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Security in a world of people on the move

By Swarna Rajagopalan

Open societies, unfettered communication, easy travel, free interaction between people, ideas and goods are all desirable factors of an increasingly mobile world. But what are the security consequences of this increased mobility? How should one monitor or regulate the flow of people?

security consequences of this increased mobility

No one is an island; this cliché reflects the peripatetic nature of the human experience. In our own region, far from being isolated and unchanging, Indians have always been part of a world in motion, encountering traders, missionaries, scholars, explorers, monks, raiders, invaders and settlers as part of their everyday social reality, across the length and breadth of this subcontinent. In turn, people from the Indian subcontinent have also travelled outside. What has changed, as writers on this present phase of globalisation point out, is that these encounters have become more numerous, intense and frequent. Moreover, they occur in a climate of greater interconnectedness, both in the sense of interdependence and connectivity.  

The most common metaphors for the international state system in traditional scholarship are balls on a billiards table and sealed, mutually exclusive, black boxes. During all of the decades that theories were written about these, humans were bustling about, moving from here to there, across greater and greater distances. Needless to say, there are many ways in which security affects this predisposition of humans to reach out, move and interact; and this mobility makes a difference to security.  

In South Asia, since the 1980s, the idea that increased travel, trade and people-to-people contact would build confidence and trust between adversarial neighbours has become conventional wisdom. The scope of multi-track interactions and dialogue programmes slowly expanded far beyond the elite Neemrana process (which continues) to include many other sections of Indian and Pakistani citizenry. Some of these initiatives also brought in professionals from other South Asian countries. Increased interaction and exchange in sports, arts and entertainment have further extended this to popular culture. And over almost three decades, it seems clear that these processes have wrought what might be an irrevocable change in the climate surrounding India-Pakistan relations.  

On the flip side, not double-bolting the door would seem to make it easier to break the lock and enter. That is one lesson that has been read from transborder training and transport of militants and the Mumbai terror attacks. The ease with which money is now exchanged, apartments rented, SIM cards bought and replaced and  calls made back and forth in the middle of shoot-outs, suggests that opening doors is tantamount to opening the floodgates to insecurity. 

The relationship between increased contact -- specifically travel and migration -- and security is hardly a straightforward one. That is the proposition that this essay explores.  

The impress of migration 

In this day and age, a person who has never moved, never met anyone who has and has no family history of migration is most likely a fictional character.  

Most of our lives bear the impress of migration over generations. Many of these took place in search of employment or better prospects. Sometimes relocation was necessitated by disaster or ecological damage. Sometimes people were displaced by conflict or had to move for political reasons. Families carry the memories of these multiple migrations as oft-repeated stories, treasured photographs, food habits, celebrations, a taste for particular colours or practices and quite often, nostalgia for lost worlds that in fact no longer exist. Individuals inherit these and on occasion, craft and articulate from these elements ideologies of belonging and alienation.  

In addition, the worlds of international education and multinational companies contribute millions of individuals who move for long periods, but not necessarily permanently, to new places. So do government officials on delegation abroad. Such individuals come to belong to many places at once, and combine their cosmopolitan experience with particular memories of belonging and alienation and a consciousness of identities that could transcend political divisions. 

Salman Rushdie is a good example. As much a New Yorker or a Londoner as a global Indian, his writing expresses the repository of his Indian memories and imaginings as much as it does the cosmopolitan nature of his own experiences.  

But migration is not just an international experience, of course. Within a nation-state, within India too, people move for years on end without changing their ‘native place’ or their ‘permanent address.’ Students in hostels, including the long-term residents of university hostels, leave their homes and meet and live with people from across the country, homesickness and discovery twin strands of their interaction. From their shared experience and in their conversations, each cohort fashions a new India. So it is with Indians who have what we describe as ‘transferrable jobs’. In their homes, housing colonies and clubhouses, they forge a new community within India’s existing mosaic—those who belong everywhere but go home to their ‘native place’ in the summer.  

Less exalted but as omnipresent are migrants without address or appointment letter. Many of them pour into cities looking for a livelihood, leaving an agrarian India that is in distress. Sometimes the distress is compounded by disaster or economic policies like Special Economic Zones.  

Forced migration is a category unto itself, and conflict, disaster and trafficking are three contexts in which it takes place. Forced migration not only affects the most vulnerable in a society, but also reinforces their vulnerability to further exploitation.   

