent migration to the Global North. As forced migrants appropriated the asylum option for mobility, politically charged images like ‘bogus asylum-seekers’ were invented, or ‘sham marriages’ for the purposes of benefit fraud. Such negative images were instrumentalised by some political actors to legitimise and justify yet more exclusionary policies, which worsened matters for migrants. The ‘criminalisation’, ‘illegalisation’, or ‘irregularisation’ (Jansen 2015) of migration by the Global North is precisely what has forced more and more to seek asylum as the only possible route of mobility. Thus, state borders first created ‘migrants’, and then, when tightened, created ‘criminalised’ migrants.

By regulating who is legal and illegal, the institutions of the Global North (EU, US, Japan, Gulf States) continue to filter and regulate the desirability or undesirability of categories of human beings. There are those who are ‘wanted’, and those ‘unwanted’. Meanwhile, the immigration-industrial complex (Golash-Boza 2009), which rests on private–public partnerships, is committed to keeping certain forms of human beings in certain places. In relation to irregularised migration alone, the European border security industry’s turnover was estimated at €15 billion in 2015. This annual budget is predicted to rise to €29 billion by 2022. The budget of Frontex, the EU’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, grew 3688 per cent between 2005 and 2016, from €6.3 million to €238.7 million (Loewenstein 2016). Ruben Andersson (2014b) calls this complex political economy around so-called illegal migration, and the supposed securing of Europe’s borders, the ‘illegality industry’. His phrase conveys how multiple actors, from border guards in Spain, to police in West Africa, and including multinational security companies, resource corporations, airlines, as well as European and non-European political institutions, interact with smuggling and trafficking networks—whether advertently or inadvertently (Rudgard 2017).

The present trend of migration management in the Global North has two faces. One face concerns the ‘unwanted’ migrants such as those who are poor, with low or no income, securitised as ‘threats’ to public safety and national security such as ‘illegal’ migrants. The focal point of migration management for this group is prevention, pre-emption, and containment of their mobility through militarising land and sea borders, building fences, hiring armed guards, and opening new detention centres (Bialasiewicz 2011; Bilgic 2013). These processes happen within, at, and beyond national and regional borders, as economic and political elites make deals that exchange investment and trade, imposing counterpart restrictions by Southern countries on human mobility. The EU and p. 464its member states have long seen Eastern European, North African, and Middle Eastern states as their counterparts in the task of preventing ‘unwanted’ migration towards Europe (Bialasiewicz 2012). By tying development funding and humanitarian aid to the cooperation of developing states in migration control, the West uses its considerable financial leverage to create whole categories of migrants criminalised well beyond EU borders (Bialasiewicz 2012; Andersson 2014a; Del Sarto 2016).

The second face of how global migration is managed concerns forced migrants. Forced migrants in the post-Cold War era have been portrayed as different from conventional refugees (i.e. those fleeing individual political persecution). Forced migrants moving in large groups (such as those from Yugoslavia to Germany or Syrians to Turkey) meant the process of determining individuals’ status as refugees or not, became less straightforward than during the Cold War. Before 1989, most refugees from the Eastern bloc or communist countries like Vietnam or Cuba, were allowed into the West. After 1989, Western states started to develop alternative international protection schemes, including ‘protection on humanitarian grounds’, ‘temporary protection’, and ‘subsidiary’ or ‘secondary’ protection. Under these categories, forced migrants were no longer refugees. They no longer enjoyed rights enumerated under the 1951 Refugee Convention. In addition, Western states focused on extra-territorial protection policies, outsourcing protection responsibilities to contractual actors. This became a convenient method of containment for some maritime states, such as the US, which started to process asylum claims on the high seas for Haitians and others, and Australia, which adopted an off-shore policy of having asylum applicants processed in tiny (and inaccessible) Pacific islands. By accepting Turkey as a transit state, the EU is similarly designating a ‘safe third country’ to which asylum-applicants can legally be returned, to have their applications determined (often as ‘unfounded’). More and more, migrants have become ‘unwanted’.

In addition to regional arrangements, there are attempts to regulate migration management globally, though actually reaching agreement has proven very delicate and complex. During UN General Assembly deliberation in 2016, for instance, it was noted that the first concrete steps towards a global agreement on Migration and Refugees, were as far back as 1994. At that time, the Program for Action of the International Conference on Population and Development expressed the desire of governments to create a more orderly and regulated international migration system (IOM c. 2003: 20). Yet, as recently as 2016, pre-summit negotiations held between world leaders failed to produce any concrete measures that could later be adopted by the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. According to the President of the International Rescue Committee, who attended these negotiations: ‘It would be better not to have a summit at all than to have a summit that doesn’t lead to substantive change’ (Borger and Kingsley 2016). Talking, it seemed, was not enough. It was therefore surprising when the United Nations finally declared that practical work would start on: ‘Modalities for the Intergovernmental Negotiations of the global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.’ With the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants of 13 September 2016, for the first time the aim of reconciling receiving and sending country goals by 2018 was announced (UNGA 2016). Unfortunately, the USA under President Trump then withdrew almost immediately from the compact.

