“What times are these in which it is necessary to defend the obvious.” Bertolt Brecht

Human migration, a vector of transformation and a symbolic manifestation of the globalized world, has gradually taken on a more compulsive and tragic aspect in recent years. We are seeing growth in national state police and security apparatus on a greater scale and intensity1, particularly around so-called western “fortresses” where the situation is most acute. In Europe, one of the main regions of the world that receives immigrants, migratory pressure has taken on greater importance due to the growth in the flow of refugees from 2015, triggering a wave of alarming anti-immigrant sentiment, albeit also displays of solidarity. In the United States, the new force that came into power in late 2016 is implementing a xenophobic policy that marks an unprecedented acceleration of a trend that has been making inroads since 2001. Some regions outside of the West, including stable ones, are showing similar signs. Others mark a counter-trend, such as in Africa and Latin America, displaying voluntaryism in favour of multilateral norms2. Ultimately, it seems that “migratory time” has turned back to the middle of the last century, to between the two world wars, when an atmosphere of fear and exclusion reigned amid the rise of totalitarianism and nationalism. Aside from the hard facts of reality, how can we understand the path taken by human mobility on a global and regional level? What prospects can be seen ahead?

Some figures on immigration

It is estimated that at present there are approximately a billion migrants, including 250 million transnational migrants, or 3.3% of the world population (concentrated mainly in ten destination countries) and 750 million internal migrants, representing a total of thirty percent of the planet’s workforce. Sixty percent of migration occurs between similarly-developed countries, with a growing trend for South-South and intra-regional migration. In 2016, 64.5 million people were forcedly displaced because of conflicts, multiple violence and natural disasters, including 17.1 million refugees exiled from their countries of origin. Ninety percent of refugees were taken in by different countries in the global South, mainly Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan, while only one million people entered the Schengen Area (refugees accounted for 0.2% of the total population of the European Union; six percent of the global total of refugees are in Europe.) One in five migrants lives in one of the twenty largest cities in the world. Money transfers from migrants totalled 450 billion dollars in 2015 (the middle and lower classes of India, China, Philippines, Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria and Egypt are the main recipients of these funds), three times total public development aid. The year 2015 was also the most lethal for migrants according to IOM statistics3, with 5,400 dead or missing at global level (of which 3,771 died or disappeared in the Mediterranean.) Figures from the Universidad de Zacatecas in Mexico give a much higher number: approximately 7,000 disappeared in Mexico in the year 2015 (with an estimated 70,000 missing in the years from 2006 to 2017.)

This short overview, which obviously cannot account for all the infinite variety of contexts, is not really news, but it does suggest a point of peak and inflection that tends to be called a “migration crisis.” Although the idea is gaining ground4 that migration is a cornerstone of what it is to be human5, of human rights and globalization6, in practice it has always been a disturbing force of social and political structures, marking moments of crisis, expansion or reflux. Angela Merkel has illustrated this various times in referring to “existential proof” of political systems regarding the current migratory pressure in Europe.

Flat World and the return of passions

Migration is closely related to economic opportunities and historically to religious flows and conflicts. In migrating, people generate a vast resignification and horizontal broadening of economic, identitary, cultural, legal and political territories, historically ordered in the framework of national states. At the start of this century, Thomas Friedman tried to reflect this expansive phenomenon with the metaphor of a transition towards a “flat world”7. Other geopolitologists, such as Dominique Moïsi, Stanley Hoffman and Pierre Hassner, understood that the globalizing movement brought with it a “return of passions”, that is, the idea that collective emotions have become a key variable in international relations8, more explicative in many cases than geopolitical, financial, or geographical factor9.

While we won’t go into the details of these notions here, we can underline that these two axes have had considerable underground consequences—often underestimated—on the social structure and these become central when it comes to making sense of the migratory inflection: on the one hand transnational phenomena form a denser and more complete network, disturbing the structures in place to a greater extent, a fortiori at a time of economic destabilization (“deglobalization”, as a continuation of the 2007-08 crisis.) On the other hand, the migration crisis clashes today with the shaking of traditional identitary frameworks and the cracking of international relations, particularly national and collective security frameworks. Greater instability caused by a denser, changing transnational matrix leads to a greater identitary overflow and a downturn in national fortifications.