This rubric of ‘people on the move’ (used also by the Commission on Human Security) must also include those who undertake short-term travel, for business, for pleasure, on missions (humanitarian or evangelical) and for meetings as small as a seminar and as large as the World Social Forum. These journeys expose travellers and hosts to difference and diversity, and create albums full of impressions and experiences that add new colours to their worldview. The political economic structures and the amenities that facilitate short-term travel of this sort have their own impact on security, as we will see. Armchair travel through mass media and the Internet is another dimension, but we will place it on the backburner for now.  

So what? Lessons for security scholars 

Embedded (but seldom explicitly articulated) in the way scholars and policymakers viewed security is the view that change is not a desirable option. But the narrative of a world full of people on the move is a narrative of change at many levels: location, story, experience, identity and attitude at the individual level, and law, permission to enter, assimilation and integration at the collective level. Mobility creates an altered context at the point of departure, the transit points and the host setting, as well as the traveller/migrant and people along the way. On the one hand, we inhabit a time and place where nothing and no one stands still, and on the other, we embed 'stability' into the way we understand security, adding tension to the complex interplay between reality and concept, mobility and security. 

The search for security as a push factor for mobility 

Like every other term we use to describe human experience, ‘the search for security’ is really a continuum of conditions: from acute physical insecurity (for instance, those fleeing genocide) to a search for better livelihood security (such as migration following drought). Flight is the one category of migration that is most obviously admissible into an exploration of the relationship between mobility and security. 

Genocide may be the most dramatic reason for human flight, but whether a political situation may be described as genocide is often a central conflict issue. Violent political repression nevertheless constitutes one reason for people to move. Examples, unfortunately, abound—for instance, the Holocaust, the flight of East Pakistanis in 1971, the Rwandan genocide, recent crises in Burma and Darfur.  

Conflicts, between States, within States and between groups within a State, create unliveable conditions for ordinary people. Rivals in the conflict create the conditions for evacuation as they repeatedly ‘clear’ villages. As the battlelines get drawn and re-drawn across a conflict-affected area, people are shunted from camp to camp. Sometimes the journey takes them back to their original hometowns, but with streets and homes altered beyond recognition. Tamils and Sinhalese living in the borderzones of the Sri Lankan conflict have lived this experience for a generation.  

For some refugees, displacement does not just become a way of life, but also their identity marker. Jews and Palestinians both exemplify how a history of flight and dispersal can come to mark the collective identity and political agenda of a people. Closer home, more than 60 years after the partition of India, those who moved to Pakistan from different parts of India are still Muhajirs. Recognition of a separate identity on this basis has been a political issue for representatives of this community. The departure of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir at the start of the insurgency and Tamils from Sri Lanka after the July 1983 riots are recent examples.  

Violent conflict, insurgency and military action all have the consequence of displacing people. But obviously, people have also fled for other reasons. Religious repression or persecution and a fear of cultural extinction are also push factors. Zoroastrians fled Persia, the Pilgrim Fathers Britain, Jews Nazi territories and most recently, Tibetans Tibet for this reason. Flight and the circumstances preceding and/ or following it continue to colour their identities.  

Migration also follows natural disasters. Dramatic disasters like the 2004 tsunami, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, destroy homes, families and livelihoods. In some western States, asylum is now occasionally extended to encompass other humanitarian grounds such as escaping harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation or honour killing.  

The search for livelihood security takes migrant workers to urban centres and even foreign countries, where they may or may not settle and assimilate.  The search for survival often means just a minimum wage job and a space on the pavement to sleep -- no more than a step away from the original bad situation. However, the migrant seems to stand out and provoke nativist ire, whether it is the non-Maharashtrian resident in Mumbai or the North African guestworker in Europe. 

In fact, in most of these cases, migration does not necessarily create security; it merely removes the individual or the group from one set of immediate dangers to another set of vulnerabilities.  

People on the move = proliferating insecurity? 

A world of people on the move, for security or other reasons, has consequences for security as well—within and across borders. Here we look briefly at four categories of problems that emanate or are exacerbated by population mobility.  