Though they may appear to work, restrictive measures can be an example of policies having unintended consequences (Murton 1936; Boudon 1982). Intended or not, there are many consequences, some of which are listed here:


Even highly skilled migrants find themselves at risk of exclusion or the condition of ‘deportability’. This endangers research, since from the 1990s onwards, immigrants have made up more than a third of the high-tech workforce in places like Silicon Valley in the US (Harris 2001: 150–1).


Efforts to restrict movement of the poor and desperate across international boundaries are producing a growing trade in human beings. There is considerable evidence of slavery-like labour practices spreading worldwide, with steady growth in human trafficking for labour, for body parts, and for enslavement, for example in the construction, fishing and sex industries (Truong 2001). And: ‘(a)s in all fields, the more elaborate the legal regime of regulation, the larger the black economy, of clandestine operation, designed to defeat the regime’ (UNODC 2017; see also Frontex 2017).


The rights of forced migrants are violated. First, the right to seek asylum under the Refugee p. 465Convention of 1951 is routinely violated through push-backs, because their border crossings are classified as ‘illegal’. Yet, push-back itself is illegal for those who wish to claim refugee protection, under the non-refoulement (non-expulsion) provisions of the Refugee Convention (Hathaway and Gammeltoft-Hansen 2015). Basic rights of forced migrants are also violated when they are subjected to physical and non-physical violence in transit, for instance in Greece, in Turkey (Amnesty International 2016), as well as in West Africa (Andersson 2014b), Libya, or Morocco (Garelli and Tazzioli 2016).


Furthermore, paying Turkey or Morocco to ‘contain’ migrants distorts the purposes of development finance in those countries, giving the EU a bad reputation. It also redirects these countries’ justice sectors towards policing migrants in ways that almost invariably violate human rights, and so lead to a correlation between EU funding and human rights abuses.


The 2016 EU deal with Turkey shows that where security concerns override human rights norms, refugees come to be viewed not as victims of war and persecution, but as human bargaining chips; objects of more or less economic transactions. If relations between Turkey and the EU sour, then as in Libya in the 2011 war, migrants and refugees may be forced out of Turkey towards the Greek border. Even before the EU–Turkey refugee deal was signed, in March 2016 (Zalan 2016), as well as later in November 2016 (Pitel and Beesley 2016) and again in March 2017 (BBC News 2017), the Turkish President Erdogan was dissatisfied with the EU promise to hasten Turkey’s accession to the EU. In response he threatened to ‘send’ refugees into the EU, in retaliation.


Restrictive migration policies do not work, and the policies kill migrants. Ironically, as migrants are redefined as unwanted, both in the USA and in European contexts, the number of migrants has risen and so have the risks they run (d’Appollonia 2012). Sharper local, national, and global inequalities, and ever more invasive forms of violence, can explain rising pressure on people to move. When people move under such desperate circumstances, clandestinely, they are forced to seek out ‘fixers’ who may abuse them and force them to pay for risks taken. They may be apprehended and detained, tortured or even sold to traffickers. These can even be family members. Average fees for clandestine entry (e.g. from Sri Lanka to Canada or from Calais to Dover by sea) have been in the thousands of dollars since the 1990s (Harris 2001: 149). Meanwhile, migrant deaths are largely unrecorded, whether at sea around Australia or the EU, or at land borders like the US–Mexico border (Jones 2016).

The unintended and intended consequences of migration management are thus not a reduction in migration flows, but an increase in the scope of the formal and informal ‘illegality industries’. Parallel to more private security guards, armed patrols, detention centres, and private companies has been the rise of a particularly futile myth—the notion that the building of physical barriers can keep people out. Known as ‘teichopolitics’ (from the Ancient Greek for ‘city wall’), this belief is translated into border walls being constructed across the face of the entire planet (Rosière and Jones 2012). While borderless and globalised production and exchange make economic and social life more fluid than ever, some of these border walls are now visible from space. Intended to create ‘safe zones’ for the wealthy, as in apartheid South Africa, the barriers aim to keep the poor in their ‘homelands’, by force. Walls are built within countries as well, as one experiment using drone footage showed, revealing a spatial segregation of rich and poor communities, separated by walls, in today’s South Africa (Misra 2016). Residential segregation is writ large in global border wall-building. Entire countries—Saudi Arabia (with Yemen and Iraq), Israel (with Palestine), Turkey (with Syria) and Hungary (with Serbia and Croatia), now have borders closed off by high walls, militarised and often with ‘smart’ body-sensing equipment. Vallet (2014) documents this startling rise in border walls construction, (updated to 2015 in Figure 21.6), especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Figure 21.6 Total number of border walls and barriers.

Source: Data courtesy of Elisabeth Vallet.

As one review puts it: ‘the evidence is mixed on whether walls are effective at preventing large movements of people across borders’ (Jones 2016), since on the whole, as migration routes divert away from walls:

The funnelling of migrants to alternative routes points to one statistic that correlates closely with the construction of more walls: an increase in the number of deaths. As easier routes are closed, migrants choose ever more dangerous paths to reach their destination (ibid).

Thus in 2015 and 2016 deaths in the Mediterranean from dangerous sea crossings rose as restrictions were p. 466imposed elsewhere. An estimated 3700 deaths were reported ‘at the edges of the European Union’ in 2015, and at least double this number in 2016, compared with ‘a handful of deaths recorded annually at the edges of Europe in the 1990s, and never more than 800 deaths prior to 2006’ (ibid). The question posed at the start of this chapter, is still not answered: why do governments of the Global North seek to defend their countries from migrants, including forced migrants? A number of ‘migration myths’ are part and parcel of securitising migration and can offer some clues.