Perceptions, Identity and Fear

Beyond the political response to migration from the vast majority of industrialized states, how can the social rejection of migrants and refugees in certain places be explained? Is it more than an irrational, identitary reflex rooted in the subjective terrain of the population? Dominique Moïsi’s hypothesis in The Geopolítics of Emotion is that, unlike in the last century, the present day tends to be oriented towards a paradigm ruled much more by identitary character struggles than by a confrontation of ideological schools with their respective political models (or cultural-civilizing models, to use Samuel Huntington’s phrase.) Their approach to identity takes in a new pattern of equality, complementarity and interdependence among peoples driven by globalization. It is not a watchword for the end of ideologies, as militant capitalism tries to insinuate. Rather it is a centrality of social memory, of an accumulation of resentment, of the leading, critical relationship with modernity and with the system-world. More specifically, identitary-emotional resources, like hope or humiliation, are decisive in understanding the return of emergent countries such as China, India, Brazil and Russia, bringing with it a chipping away at western supremacy. This approach is in some way similar to the notion of “people’s diplomacy” present in popular movements in the Southern Cone or the “intersocial relations” matrix in the vision of French politologist Bertrand Babie.

From this point of view, it should be mentioned that in the central countries, diverse factors—moral contradictions highly evident in the European Union in terms of migratory policy or the disillusionment of a part of the population declassed internally by economic competition with emerging blocs—have consolidated a potent wave of fear and distrust. This emotional substrata is not alien to the ruling elites or reserved for reactionary sectors. As Arnaud Blin recalls10, the pressure of public opinion and emotional outbursts are part of everyday life for rulers responsible for international affairs, in a context where fear has become a political driving force11. The sociologist Tocqueville has also pointed out how progress in terms of peace and security in nations where the media rabidly visibilizes tragedies and hardship mean that the remaining or emerging elements of insecurity became socially intolerable. In fact, we can observe this trend and its instrumentalization on a daily basis in the United States (Donald Trump), Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan), the Philippines (Rodrigo Dutertre), Hungary (Viktor Orbán), Poland (Beata Szydlo) and other places.

The Italo-Argentine journalist Roberto Savio follows this line, highlighting that even in the electoral processes, the identitary factor competes increasingly in elections with political content, in an atmosphere marked by scepticism towards the legitimacy of the democracy system12. All these elements help us to weigh up the presence of the identitary factor in a continuum that stretches from within the society and the local to the international space. In turn, this matrix leads us to the ways in which each society updates, maintains and builds its identity in relation to an unstable international situation affected by migratory flows. One can see this travelling around countries like Argentina, Brazil, Australia or Canada, where the migrant memory is favourably integrated into the popular subconscious or in the story of national belonging. The perception is the opposite in India, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Libya, where there exists racism and notable ethnic classism. However, a large part of the current drama is that political actors from one broad spectrum—far from being restricted to the nationalist field—instead of guiding a political construction towards expanded identitary frameworks and raising understanding of the migratory phenomenon, tend on the contrary to instrumentalize this demand around immediate, clientelist visions. They fertilize the stigmatization of migration, often as an escape from other frustrations on the economic plane, and also under pressure from ultra-nationalist groups.

A 2016 Amnesty International study13 of the populations of twenty-seven countries on five continents revealed that an average of seventy-three percent of inhabitants are favourable towards receiving refugees and migrants. China, Germany, the UK, Canada, Australia and Spain topped the table. Other studies suggest that fifty-eight percent of the population of OECD countries have negative feelings towards migration (Euro Barometer, 2016.) It seems that invisible threats weigh more in the collective psyche and that wars are fabricated against non-existent enemies, as the Cimade network in Europe argues. Whatever the fluctuating state of these perceptions, it is important to highlight that the common sense or what John Galbraith termed the “conventional wisdom” of a population is essential in conditioning the nature of current migratory regulations. Tolerated truths, based on myths, imaginaries or beliefs broadcast on communication networks determine the course of politics, even when the weight of facts and reality tell a different story14. Political action in the field of human mobility tends to be influenced by these irrational, axiomatic factors, allowing itself to be shut in by what the electoral masses are willing to accept. The October 2016 migratory referendum in Hungary was a noteworthy example of this.