Insiders and outsiders 

In India, Bombay/ Mumbai has been the ultimate dream-destination for generations. But in the last 50 years, we have witnessed increasing xenophobia in a city whose greatness was built on the enterprise and effort of migrants from many communities. A twinning of anxieties—cultural and economic—creates situations in which nativist groups hold to ransom the security of individuals and families and this creates a law and order crisis in the city. The security crisis that follows affects economic activity and is sometimes so acute, as with the Bombay riots of 1992-93, as to prompt migrants to reverse their journeys.  

But nativism is not restricted to Bombay or even just cities.  There is an impulse in contemporary politics to identify land with language/culture and define jurisdiction in terms of this territorialised entity. Furthermore, people realise and political leaders exploit and mobilise, around the political consequences of demographic change in a majoritarian democracy, where the numbers of one community are perceived as rising faster than others. The Assam agitation of the 1980s was a response to such a perception. Migration, largely illegal, from Bangladesh was seen as upsetting the electoral balance in Assam. Assamese-speakers already felt that their space was diminished by the creation of new states in northeast India. The appearance of migrants’ names on electoral rolls raised questions about belonging, citizenship and the right to vote that snowballed into a very violent student-led agitation. 

Nor is this restricted to India. Where access to employment and opportunity are predicated on knowing the host-country’s language, the inability or refusal of migrants to learn that language locks them into a marginal existence in the host-country. With growing numbers, the market sometimes turns bilingual or multilingual, long before society is ready for it. Debates in the US over the adoption of Spanish as a second language and controversy in France over head-scarves presage the kind of violence that suburban Paris saw a couple of years ago in immigrant neighbourhoods.  

What form should the integration of the migrant take? Should the migrant assimilate? Should a society embrace its emerging multicultural identity? Migration and the presence of migrants thus return us to questions about the founding, composition and nature of a given polity, pointing to the potential for these questions to become security crises.  

Forced to move, future uncertain 

Those forced to move are more often than not below the radar, undocumented, unprotected, disenfranchised and unrepresented. As such, they face every kind of insecurity, and having nothing to lose, are ripe for recruitment for a variety of purposes—from sex work to criminal activities to militant operations. 

Those who move because of the outbreak of violence or because of a disaster do not necessarily move to a better situation. Sometimes they remain homeless for a long time; their ability to earn a living is often diminished and their children's access to schooling interrupted by their shifting from one transit point to another. 

The internally displaced are the worst-off. There are no legal frameworks or protections that govern the way they are treated. They are both visible as intruders into a new space and invisible as populations needing special assistance. In the crowd of the city (which inevitably draws them), they are indistinguishable from other migrants and therefore, unprotected from nativist ire although they may have had far less choice as to whether to flee and where to go. 

In some cases, especially where flight from a conflict is to specially designated camps, conflict parties use these spaces to indoctrinate and recruit. The Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan became the nursery for the Taliban, with young soldiers replenishing the ranks of fallen mujahideen.   

For women, camps create special insecurities. The incidence of gender violence rises in any crisis situation and displacement is certainly one. Absence of simple amenities creates health problems, and project designs predicated on patriarchal conditions sometimes leave them no access to nutrition or compensation. Women and children become very vulnerable to both sexual exploitation and trafficking. 

Trafficked women and children form a last category of forced migrants. They have virtually no bargaining position even to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases or HIV and AIDS. Their insecurities patently increase after they are trafficked, and on every level. In turn, unable to protect themselves, they unwittingly become the vectors of disease with their clients, contributing to a public health crisis that is large enough to constitute a long-term security threat to most societies and States.  

Diaspora support for conflicts 

The role of diaspora communities in supporting conflict is well-documented. For every political refugee who lands on new shores to rebuild her life in a quieter environment, there are expatriate communities active in the politics of either or both their host-State and their home-State.  

The United States is home to several examples. Irish-Americans as a community were divided along the same lines as the conflict in the country they had long left behind. Jewish-Americans have been a key factor in the making of US Middle East policy. Most recently, Indian-Americans replicate both the cultural and political divisions of India in the US, and lobby US lawmakers to promote their viewpoints. As with the Irish and other groups, Indian-American groups are also engaged with Indian social and political issues, lending support to organisations with which they sympathise.  

Two recent examples of South Asian militancies that have received enormous expatriate support are the movements for Khalistan and Eelam. Both have become textbook cases for global mobilisation, fund-raising, diversification and networking.  