21.5 Unveiling migration myths

In his study with the sub-title ‘The Immigration Myth Exposed’, Nigel Harris quotes J. K. Galbraith’s statement that ‘Migration is the oldest action against poverty’. Harris, like Galbraith, views human spatial and cross-border movement as a relatively simple solution to poverty and insists that: ‘Insofar as the world refuses to allow people to move freely, it chains people in poverty’ (Harris 2001: 119). Counter-factual myths around migration have been around for decades (see for example Hintjens 1992). As Harris suggests, most migrants would ideally move cyclically, seasonally, and circularly, in a borderless world. They are impeded from doing so by efforts to restrict their movement. In other words, controls that hamper movement into a particular country also hampered movement out of that same country, and in other countries. The result is that: ‘the tighter the immigration controls, the more the right to work involves illegal migration’ (Harris 2001: 120), which is very risky for the migrant.

The following extract comes from Emile Levasseur ‘Emigration in the Nineteenth Century’, translated p. 467from the French, and dated 1885. He estimates the number of European migrants and descendants of Europeans living outside Europe at that time to be around 85 million:

There are many influences at work which determine the volume of voluntary emigration, among others … :


Over population …


Insufficiency of the means of subsistence in the [country of origin]


The prospect of ameliorating their position … a powerful inducement for many to emigrate.


Political considerations …


The increased facilities for communication … and the influence exercised by public institutions and private agencies … to stimulate the flow of emigration and … to attract it.

Compare this to the conclusions of a recent study by Arcarazo and Wiesbrock (2015) on myths of contemporary migration policymakers and Western publics. They identify three interconnected myths that influence policy and inform public and media representations. These are:


That migration results from poverty in the countries of origin and global disparities in wealth.


That migrants ‘swamp’ countries’ national boundaries, impinging on the labour market and ‘taking jobs’ from nationals.


That, following on from this, the economic impact of migration is negative for host countries and communities.

These three myths are core to the wider process of securitisation of migration, recasting migrants as a threat to the economy of host states. The first myth ignores that poverty is not closely associated with high rates of global out-migration. The vast majority of poor people will only move when forced to, for example, by war or mass displacement due to human or natural disasters. ‘In reality migration is a selective process. The poorest tend to migrate less than those that are slightly better off. This seems particularly true for relatively costly and risky international migration’ (de Haas 2007: 832). And on the other hand, poor countries tend to host more forced migrants. For example, in 2016, according to UNHCR (2017a), ‘Turkey sheltered the greatest number of refugees, hosting 2.8 million by mid-2016. It was followed by Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (978,000), Ethiopia (742,700), Jordan (691,800), Kenya (523,500), Uganda (512,600), and Chad (386,100)’. The only developed country on the list was Germany with 478,600.

In the nineteenth century, Levasseur (1885) suggested that it was the uneven dynamics of modernisation—rather than poverty—that might push people towards voluntary migration. From a similar perspective, Hein de Haas explains that historically, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: ‘emigration usually increased as wage differentials … converged’ (de Haas 2007: 835). From the evidence, migration should be viewed as a positive indicator of development, not a sign of the pressures of poverty but a sign of rising expectations. This means that excluding the poor does not tackle migration. Walls, legal exclusions and other barriers are expensive, and potential benefits of labour migration may be lost, for both the host society and the home country. Not only on the internationalist left, but also for free market neoliberals of the right, restricting cross-border human movement is self-defeating, since making such movement illegal, it is understood, will almost inevitably mean encouraging contraband movement, with human smuggling and trafficking the outcome, as well as a lot of migrant deaths. Rather than impose unrealistic restrictions, liberals and internationalists would prefer countries generally to adjust their expectations to accommodate structural migration in and out of their countries and regions.

By locking out whole categories of people, other migrants are inadvertently locked in. Migrants settled in the West are fearful of leaving for too long in case they are not able to return to their families and take up their lives again, or of causing ‘trouble’, in case they would be deported. For instance, in 2017, a pregnant migrant woman in London was arrested on immigration charges after she reported a rape to the police (Siddique and Rowlinson 2017). Nicholas De Genova (2002) calls this ‘the condition of deportability’, meaning keeping the possibility of deportation always on the horizon to discipline migrant bodies and subjectivities. There are vested economic interests in a cheap, vulnerable workforce for certain key sectors. ‘The illegalisation and the hyper-criminalisation of immigrants work symbolically toward the reproduction of a vulnerable labour force, suitable for the most exploitative sectors of the post-Fordist economy’ (Di Giorgi 2010: 153). It is p. 468reported that those detained in immigration detention centres, for example, are paid as little as £1 per hour in 2017. Hein de Haas (2007: 826) even suggests that: ‘immigration of low-skilled workers may not be as unwanted as politicians officially proclaim; employers can benefit from cheap, irregular workers and governments tacitly permit such movements’. While some businesses may get cheaper labour, exploiting workers who are insecure in their rights, governments in Western countries also face protests from citizens who want to welcome migrants, and who resent the hard line positions of their own governments. These protests have taken many different forms over the past two decades, and most recently have been seen in the US, following Trump’s attempt to ban migrants from Muslim countries (see Figure 21.7).