Security frameworks out of step with a change in the face of violence

The second axis, closely related to the above issue, is the worsening of the national security paradigm by states who, far from gaining effective improvements in terms of protection, can paradoxically constitute a central factor of insecurity. This inadaptation of traditional security frameworks is not limited to migration. Joseph Stiglitz and Mary Kaldor recall in The Quest for Security (2013) how the double whammy of the extension of transnational risks and the erosion of the protective role of the State (varying according to its breadth and geopolitical configuration) has created a new configuration. The overlap between the financial crisis of 2007-08, the successive collective security failures in the Arab Springs episode, climate change, social inequalities and the development of terrorist or mafia networks, against a background of shift eastwards in geopolitical power, represents great upheaval for security frameworks still formatted by the Cold War context. One of the keys for understanding this lag lies in the fact that forms of violence have evolved: violence tends to be rooted in the social fabric, spreading according to a rhizomatic, “irregular” logic, over which the use of conventional force has a limited impact. Consequently, migration is often associated with this type of irregular “new threat”, with terrorism at one end of the spectrum.

In the case of the western coalition’s military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and later in Libya in a context of a responsibility to protect, the result of the use of traditional military force has been a complete fiasco and a considerable breach of insecurity at the source of the current worsening of both the refugee situation and international terrorism. The case of Syria (and to a lesser extent the Democratic Republic of the Congo) perhaps synthesizes the checkmating of the international system’s protection mechanisms and the involvement of new forms of violence. In light of the earlier failure, no significant intervention has been possible from the multinational scene (without this intervention being necessarily a watchword for imperial ambition as in other cases), leaving the opportunity to new actors to fill this power vacuum and extend the conflict. These collective security failures are today a direct cause of the migration crisis in the Middle East and Europe, in addition to the fact that this same flow of refugees is not dealt with properly by various governments.

This detour by the failures of collective security allows us to return to the contradictions set out by the punitive approach to migratory policy. Historically, the closing of borders and the conversion of mobility into an irregular thing led to the development of an industrial, criminal development of migrations that proportionally finds its purpose in the blind spots or the obstacles put up by the institutional system. The income of this border security industry at global level was estimated in 2016 at 18 billion dollars annually (with a projection of 58 billion per year by 202215), second only to global revenue from drug trafficking. In Europe the border externalization programme FRONTEX has seen its budget increase 1336% over ten years16. Its extension is based, in the case of the United States with Central America, and the European Union with Turkey or Libya, on the economic cooperation frameworks that are conditioned by migratory or military securitization criteria. In the opposite direction, Turkey is now taking advantage of this dependence to exert pressure with diplomatic and economic demands on the EU.

Negationism and inversion of cause and effect

One structural constant in these cases, also visible in other sectoral policies, is a tendency for cause and effect, or ends and means, to be inverted. The identified weaknesses or processes are characterized outside of their historical and systemic context, without assuming that transnational risks have a circular relation which is now much more closely tied to the same system they take advantage of and feed off. The targets identified are in reality the collateral consequences or effects, such as transborder human trafficking networks or agents of illegal immigrant transport. The means used, i.e., the closure of borders, their militarization, and containment of mobility in the countries of origin, stand as a self-referential end, protected by the negation of migration as a transnational question disconnected from any human rights framework. The externalities of these policies lead precisely to the proliferation of certain forms of violence and the development of an economy of violation of human rights in all corridors of human movement. Its paroxysm is probably to be found in Mexico and Central America, with the chilling toll of 70,000 people disappeared in the last ten years, despite the growing militarization of the region.

This biased, “positivist” perspective of migrations extends to other sectoral fields. The vast majority of doctrinal counter-insurgence elements produced from 2001 in western military powers highlight the inherent risk of new phenomena and transnational players. Included among these are the human migrations that the Southern Command in Latin America, to give one example, designates not as a direct threat (save the case of natural catastrophe and humanitarian crisis) but as an indirect driver of other threats that have to be limited and contained17. Within the sphere of the WTO there is a strengthening of the criteria intended to condition the mobility of skilled labour in a process of recovery after the 2008 crisis. It is true that rhizomatic propagation and other transnational phenomena are a fact of reality. However, the permanence of an anachronistic approach, favouring a binary conception of “inside” and “outside”, ignoring other structural variables, is today an implicit declaration of powerlessness by the security apparatus. There are diagnosis errors, with consent to pay a collateral cost that grows higher and more unsustainable. On the geopolitical plain, this tendency to turn one’s back on the challenges of globalization also contributes to the break-up of the international system and the eroding of the foundations of the western model in favour of emerging powers.

