Migration and National Security

 By Anjali Nambiar


The world today is more connected than ever before with distances between countries being traversed in hours and information travelling at the speed of light. However, with migration enabled through connectivity, several challenges come at the fore. One of the major concerns is the challenge of regularisation of migration so as to ensure security of the receiving nations.

An international definition for migrant does not exist, however an individual who moves out of one’s country of residence temporarily or permanently is deemed a migrant. This movement could be motivated by multiple reasons, associated with the push and pull factors operating in the sending and receiving states respectively. While some travel looking for better opportunities in education, employment and welfare, others flee their home countries due to persecution, violence, discrimination deprivation, War and violence. The latter is driven by need rather than choice and hence requires a humanitarian response. A recent driver of migration has been climate change characterised by extreme weather events, which have given rise to climate refugees.

There is a difference between migrants and illegal immigrants which highlights the core issue of governance challenges associated with the phenomenon. The concept of an illegal migrant is defined by the receiving country’s policy on immigration and citizenship. India defines an illegal migrant as a foreigner who enters the country without valid travel documents or stays beyond the permitted period.[1]

Global Migration Trends and Responses

Migration is also seen worldwide with major incidents of refugee movements due to circumstances of violence, persecution or environmental disasters. The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state of Myanmar led to many seeking refuge in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries. The Syrian refugee crisis leading to waves of people showing up at the borders of countries in Europe and West Asia had rattled some of the receiving nations. Their major concern has been the “usurpation” of lower level jobs by the immigrants like in Jordan and Lebanon.[2] There have been instances in countries like Kenya and Tanzania in Africa where the radicalisation of refugees and presence of armed rebels in civilian refugee camps became a major hurdle. They waged wars against their origin countries while using the refugee camps as hide out and operating bases. These countries which were initially whole heartedly accepting of refugees fleeing persecution, turned hostile as the number of refugees increased significantly and changed the demographic profile of these countries.

Countries previously open to migrant influx, like Germany, are now closing their borders in response to their concerns over national security. This is also supplemented with the domestic sentiment towards immigrants as they are seen as threats to the local jobs and as a source of competition over limited resources.

However, as seen in Europe, the image of refugees being vulnerable to exploitation by terrorist groups could run the risk of migrants being termed as terrorists themselves. This could also be a part of the agenda of these terrorist organisations to generate xenophobic sentiments to further their divisive objectives.

Internal Security Concerns of India

There are two types or levels of security-human or national/state centric.[3] This article addresses the state-centric security concerns. The threats to the state could be direct or indirect. Direct threats are associated with the possibility of radicalization of refugees or influx of terrorists through refugee movements across borders. On the other hand, indirect threats are posed by the threats to opportunities or grievances in the receiving population with regard to the distribution and sharing of resources.[4]

India has traditionally been accepting of migrants whether it was from Tibet or Bangladesh. However, the porous border with Bangladesh has led to the problem of illegal migrants in the country. Moreover, the influx of migrants especially mass immigration in the North Eastern states has led to the indigenous people feeling overwhelmed with a change in the demographic profile of the state. Hence, the major concerns in terms of national security pertain to the economic and social security of the region.

With a lack of economic opportunities and the prevailing sense of insecurity in the local population, there are higher chances of instability arising out of fear. Poverty and deprivation can lead to crimes in desperate circumstances. They also are more vulnerable to terror outfits that can recruit them by promising better prospects and an income.

The National Security Advisor reported that there were cases of Rohingya migrants being used by the terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in J&K.[5] Even though such cases are few, it cannot be denied that economically and socially insecure migrants could very easily become pawns of terrorist organizations that seek their own ends.[6]

International Measures to Tackle Migration

The principal body at the intergovernmental level advising on the issue of migration is the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). It has become a related organisation of the United Nations in 2016 and currently has 173 member and 8 observer states.[7] It provides guidelines to the governments to help them tackle the issues associated with migration. One of the areas of its research is border management assistance, capacity building and identity management. A long term strategy for better management is provision of development assistance to countries of origin to address the dearth of economic opportunities which acts as a push factor.[8] IOM has also assisted countries like Afghanistan, Belarus and Sri Lanka in identity management by providing Migration Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS).[9]

