The Securitization of Migration and Ethnic Minorities in the EU: An Interview with Matthias vom Hau

This is part of our special feature, Securitization of Identity.


European migration research, characterized by an incredibly rich interweaving of transnational social spaces, has for years been shining a spotlight on various global and local trends that are closely connected. I had the great pleasure of talking to Matthias vom Hau, Associate Professor and Director of SECUREU, in this special issue about current topics related to migration, ethnic minorities, and xenophobia in the EU. In doing so, I gained insights not only into his research on how nation-building takes place and how states deal with ethnic differences, but also into the research field of the SECUREU network, whose aim is to bring together different academic research fields on ethnicity, migration, and security in order to generate new research, train students and young researchers, produce policy briefs, and create new synergies around these important issues.

Mara-Katharina Thurnhofer for EuropeNow


EuropeNow What is your specific academic expertise, and what sparked your interest in that field?

Matthias vom Hau My work is on nationalism and ethnic politics, and on (state) institutions and development. I am a political and comparative-historical sociologist, so I am looking at long-term historical processes. I have mostly worked on Latin American topics in the past, but my current research is more cross-regional; I have also started to become more interested in Europe through where I live, namely Catalonia—and by extension—the Catalan nationalist movement. My interest in these topics is certainly connected to my biography, but there is also the element of chance. As a teenager, I moved with my family from a small town near Bonn (Germany) to Mexico City, so I partially grew up in Mexico. For me, it was very interesting to see how differently people in Germany and Mexico talked about national identity and how the state tried to convey particular ideas around national identity and history. To give you an example, the school textbooks in Germany and Mexico are very different in the way in which they talk about and which tone they use for their respective history, and how they conceive identities. The other reason probably has to do with being in certain places at certain times. I did my PhD in the US at Brown University and worked alongside a team of researchers who examined the long-term consequences of colonialism in Latin America.

EuropeNow What drew you to SECUREU?

Matthias vom Hau In 2017/2018, representatives from the consortium partners currently involved in SECUREU met at a symposium in Marburg. I remember a spark, and we decided further to explore the securitization of migration and ethnic minorities. The idea was to bring together scholars from securitization theory and ethnic conflict studies. We might be from distinct fields and speak a different theoretical language, and use different concepts when talking about these topics, but ultimately, we are interested in something similar.

In my own work, I am currently concerned with nation-building, or how states deal with ethnic differences within their territories. I am very concerned with the strategic reasoning behind when states decide to assimilate certain minorities, when they choose to accommodate certain ethnic-linguistic and ethnic-religious differences, and when states decide to exclude or remove minorities physically. Very similar questions can be asked about securitization. When and why do states choose to securitize minorities? When we ask these questions, can we identify similarities between approaches? So beyond meeting a group of interesting people, what got me hooked is the possibility to learn more about securitization, but also bridge currently rather disconnected fields of study.

EuropeNow Could you tease out the relationalities between what you research and the aims of SECUREU?

Matthias vom Hau There are interesting parallels between questions of nation-building and questions of securitization if one thinks about securitization as a way to justify exceptional measures (to move beyond routine politics). In particular, I am curious about what kind of nation-building policies are particularly prone to securitization. For example, when a state decides to demographically reengineer its population and remove certain minorities, then securitizing that group is more likely than when the state seeks to accommodate ethnic differences.

But the goals of SECUREU obviously move beyond my personal research interests. And they are still being discussed and sharpened among network members as we speak. At the most basic level, we aim to bring the field of nationalism/ethnicity and the field of securitization into conversation with each other. This is probably best achieved by identifying a set of substantive problems or limitations in existing research that could be addressed by drawing on both perspectives. In November 2021, more than thirty scholars came together for our opening symposium in Barcelona. One of the results from this first SECUREU encounter is that we already know a lot about how and when states securitize minorities. But there is not much scholarly work done on the majorities (or core groups) in whose name states claim to rule and how they behave as securitizing actors, for example, through nativism and xenophobia. Another issue we want to take forward is the responses of securitized minorities. How do they deal with being securitized? What agency do securitized minorities hold, and to what extent are their responses shaped by the kind of securitization they are exposed to? This is another shared theme that came out of the first symposium.