Figure 21.7 Thousands of people gather at the White House to protest against President Trump’s immigration ban on citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, January 2017.

Source: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo.

Most of the evidence suggests that economies that close off legal routes for immigration tend to suffer economically. As Hein de Haas’ quote at the start of this chapter suggests, apocalyptic statements about threats posed by mass migration greatly exaggerate the extent of movement, and also project present trends unrealistically to engender what is termed ‘the politics of fear’ (Bigo 2009: 584). Evidence from a number of EU countries suggests that reducing migration has its economic price, and that lower net in-migration tends to be associated with fewer jobs being created, and lower economic growth. In this vein, after reviewing some of the available evidence, Nigel Harris concludes that:

… the jobs done by immigrants are ‘complementary’ – that is, they are required to make possible the employment of natives … immigrants make it possible for declining industries to survive longer and so sustain jobs for natives (Harris 2001: 59–60).

This confirms the evidence of the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS), data that clearly points to the important contribution made by the (often low-waged) non-UK nationals in the UK’s health sector. Such studies warn of damaging impacts of current immigration crackdowns, associated with growing p. 469resentment at foreign workers and the ‘Brexit’ mood in the UK—and mainly in small-town England—since 2016. The consequences for the overall UK labour market, for the healthcare sector, for care homes for the elderly, and for construction, was known to be potentially devastating (Cowburn 2017) well before the point was dramatically underlined by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Added to the three economic myths discussed earlier in this section, some powerfully emotive myths also operate to securitise the cultural and social aspects of migration, including forced migration. The following additional myths are among the most significant, in the media, in official pronouncement and in academic research:


migrants are said to complicate life for nationals by bringing linguistic, religious, and cultural plurality, thus ‘confusing’ natives;


most refugees are said to be motivated by social security benefits and it is claimed they will become ‘burdens’ on national welfare and health systems;


migrants are letting down their own countries, and should return home to contribute to national development, and reverse the global ‘brain drain’;


refugees fleeing war-torn countries, may be accused of being ‘terrorists’; they may be accused of bringing diseases with them.

Strangely, COVID-19 did not reverse this situation. For example, even when the disease became widespread in the USA, so that its citizens were the most likely to bring the disease in to Europe, when they entered Heathrow or Schiphol, for example, they were rarely quarantined. This shows how the ‘safety and security’ of nationals is very much a socially constructed, and even a politicised, concern for Western governments.

The securitisation of migration as a threat to societal identity and the physical and cultural survival of the host society and state (i.e. the West or other wealthy countries) is performed against the backdrop of these myths, which are often taken in political discourses to be firm truths that should be driving policy decisions about whom to let in, keep out, force out, and keep in. A succinct example of this is that although none of the perpetrators of terror attacks in New York, Washington, London, and Madrid were asylum-seekers or refugees, one of the first reactions of both American and European policymakers was to introduce new restrictive measures in the area of asylum (d’Appollonia 2012: 100–1). There are, of course, many more myths, including those that relate to crime, disease, and other sources of civic and citizen unease (Alkousaa 2018 is just one example). In 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, refugees in Greece, Serbia, and Croatia found themselves in appalling conditions. They were often not allowed to leave over-crowded camps. In relation to welfare, many migrants are screened out of health provisions, and in the case of undocumented people, not included in surveillance in relation to basic wellbeing; health but also education and social security, for example (Hintjens 2013).

The ultra-nationalist Right, inspired by religious conservatism, ideologies of racial supremacy and exclusion, tends towards exclusion, deportation, and blaming a host of economic and social problems—including the racism directed against them—on refugees and migrants themselves. Islamophobia informs some Europeans’ misplaced fears of invasion, even though, for most people on earth, including most Muslims, human movement is now more tightly restricted, despite the availability of cheap global travel, than at any time in human history. It is surely no accident that these tighter restrictions have been imposed at a time when North to South and South to South migration have been gradually replaced by South to North migration pressures:

The major change, then, has not been in the relative numbers of international migrants, but in the number of developing countries that have become incorporated within migration systems that link them to industrialised countries (de Haas 2007: 823).

There are other myths from the left of the political spectrum. Protecting labour rights leads the Netherlands Socialist Party, for example, to insist that labour migration should be tightly restricted to protect migrants from being easily exploitable, by employers in the food industry, cut flowers, or the sex industry, for example. Even for asylum seekers, the Netherlands Socialist Party suggests that: ‘The asylum procedures should be fast, careful, honest and clear. Those who are allowed to stay, have to integrate as fast as possible. Those who are not allowed to stay, have to leave’ (SP International n.d.). Some trade unions favour exclusion on similar, protective grounds, while other trade unions are in the forefront of seeking fair incomes and status for migrants, including those who p. 470are undocumented. All in all, there is a marked tendency in all these accounts to exaggerate the vulnerability of wealthy countries, cast as referent objects.