Another principle is that of assisted and voluntary return which would require the cooperation of multiple actors with the government like civil society organizations and the migrants themselves. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was adopted in 2018. It defined a comprehensive framework which had 23 objectives for better governance of migration related issues. [10]

Refugees and Illegal Migrants

The Asylum Bill introduced as a private member bill in 2015 had defined the term “refugee” and proposed provisions safeguarding their interests and prohibiting forced return to the origin country. The Act defines a refugee as one who flees the country of origin due to a fear of persecution, violence and threat to life.[11] The bill also mentions mass influx of migrants and proposes that the Central government would have the power to impose reasonable restrictions on the movement or location of such migrants. This provision emphasizes the security measures required to safeguard the local population. Moreover, the registration of migrants through issue of identity cards would reduce ambiguity regarding their migrant status.

India has been the safe haven for many migrating communities escaping violence or natural disasters in their home countries. The governance of such issues has been done through bilateral cooperation and ad hoc measures. However, there is a gap in the policy structure as a national policy on refugees is yet to be framed. Such a policy would help in clear demarcation of categories for easier identification of illegal migrants from refugees. This is crucial to ensure that the rights of refugees are ensured while combating the challenge of illegal immigration motivated by economic factors.

Way Forward for Better Management and Global Harmony

The National Register of Citizens aims to create a database of all the citizens of India. This would help in making the distinction between migrant and citizen clear for the government to provide basic services. However, it has to be followed with integration of all communities without discrimination. It would also face obstacles in realization due to lack of documents especially those without birth certificates and school passing certificates.

Migration as a phenomenon cannot be controlled; however, it can be regulated through the issue of migrant identity and enactment of provisions discouraging illegal migration. The principles of IOM regarding border management could be adopted for digitisation and computerisation of records of migrants at the border areas. Moreover, the crux of resources necessitates bilateral and multilateral agreements to solve the issue amicably. Issues of violence or economic deprivation can be addressed by providing relief to the country by international lending associations like the World Bank.

The role of civil society organizations and the society becomes important in the context of threat perception and a more welcoming stance towards immigrants. While national security is on the top of every country’s agenda, there also needs to be a balanced effort at realizing human security for providing assistance to the migrants themselves. The conditions of war, persecution or economic deprivation in their source countries have to be addressed to ensure their development and the protection of their human rights which are threatened in case of illegal migration and dire conditions of stay in refugee camps. 


[1]The Citizenship Act 1955, Constitution of India.   http://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A1955-57.pdf

[2]Guzansky, Y., & Striem, E. (2013). Institute for National Security Studies. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/resrep08222

[3]Adamson, F. (2006). Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security. International Security, 31(1), 165-199. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4137542

[4]Stepputat, F. (2004). Danish Institute for International Studies. Retrieved March 17, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/resrep13292

[5]Mukharji, S. (10 February 2017). Pakistani terror groups are preying on vulnerable Rohingyas- India, Myanmar must act. DailyO. Retrieved March 17, 2020 from https://www.dailyo.in/politics/rohingya-terrorism-bangladesh-myanmar/story/1/15586.html

[6](13 July 2018). 36000 Rohingyas in India; terror links cannot be ruled out: BSF. Retrieved March 17, 2020 from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/36000-rohingyas-in-india-terror-links-cannot-be-ruled-out-bsf/articleshow/61850981.cms

[7] https://www.iom.int/about-iom

[8]IOM and Counter Migrant Smuggling. Department of Migration Management-Immigration and Border Management Division. International Organisation for Migration. Retrieved March 17, 2020 from https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/IBM/updated/10_FACT_SHEET_Smuggling_2015.pdf

[9]IOM and Identity Management. Department of Migration Management-Immigration and Border Management Division. International Organisation for Migration. Retrieved March 17, 2020 from https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/IBM/updated/06_FACT_SHEET_Identity_management_2015.pdf

[10]Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration. 13 July 2018. https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/sites/default/files/180713_agreed_outcome_global_compact_for_migration.pdf

[11]The Asylum Bill 2015 by Mr. Shashi Tharoor (M.P.)