EuropeNow In your research, you aim to identify the specific causal mechanisms that link ethnicity to state capacity. What are the most important/significant ideas or elements of understanding the links between ethnicity and state capacity?

Matthias vom Hau There is the commonsense idea, also backed up by some research, that states in highly diverse societies are expected to not have the necessary capacity for the provision of public goods and services. But there are also many examples, such as Canada and Singapore, that defy this claim. So, this issue should be looked at from a different perspective. Ethnic diversity does not fall from the sky but is historically constructed. And this is where my current work comes in. I am especially concerned with how variations in historical levels of state capacity and nation-building strategies have long-term consequences for contemporary diversity. A strong state that seeks to assimilate its population into a homogenous identity, France, for example, is more likely to achieve this goal because it provides, on the one hand, incentives for minorities to adopt the dominant language or religion, and it also has centralized control over education, and it, therefore, can socialize citizens. Similarly, strong states that seek to accommodate differences, for example, through linguistically differentiated education systems or affirmative action programs for ethnoracial minorities, will reproduce diversity over time. But when you have weak assimilation states, then state leaders may attempt to create a homogenous national identity, but their capacity to do so through schools, public jobs, and other means remains severely limited, and might in fact create grievances and reactive identities among minorities. So, in the end, I would like to understand how historical variations in state capacity and nation-building have shaped contemporary patterns of ethnicity, rather than treating ethnic diversity as an inherent obstacle to state capacity.

EuropeNow Does the neglection of ethnicity as a determinant of state capacity influence the EU’s challenges based on far-right populism and anti-foreign sentiment?

Matthias vom Hau A focus on nation-building suggests the following, and this line of thinking can already be found in the older nation-building literature such as Karl Deutsch and is made more explicit in recent work by Andreas Wimmer: National states are based on an exchange relationship. What engenders the sense of attachment and loyalty to the national community is the expansion of public goods and services, for example, in the form of a universal social security system. The implication of this perspective for the European Union is that as long as social security remains organized nationally, it reinforces loyalties at the national level. And this probably reinforces anti-EU feelings and maybe even sets the stage for anti-foreigner sentiments. In other words, as long as you do not move critical issues such as taxation and or some form of social security to the European level, it is very difficult to create an exchange relationship that gets us away from ideas of the EU as an elitist club that only serves particular interest groups.

EuropeNow How would you inspire a young scholar to work or get involved in this area of research?

Matthias vom Hau We are organizing a summer school on the securitization of undocumented migrants in Amsterdam during the summer of 2022. There we seek to bring in young scholars, especially PhD scholars from our partner institutions, but we also offer an open application. My recommendation to young scholars is to use their time and read widely, get your hands into different approaches and fields, don’t specialize too narrowly. That is then the basis for interesting ideas and perspectives, and where the initial spark for truly innovative research could happen.



Matthias vom Hau is an associate professor at IBEI and director of the SECUREU network. His research focuses on the relationship between ethnic politics, nationalism, and state-building. He has published widely on how states construct a sense of national belonging, how civil society actors negotiate and contest official nationalism, and the extent to which ordinary citizens support official and counter-state identity projects. In his most recent line of work, funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant, he challenges the supposedly negative relationship between ethnic diversity and public goods provision and instead advances a case for analyzing ethnic heterogeneity and public goods provision over time, by treating both as endogenous to macro-historical processes of nation-building and state institutional development.

Mara-Katharina Thurnhofer is a Digital Fellow at the Council for European Studies. She is currently pursuing an international master’s degree in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS) offered by a consortium of European universities. Before starting her Master’s, she successfully completed a bachelor’s degree in social sciences at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany. Her academic and personal interests intertwine in topics such as feminist security studies, the intersectionality of gendered violence, and gender approaches to cybersecurity and technology.


Published on April 18, 2022.



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