In a comparable perspective, the global security analysis coordinated by Stiglitz and Kaldor in 2013 highlights this obsolescence of security approaches, mentioning among other elements the absence of a regulating power in the international system and the need for a new cohesion among sector policies. Federico Mayor Zaragoza, former Director General of UNESCO, recently called for a pact for a new security concept18. At the bottom of this, the “positivism” amplified many times over by nationalist, conservative ideologies depending on political contexts not only generates insecurity gaps and an erroneous modelization of reality. The most serious consequence is the erosion of the legitimacy of political systems when it is necessary to effectively guarantee human security and maintain a vicious circle where the use of force is dispersed beyond the state monopoly. It is true that in certain cases the strategy of militarization is used to cover up other objectives of social or territorial control. Furthermore, some maintain that the status quo is maintained by the weight of industrial-military conglomerates. However, the reality proves more complex. Although private interests are an undeniable lobbying force in political spheres, they have only succeeded so far in influencing indirectly geopolitical decisions taken by the States19.

It is revealing that the multiple proposals for moving towards a paradigm of human security from civil society resignify one by one the approaches listed above. These proposals promote the primacy of human rights instead of the migratory negation and the destructive economy of clandestine activity. They give prominence to the reconstruction of state legitimacy from a social, systemic approach. Instead of the militarization and privatization of security, the latter tends to be conceived as a common good, not reducible to state or corporate sovereignty, appealing to a social participation and a greater multilateral cooperation. The transnational space, often synonymous with a no man’s land and institutional anarchy in the migratory field, is resignified from an ethics of responsibility, interculturality and solidarity.

Walls and questioning the democracy of human rights

All this suggests that the inertia to maintain negationist, protectionist approaches in migratory policies is intended to last, but this time with a radically different demographic balance. The global south will account for eighty-five percent of the world population by 2025, with fifteen percent in Europe, the United States and Canada. Could it be that the present day will mark the end of the possibility of mass migration to the west? In addition to this, a critical relativism can be seen in the paradigm of democracy and human rights that the central sources have contributed—directly or indirectly—to eroding, often giving precedence to their own geopolitical interests in a geopolitical “proselytism.” It is no coincidence that an authoritarian-neo-national climate is growing, faced with the renouncements to deepen democracy, discipline economic liberalism and open roads to establish the international system.

In this regard, reality is implacable and becomes systemic: the negative impact on human rights is tied to the instability of the international system and the scattering of world powers20. Various emerging countries, with the influence of their new middle classes, show that they favour growth at all costs over the affirmation of rights. However, this present reflux must not hide the historic growth of new tools favourable to the rule of law, such as the International Criminal Court, the creation of the UN Human Rights Council, transitional justice, the Universal Periodic Review, the activism of civil society and the incorporation of rights in many academic spaces, etc. Each of these tools suffers offensives and difficulties. But they are gradually becoming institutionalized and they are fundamentally more adapted to contemporary problems as mentioned above with regards to the security approach.

On the multilateral scenario, some have been bold in responding more responsibly to the question of immigration. This was the case of Angela Merkel, who was rapidly criticised in 2015 for her excessive voluntaryism. Bolivian diplomacy organized in June 2017 the first World Conference of Peoples for a World without Walls for a Universal Citizenship21. In 2016, the multilateral process began for writing up a global pact for safe, orderly and regular migration22. If it remains to be seen what commitments the latter will bring in a context of unilateral security downturn, the Bolivian conference did at least attempt a qualitative leap, along with social movements, producing a set of visions more in accordance with the needs of the day. Migrations are conceived as a multidimensional factor of wealth and the basis of what we might call a global social protopolitics, based on four pillars: an expanded citizenship and identity (plurinational or “unidiversal”), the validity of human rights and the environment, the structural reform of the (post-neoliberal) economic matrix and a new balance in the international system.