Yet even more sympathetic accounts of refugee protection can undermine dignity and human rights for those forced to flee. Using the work of Talcott Parsons on ‘the sick role’, and Hannah Arendt’s approach to refugees, Pupavac suggests how NGOs involved in refugee advocacy, for example, tend to cast refugees as traumatised, sick bodies, in need therefore of expert handling and treatment (Pupavac 2008). Exaggerating incapacity in this way does refugees no favours, since it implies their incapacity to live normal lives, or thrive.

All in all, these myths perpetuate systems of closure, containment and control that keep around 90 per cent of all forced migrants and refugees in their home regions, often in camps just across the border from the country they fled or working in neighbouring countries. As capital and trade movements become ever more restricted, and as social media makes a virtual global village of the world, cross-border human mobility comes to be constrained technologically, physically, legally, and administratively, as well as in policymakers’ minds.

21.6 Stories of containment

This section explores the politics of containment and securitisation of migrants through a number of examples. The first is the case of a Yemeni stuck in a Libyan prison, whose brother in Norway appeals for someone to intervene. The case of a Sri Lankan woman refugee, trying to get to Australia is next. The final example concerns internal migration in China and the way the state can control movement, for example during pandemics. Through these examples, the complex dynamics of forced displacement and containment are illustrated. These three examples serve to illustrate wider arguments made in this chapter, about migration management and the technologies of containment pursued at borders and internally, in both North and South.

Yemeni in a Libyan jail: SOS from northern Europe

In August 2017, a Norwegian Yemeni sent a letter to Fahamu, an association of refugee lawyers. His brother was imprisoned in Libya, despite being granted refugee status previously. In early 2017, Yemen was experiencing the most devastating humanitarian emergency in the world, having overtaken Syria. An estimated ‘18.8 million people—nearly 7 in 10—[needed] … humanitarian aid, (o)ver 17 million people (were) … food insecure, including 2 million acutely malnourished children. More than 3 million (were) displaced since March 2015’ (Global Health Now 2017; Al Mosawa, Hubber, and Giggs 2017). Against this backdrop, Saudi air attacks on Yemen began. The Norwegian Yemeni was clearly desperate to help his brother, trapped in a no-man’s land in Libya. Extracts from the letter are transcribed in Box 21.1.

Box 21.1 My brother tasted trouble

I’m originally from Yemen … a Norwegian citizen. I have a brother who … [stayed] in Egypt and … registered [with] UNHCR … he was taken [to] Libya and has been [im]prisoned in Libya for more than 2 [months] … he has become very sick. He is about 20 years [old] … this is a terrible situation. We ask you for help we are afraid that they can torture him so much that he can eventually die. Have tried to call UN in Egypt—no answer there. Please call me at phone number (provided). Urgent very …

My little brother, Yussuf [not real name] is very sick, and they told me that my brother has become sick with suspicion and obsessive-compulsive disorder … My brother has been [in prison] more than two months and he is the first Yemeni person to be imprisoned in that prison … a month or more later came the rest of the Yemeni [prisoners].

My brother is very emotionally tired and he does not know where he is going to and the prison owners have [no] mercy on my brother … and they never [let him out] so the Libyan intelligence came and took four Yemenis and they do not know anything about them yet and my brother is afraid [that more will be taken out and disappear].

The problem is that [there] is not any organisation [that] wants to share even the responsibility and help my brother … because he is the fugitive of the big problems that have happened to him and the fugitive of war and disease and death [in Yemen] … he is very afraid. He cannot and [does not want to] migrate to Yemen to war and armed groups that he is fleeing … it is impossible.

My brother tasted trouble … in this prison in the city of white (Baydha) and before this in Yemen. I am very afraid and worried about the health of my younger brother. I hope that you will bear the responsibility as well as the UNHCR … I hope that you will help us find a solution as soon as possible and save him. He is in a very bad situation and the rest of the Yemeni detainees. The prison authorities arrest only the Yemenis. They [allow] … the Sudanese, Africans, Syrians and all nationalities to get out except Yemeni. The same racism and planting of the charisma in the savage. I hope to get reply from you and tell me what you decided and how and when you will behave and solve and deal with the subject.

Many thanks and appreciation

Best regards

Name and number provided

This letter illustrates in microcosm how refugee detainment and imprisonment in third countries is operating today—by proxy. The system is like a lottery, where a few fortunate people manage to find safety, while the authorities responsible either fail to cope (UNHCR), wash their hands (the Norwegian government), or profit (as the warlords in Libya do). Agencies, like the UNHCR or embassies, that should act, fail to intervene. Nationals of countries at war, like Yemen, can find themselves as unprotected abroad as they were at home, or even more so. For those whose relatives are already living in the West—in this man’s case in Norway—their hope is to eventually join them.

Many refugees from warzones, now settled in Europe or other safe areas, have similar stories to tell of friends, relatives and colleagues stuck in flight. Similar terror and mental disarray take place daily around the world as people in flight seek safe havens. Their relatives living in Europe, North America, the Gulf, or Australia may have to pay smugglers to stop them torturing their relatives, the pain being relayed by smartphone to ensure rapid payment. And inside Yemen, around 300 000 Somali refugees suddenly found themselves trapped between Saudi bombings and a grossly underfunded UNHCR. In August 2017, the UNHCR reported that less than half their funding targets had been met for humanitarian relief (UNHCR 2017b). At the same time, the UNHCR was forced to halve food rations to displaced people in Mosul, Iraq. The US administration, under Donald Trump, had cut funding to the UN by almost half (Vaughan-Williams and Löfflmann 2017).