In some cases, the expatriate community is also an easy target for extortion. Guilt and nostalgia work together to make them donors towards causes that they have actually tried to escape.  

Expanding horizons, proliferating risks 

Short trips for business and pleasure and long stays for business and education have become more common in the last 50 years than at any time in history. In order to promote business and tourism, States have eased visa and currency regulations so that it is possible to make a trip on impulse to another country, get a visa on arrival and withdraw local currency out of an ATM to which your own bank affiliates. If you travel to this destination frequently, you might even own a local phone SIM or a phone which accommodates multiple SIMs. But it is not just business travellers, tourists, students and Indian parents and their NRI children who can avail these facilities. 

Replacing the old hawala transactions and cloak-and-dagger entries into a new State, are the conveniences of a shrinking world in the age of globalisation. Transnational criminal organisations were the first to avail these facilities but terrorist groups have not been far behind. In fact, these changes in the political-economic environment have certainly facilitated linkages between transnational criminal organisations and terror outfits.  

Another consequence of which we have become aware in the last decade or so is the threat to public health. The world learned an important lesson when avian flu first broke out: travellers inadvertently become vectors of infection. Travel advisories are now issued in the interest both of the traveller and the public health scenario in a given State. Nevertheless, the spread of the epidemic has been rapid each time.  

Moral of the story 

Is insecurity the cause of mobility or its opportunity cost?  The answer appears to be “all of the above”. 

The most common visuals to symbolise ‘security’ are all about denial of access: padlock, locked door, gate, wall, an encircling fence. Ironically, the feeling of security is experienced as freedom, breathing easily and a relaxed state of being. Where the impulse to open up the fortress and the imperative to pull up the drawbridge exercise an equally compelling appeal, we act out this very contrast. 

This essay has described both the way in which different kinds of insecurity prompt short and long-term, forced and voluntary migration, as well as the security ramification of various migration and travel situations. The question that remains is the practical one: What to do about this?  

Where insecurity causes people to move out, the answer is simply stated but merely points to several other Pandora’s Boxes: solve the problems that make people leave. For now, we will leave it at that. 

The challenge of dealing with the security consequences of mobility is greater. There is enough that is desirable about open societies, unfettered communication, easy travel, free interaction between people and exchange of ideas and goods, and arguably, the preferences, habits and systems related to these are too entrenched to change even if it were not desirable. Therefore, the answer lies in finding ways to monitor, even regulate, the flow of people rather than stop it.  

However, the moment you say ‘monitor’ or ‘regulate’ you step into grey areas: how much, how, who decides, who arbitrates? The ancient freedom versus order debate is relevant again, and all of human thinking related to it. It reminds us that these questions are not new, that many answers have been tried and this open, interconnected world in which we live may in fact be the best answer for this time. So we return to the drawing board to think about who we are and how we relate to each other—crossing lines all the time, on the map and elsewhere.

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit.) 

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009

Endnotes

  1. Nayan Chanda, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press, (2007) narrates humanity’s peripatetic history.
  2. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, “Globalization: What’s New? What’s Not? (And So What?),” in The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, 2nd ed., ed by David Held and Anthony McGrew. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005: 75-83.
  3. There has been a great deal of writing on these initiatives by participants. A sampling:
    • Sundeep Waslekar, Track-Two Diplomacy in South Asia, ACDIS Occasional Papers, 1995, http://acdis.illinois.edu
    • Aqil Shah, Non-Official Dialogue between India and Pakistan: Prospects and Problems, ACDIS Occasional Paper, 1997, http://acdis.illinois.edu/
    • Navnita Chadha Behera, Paul M. Evans and Gowher Rizvi, Beyond boundaries: A report on the state of non-official dialogues on peace, security & cooperation in South Asia, Ford Foundation, 1997;
    • Chetan Kumar, “Citizens’ Initiatives in South Asia: Lessons from the Indo-Pak Conflict,” in Security and South Asia: Ideas, Institutions and Initiatives, edited by Swarna Rajagopalan, Routledge, 2006, 179-199.
  4. This is a point that Benedict Anderson makes in his now-classic Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 1991.
  5. “Chapter 3: People on the Move,” Human Security Now, Final Report of the Commission on Human Security, 2003, http://www.humansecurity-chs.org