Deactivating the migration crisis

Needless to say, many efforts and alliances will be necessary to renew the paradigm in which the role of borders, security and citizenship is settled, in a world that irreversibly set out on the globalizing adventure thirteen centuries ago, beginning with the Muslim expansion of the eighth century, long before the European colonial conquests, to the formidable technological, intercultural and trade acceleration that we have seen in the last fifty years. This has been an unprecedented driving force that migrants have sustained and embraced, absorbing their contradictions and opportunities. In this sense, although the present day increasingly imposes a modality of forced displacements, migrations still constitute an “erotizing” force in the world, a cry, a desire to find an existential solution and open new paths to the world. “To migrate is to live and exist” say the migrants. Denying human mobility or preventing it with military means is to hide this irreversible movement and leads, as we have seen above, to collateral damage that will be increasingly interconnected and unsustainable. The so-called migration crisis leads us, in short, to a crisis of ways of understanding and regulating human movement.

Ultimately, today’s migratory crossroads clashes with the fences of the different models of interpreting and relating to globalization. Some countries that have evangelized globalization since their beginnings without watching out for the excesses of their liberal drunkenness now reject its unpredictability and want to submit it to the service of their national interests, entrenching themselves in a strictly identitarian, nationalist vision. Others who have succeeded in getting back into the international race thanks to economic competition—naturally not without certain contradictions—need an active globalization to guarantee their dynamism and internal mobility. Others, lastly, distance themselves from ethnico-cultural cosmopolitanism and the opening up generated by free trade, often a watchword for western proselytizing, prioritizing again their national interest in a more authoritarian way. This struggle goes through all current borders and adds to the increase in security we are currently going through. It is down to the migrants to become aware of the moment and work out how to influence this dispute.


  1. See the pronouncements of the World Social Forums on Migrations from 2005 to the present.
  2. Convention on the Statute of Refugees (1951), Protocol on the Statute of Refugees (1967), International Pact of Civil and Political Rights (1966), International Convention to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination, International Convention on the protection of the rights of all migratory workers and their families (1990).
  3. All this data is taken from official sources: Global migratory trends 2015, IOM http://gmdac.iom.int/global-migration-trends-factsheet ; United Nations report on immigration 2015, UNDP.
  4. See declarations on the Global Pact for a shared responsibility for refugees, June 2016.
  5. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights (1948).
  6. Jiménez, Ricardo, Nuestra Patria debe ser el Universo, Propuestas para la migración en una nueva gobernanza mundial del siglo XXI, Foro por una nueva gobernanza mundial, 2010.
  7. Friedman, Thomas, The World Is Flat, 2006.
  8. Moïsi, Dominique, La géopolitique des émotions, 2009.
  9. Raymond Aron analyzed this perspective in 1962 in Peace and War, relativizing Mackinder’s determinism.
  10. Blin, Arnaud, Vers une nouvelle realpolitik, 2015, www.diploweb.com/Vers-une-nouvelle-realpolitik.html.
  11. Diccionario del poder mundial, 2013. https://poder-mundial.net
  12. Savio, Roberto, La decadencia de la democracia pasa desapercibidawww.other-news.info/noticias/2017/07/la-decadencia-de-la-democracia-pasa-desapercibida/
  13. Refugees Welcome Survey, Amnesty International, 2016, https://amnestysgprdasset.blob.core.windows.net/media/12806/amnesty-refugees-welcome-survey_globescan-topline-report_may2016_embargoed.pdf
  14. Benítez Torrado, José Manuel, Una propuesta de escenarios futuros del régimen europeo de las migraciones, ante el empuje de la migración africana, Grupo de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional, 2016.
  15. See: The Migrants Files www.themigrantsfiles.com.
  16. L’Europe est en guerre contre un ennemi qu’elle s’invente, La Cimade, 2016.
  17. Rossi, Adriana, Comando Sur – A la reconquista de América Latina, 2017.
  18. http://www.other-news.info/noticias/2017/08/ante-amenazas-globales-alianzas-globales/
  19. This was the case of the Second Iraq War when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were backing Halliburton interests, but took a decision based on geopolitical and personal interests.
  20. Jeangène Vilmer, Jean-Baptiste, La fin des droits de l’Homme?, 2017.
  21. www.mundosinmuros.gob.bo
  22. https://www.iom.int/global-compact-migration

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