If this man’s brother does eventually arrive in Europe, he may find police in Italy and Greece openly hostile; they may even return him forcibly to Libya or p. 471to Turkey. The letter refers to ‘owners’ of the prison, suggesting this is one of the many holding places of militias fighting over territory and resources in Libya. Bitterly using the word ‘savage’ echoes what Mark Duffield sees as the strategy of the West, to get ‘savages to fight barbarians’ (Duffield 2005).

Durga goes down under

The abuses against refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru offshore detention facility have made headlines many times in the Australian and international media (for example Doherty 2016; Doherty and Farrell 2015). Held by the Guardian, ‘The Nauru files’, is a cache of documents leaked by medical staff working in a detention centre in Nauru Island (Doherty 2016; The Guardian 2016). Recorded by staff between 2013 and 2015, the interactive document makes for dramatic reading, with 155 recorded examples of ‘threatened self-harm’, 48 examples of adult assaults, 57 assaults on minors, and 7390 cases of ‘non-compliance’—around four incidents per day, every day.

In his 2014 review of allegations of abuse in Nauru, Philip Moss, Australia’s former Integrity Commissioner, confirmed some of the serious abuses alleged by medical staff, and suggested Australia’s ‘off-shore’ asylum processing system was faulty (Doherty and Farrell 2015; Moss 2015). He received evidence of sexual assaults and sexual favours in exchange for drugs, involving camp guards employed by a sub-contracted private security company Broadspectrum. Box 21.2 is just one of many accounts reported in The Guardian. In this narrative, Durga is a Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seeker, detained in the off-shore processing centre in Nauru (please note that some readers may find this report distressing).

Box 21.2 A Sri Lankan woman’s story of rape and torture: from the Nauru Files

Durga [not her real name] has a two decade-long history of torture and trauma, including rape, both in Sri Lanka and while in the Australian-run detention on Nauru.

She was first arrested in Sri Lanka in 1996, suspected of links to the separatist ‘Tamil Tigers’. Aged 22, Durga says she was beaten and tortured, despite being pregnant, and gave birth to her son while in military custody. Even after being released, Durga says: ‘The military officers would come to my house … Every time they would come, two or three men, they would grab me and force me to have sex with them. They expected me to cooperate but I never did. I would resist. So they would tear my clothes from me, they would tie my hands and they would push clothes in my mouth so I could not scream. Then they would rape me. After they left, I would sit with my child and cry. They came back many times.’

Her personal experiences of the civil war (1983–2009) made her flee Sri Lanka in 2007. First, she fled to South India, where she was not accepted as a refugee. Nevertheless, she managed to stay in a camp until in 2014, with her young son, she boarded a boat bound for Australia. Along with another 157 Tamil asylum seekers, the boat she was travelling in was intercepted at sea by an Australian customs vessel. All those on board were held at sea for nearly a month before being sent to the Australian-run off-shore detention facility on the island of Nauru.

Durga says she was again raped at the centre while she was asleep. As she reported to a medical worker at the centre: ‘I was taking sleeping tablets because of my injuries from Sri Lanka and my fear of being assaulted. I could not sleep … in the morning I woke up and my clothes were taken off me and things in my room had been moved. I felt like I had been raped.’ Following up on her complaint made to the authorities, in January 2015, along with her son, Durga was brought to the Australian mainland for mental health treatment and a court hearing that would determine her possible return to Nauru. While awaiting the High Court decision Durga says: ‘I am very scared to go back. How can I go back to that place? What I escaped from in Sri Lanka has happened to me on Nauru … I really don’t know who has the power to help me. I hope the doctors can say I should not go back but I don’t know who has the power to stop it.’

Meanwhile her now 19-year-old son who was with her in this long and arduous journey from place to place, from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu in India, to Nauru and to mainland Australia, simply says … ‘If they try to send us back there, we should commit suicide here’.

Source: Doherty (2016); The Guardian (2016).

What these narratives in Boxes 21.1 and 21.2 have in common is wanton abuse of refugees’ vulnerable bodies, whether male or female. As noted by Weber and Pickering, borders no longer stop at the physical frontier. Instead, the notable ‘de-territorialisation of borders’ involves preventing bodies of refugees from reaching Australian soil at all (2011). Restrictions on movement involve remote-control forms of migration management, involving off-shore refugee determination processes, usually in poor Pacific islands with a desperate need for revenue and jobs. There is also apparent in these examples, the failure of any authority to take responsibility for refugees’ personal and social protection.

Concerns at rampant abuse of detainees were taken up by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, p. 472who asked the Australian authorities to reconsider their off-shore asylum policies. His requests fell on deaf ears, however (Hurst and Doherty 2015). During an official visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013, when asked about human rights violations and torture against Sri Lankan asylum seekers, then Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is reported to have said: ‘… sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen’ (Hurst 2015).

Testimonies of Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Nauru centre suggest humiliation, poor treatment, discrimination, and abuse, including sexual abuse, and torture (Human Rights Watch 2015a). Despite international concerns, the Australian government shows few signs of softening its policies.

China’s internal controls and rural to urban forced migration

Since the late 1990s or so, China has been experiencing one of the great migratory movements of contemporary world history, in what is one of the largest ever experiences of mass population transfer during peacetime. This meant that with COVID-19, the lockdown in Wuhan, where the disease first broke out, in January 2020, also led to great restrictions for migrant workers, some of whom had travelled home for Chinese New Year. Others were stranded in the city, and could not return to join their families in rural areas. Only in late March and early April 2020 was Wuhan’s lockdown ended. It was estimated that up to 700 000 migrant workers were working in the city, and had been stuck due to the lockdown. According to one report:

A Wuhan university survey last week of 104 villages in 12 inland provinces found that less than a third of local adults had travelled outside their hometown for work after the lunar new year. Normally between 80 and 90 per cent of adults travel for work (Yu 2020).

The control of movement within China is not new, however, and long predates COVID-19. Historically, mass movement has been organised and registration enforced by the Chinese state. Strict controls have alternated with elements of spontaneous or ‘free’ migration.

In 2014, the National New Type Urbanisation Plan declared the state’s plans to move at least 250 million people from rural areas to urban centres p. 473(Johnson 2013a and see Box 21.3). Even before this plan was presented, millions of Chinese were voluntarily migrating to cities to tap into greater economic opportunities opened up by industrialisation and the growth of urban services. Figure 21.8 illustrates these migration flows inside China, from 2010 to 2015.

Box 21.3 Hukou migrants: between coming and going away

Under the Urban Resident Permit Scheme, known as Hukou, introduced in the 1950s, moving out of rural into urban areas was not allowed (Wallis 2016). Yet in the near future, moving from rural to urban areas will become compulsory. Soon it will be mandatory for many millions of China’s people, since by 2025 the government aims to resettle more than two-thirds (70 per cent) of the rural population into urban areas (a total of 900 million people) (Johnson 2013a). The overarching goal of this mass uprooting is to change China’s current economic structure, reducing the population in the large agrarian sector and boosting China’s slowing economic growth (Branigan 2014). The Chinese authorities view small-scale rural agricultural producers as impediments to rapid economic growth. By urging—and forcing—the population to move into the cities, the Chinese state hopes to raise domestic demand. During the COVID-19 lockdown, this whole system broke down temporarily, as migrant workers were forcibly stuck, some in the cities out of work, others in rural areas unable to travel to work, since factories were closed. Their labour is seen as indispensable for China’s contemporary leap into material modernity, as Chinese migrant workers become major consumers of manufactured goods, providing a mass market for surplus industrial output, which in the past was mostly exported.

To facilitate this rapid modernisation, the Chinese government has in the past offered a migration ‘package’ for rural farmers, which aims to persuade those reluctant to move. Recent rural to urban migrants found life in the city harsh, though. They had trouble finding decent work in the best of times. They cannot easily access essential services, including schools for their children and health care, and many are elderly (Koo 2015). New city dwellers do not enjoy the luxuries of washing machines and 24-hour electricity supplies. They live in poor-quality, over-crowded housing, and work in factories or in menial jobs. Government housing is often too expensive for them. As one farmer complained, in the village he paid 10 yuan for a month’s supply of electricity; in the city, he explained, they pay 670 yuan per month (Johnson 2013b). Such high living costs may mean that migrant families cannot heat their homes in winter. On cold evenings, prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, they were reported to meet around bonfires, outside their brand-new apartment blocks, to keep themselves warm.

The Chinese government’s plan to massively uproot the rural population and empty the countryside into urban areas is mainly applied to areas with a concentration of ethnic minority Chinese. Moving to the cities is promoted in Tibetan areas and from other provinces to Tibet. Landlessness in rural Tibet has resulted from expropriation of land by a none-too-subtle policy of destroying Tibetans’ unique cultural and linguistic identity. An even worse process of cultural genocide is taking place in Xinjiang Province, destroying the culture of the Uyghurs completely, for example by destroying their religion, forcing them into work camps, and replacing their Turkic-based language (Sudworth 2018). One outcome of the ‘territorialisation’, or take-over, of Tibet and Xinjiang is that these regions have lost their autonomous ethnic status. In the case of Tibet, many Tibetans are moving into cities (Yeh 2013). In the case of Uyghurs, they are simply being replaced by recent Han Chinese migrants. Both Uyghurs and Tibetans use new technologies and communication facilities to create their own ethnic communities in these growing cities, demanding an end to the destruction of their distinctive identities, happening under the state’s watchful eye (Dorjee 2017). On the one hand, Tibetans’ mobility is encouraged and facilitated by the state, but their migration outside China is severely restricted. Delays in processing passports for ethnic minority Chinese, from Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hui, for example, can last years. Passports are routinely denied, for no valid reasons. As one Tibetan blogger put it: ‘Getting a passport is harder for a Tibetan than getting into heaven’ (Human Rights Watch 2015b: 1).

For other groups in China, the longer-term consequences of forced rural to urban migration have included the creation of a more or less permanent underclass in many Chinese cities, with the counterpart being the destruction of viable rural towns and villages. Where life was formerly guided by customs and religious beliefs, these are now lost or neglected. The dreaded Hukou system, bizarrely, is still in place, and Chinese people from rural areas are still discriminated against in urban areas (Wallis 2016). The dream of anyone moving to the city in the past was to obtain Hukou, or urban status, which allows access to social benefits, better medical facilities, and higher-quality schools for children. Instead, schooling for children of young rural migrants has become a serious problem, resulting in millions of children being separated from their parents so they can live in the villages and go to schools there (Fan 2017).

Figure 21.8 Migration flows inside China, 2010–15 (in millions)

Note: The direction of the flow is defined by the colour of its origin, and its width shows the volume of movement. Migration from and to each region is measured in millions.

Source: Reproduced from Qi, W. et al. (2017), ‘Circular visualisation of China’s internal migration flows 2010–2015’, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49/11: 2432–6.

The outcome of this system of Hukou is that millions of children in China now live with their elderly family members. Chinese observers are concerned that an entire generation is growing up without the love and care of their own parents. Those children who do manage to move to the city with their parents are lucky to find a school to go to. They face severe social discrimination from families and children of urban descent and are insulted as ‘country bumpkins’. Cheap housing in urban areas, essential for new p. 474migrants as places to live affordably while saving their low incomes, are steadily demolished, with property speculation eating up more and more of the old city centres and suburban areas. This leaves newcomer industrial workers, who form the backbone of the cheap labour force for industry, adrift in the cities, and vulnerable during pandemic lockdowns. They become a floating, shifting, and rootless population, moving from one urban slum to another, and despite their often-impossible situation in the city, as they become steadily more disconnected from their rural homes, their prospects of ever returning there are dim (de Haas 2017).

21.7 Conclusion: moving beyond the containment of human mobility

As discussed in Section 21.6, containment policies tend to fuel clandestine migration, and also obscure some potential benefits of refugee and migratory movements, for economic growth and for culture and the arts. The result is that: ‘South–North migration has shown an unprecedented persistence over recent decades and has actually increased since the 1990s’ (de Haas 2007: 820). Containment has its price. Once an individual or family moves, p. 475say from Southern Sudan to the US, from Somalia to Scotland, from Uganda to the Gulf, it becomes hard to return to their countries of origin permanently. They dare not risk losing residency status in the wealthier country. Instead they stay and hope. Border closures, lockdowns, visa restrictions, and retaliatory wall building keep people in as well as out.

In future, is it conceivable that selective opening up of borders could produce some win-win situations? Without smugglers and traffickers involved, host and migrant populations alike could benefit from circular migration, producing better developmental outcomes all round as well as reduced poverty. The few examples of relatively unrestricted migration movements in the world (e.g. within the EU, or between the French overseas territories and mainland France) show relatively positive results for all involved. The trap of what is called KI—Keeping In—is avoided as those who prefer to move back and forth can do so, for work, education, and family life.

‘The West’ generally wishes simultaneously to attract highly skilled migrants and to exploit migrant manual labourers. Governments generally reject demands to extend citizenship rights to migrants, although they sometimes do so for migrant children. Restrictive migration management in the West ignores that one day Europeans too may require greater freedom of movement. A much more humane policy now towards those Frantz Fanon called: the ‘wretched of the earth’, would protect the West from risks in the longer-term of having to move. Europe itself may one day be beleaguered again by war, rising sea levels, persecution, and poverty. Those who are now viewed by the West as threatening migrants may one day prove reluctant hosts in their turn. Hopes for a decent life are universal, and everyone’s safety concerns could dovetail. Perhaps once this is acknowledged, a more generous hosting in the community and the economy may emerge in the West and in Gulf countries too. Migrant workers and refugees already help formerly dominant and wealthy countries decline with dignity, by doing much of the caring and manual labour (Fanon 2004: 279, orig. 1961)!

This economistic perspective can be balanced by a more political approach, where legal reforms are vital to encourage circular migration, including of refugees. To mitigate disasters, it makes sense to envisage human mobility as multidirectional for all, and not just for some. Not only the most highly skilled professionals, but also poor people and ordinary migrants need to be removed from the enormous costs and risks involved in irregular and criminalised movement.

Recent research suggests EU member state governments are out-of-step with EU public opinion, which strongly supports offering safety and protection for genuine refugees. For those forcibly returned, this is contrary to the principle of non-refoulement (which prohibits forcible return of someone prior to claiming asylum). The right to asylum should be protected, according to polls among the EU public (Blitz 2017; Bulley 2017). This, at least, gives some grounds for future optimism, as do some reforms during COVID-19 to grant health rights to migrants, for example. Perhaps more developmental migration policies will finally emerge, less concerned with security, and reflecting these positive public attitudes, so win-win solutions can release development and humanitarianism from its security straitjacket. The outcome would be a fairer migration system globally.


This chapter situates human mobility at the intersection of security and development.

Capitalism prompted much of the population of Europe to move out of rural areas into cities, and from there imperialism led to huge forced and voluntary migration towards settler colonies.

By tying development funding and humanitarian aid to cooperation of developing states in migration control, ‘the West’ uses development aid to criminalise whole categories of migrants, well beyond its borders.

Myths around migration perpetuate containment and control that keeps around 90 per cent of forced migrants and refugees in or near their home regions.

More humane migration and asylum policies could benefit host and home countries alike, in the long run. Migrants can be viewed as economic assets, a demographic boon, and a source of cultural enrichment.

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