Securitization of Identity

An introduction to our special feature, Securitization of Identity.


The war in Ukraine has brought Europe together as a political project with countries opening their arms to fleeing migrants. Likewise, when the Libyan regime collapsed in 2011, the previous controls on migration failed and people smugglers took advantage of the chaos to send thousands out to sea in flimsy boats. The response from Europe, and particularly the countries on the frontline, was to rescue those in danger of drowning on the crossing. However, with rising numbers of immigrants, European and national policies changed. Politicians began to ask whether countries could absorb so many migrants. The discourse around the issue of migration changed and migrants were presented as a threat to Europe.

Securitization is the process of taking the issue outside of normal politics, which is justified by the extraordinary or existential threat the issue poses. Governments may justify a state of emergency in a country—recently exemplified by the extreme measures that were put in place worldwide in order to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians can also create an atmosphere of threat with messages of being under siege, and use such a situation to further their own political goals. For example, right-wing politicians in particular used the anti-immigrant messages to bolster support in subsequent elections, fueling the rise of right-wing populism across many countries.

This special feature on Securitization of Identity has been curated by the SECUREU network. This network is a Jean Monnet Network grant funded by the European Commission. The network is made up of the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI), Spain; University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands; University of Glasgow, United Kingdom; Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe – Institute of the Leibniz Association, Germany; European Academy of Bozen-Bolzano (EURAC Research) Bolzano, Italy; Koç University, Turkey; and Council for European Studies (European Office in Spain). The SECUREU project brings together researchers from across Europe and its neighborhood to examine the processes at work when ethnic minorities and migration are securitized within Europe. Such processes of securitization can lead to a reduction of complexity and diversity, where identity becomes monolithic, along with the creation of an “Us” and “Them” discourse. While securitization as a concept has a long history, the application of securitization to ethnic minorities and migration is more recent. The SECUREU network focuses on understanding the causes and consequences of the xenophobia that develops from these processes at many levels of society—the EU itself, nation-states and local-level. Researchers who specialize on securitization, ethnic minorities and migration seek new perspectives and synergies across these research programs.

In this feature, Andrea Carlà looks at the causes of securitization by zooming in on why this process happens when it does. His article “When Minorities Become a Threat: From 9/11 to the COVID-19 Pandemic” focuses on the timing and the circumstances that lead to securitization. He argues that it is necessary to focus on two aspects: tracing how a minority group comes to be linked with a specific threat and its framing, for example the association between migrants and terrorism; and analyzing the socio-economic-political context in which processes of securitization of minorities take place in response to health crises, terrorist attacks, or other security concerns. As Carlà argues, ultimately, securitizing minorities is not an unescapable development in light of dramatic events like a terrorist attack or a new virus. It is rather the result of choices made by political actors and the historical and political contexts in which events and their representations take form.

Dimari and Tzagarakis’s article From De-securitization to “Flexicuritization” of Migration Strategy in Greece” paves the way to study both securitization and desecuritization under the spectrum of political culture. They look at how the specific political culture present in Greece during the migration crisis and up to the present day has influenced the securitization of this issue and, more specifically, how it may limit or restrict the room for desecuritization. The article draws on insights from political culture to develop the concept of “flexicuritization.” This concept is more multi-faceted than a unilinear process of securitization or desecuritization based on associated ideas of clear starting points, end points and directions of travel. Rather, flexicuritization makes security a flexible construct, tackling both state security-centered concerns, as well as refugee/migrants’ security and well-being. It is situated within the state, but accommodates the state’s compromises with human security, with actions constructed to serve pragmatic concerns of both the state and migrants/refugees.

In his article, Marcus Nicolson looks at the de-securitization of migrants, focusing on the Scottish Case. Scotland has presented particularly welcoming attitudes towards immigrants through the use of policies and political narratives that counter the UK approach. Applying Ontological Security Theory, his research project investigates the lived experiences of a group of young adult migrants living in Glasgow. Heidi Hein-Kircher enriches this special feature by bringing the historical perspective on fostering ethnic strife by constructing threat scenarios in multi-ethnic contexts. Looking at the multi-ethnic city of Lviv in Western Ukraine, the author analyzes how security has historically been used as a political tool of the dominant group to justify the exclusion of minorities. Drawing parallels to modern day, Russia has employed the similar justification of protecting the Russian-speaking minorities to invade Ukraine. In his interview with Mara-Katharina Thurnhofer, our network director, Matthias vom Hau shares his personal research interests and further discusses the core themes the SECUREU network plans to take forward.

Part of SECUREU’s mission is also to foster the production of synergies across audiences and disciplines by sharing pedagogical approaches and materials. This feature includes two syllabi shared by SECUREU network members Georgios Karyotis, University of Glasgow and Şener Aktürk, Koc University. “Securitization and the New Security Agenda” explores theoretical debates on security. The course looks beyond interstate conflicts and military issues and spotlights the most urgent new security threats such as migration. economic crisis and austerity politics, pandemic and health security, environmental security, and terrorism. “Politics of Ethnicity and Nationalism” starts out by discussing theories of ethnicity, nationalism, and the role of states in the construction of ethnic categories. It continues with a discussion of imperial systems, their collapse, and the post-imperial ethnic and religious population movements.

The featured artist for this feature is Simone Perolari. His series Unwelcome documents the stories of migrants from Maghrebi countries passing through the cities of Lampedusa, Melilla, Ceuta, Oujda, Patrasso and Calais from 2005 to 2011.The SECUREU network has a number of key areas of interest that it plans to take forward. First, the network will focus on turning points and inflections in processes of securitization. Securitization can be a dynamic process that is continuous and ongoing in the “shadow.” This process nevertheless is made salient or “revealed” through events or crises. Research on this area will take a dynamic and contingent understanding of securitization as an ongoing process. It is therefore not that some objects/subjects become securitized, but that certain securitization processes become salient/revealed by events, while others remain irrelevant. Further research on this theme calls for analysis on the moments of change that can lead to the initiation of securitization, the intensification of securitization, or a shift to desecuritization. The focus is on how and when options are weighted and choices made.

A second theme that the network will take forward is a deep dive into how identity and ontological security—a secure sense of self with a belief in an enduring place in the world—relate to each other. The theme raises questions of when and how identity is legitimated. The spotlight is particularly on the agency and “actorness” of securitized minorities, their need for ontological security, the repertoires available to different actors, and the relationship between minorities’ and state’s ontological insecurity. For example, ethnic minorities in some countries are portrayed as potential internal traitors or even challengers to the fabric of the state. This discourse can be applied to “old” minorities, historical regions that threaten to pull the state apart with centrifugal forces (take the referendum in Scotland in 2014 for example, breaking away from the rest of the UK or the unilateral referendum in Catalonia in 2017 to challenge its membership of Spain). Other ethnic groups may have lived in host states for generations, such as the minority communities of Pakistanis in the UK, Algerians in France, or Turks in Germany, but are still seen as an actual or potential “Other.” Such groups can live in the country for years, in a process of accommodation, and then become securitized in reaction to events such as 9/11 and terrorist attacks. Responses from the majority communities can flip from accommodation to hostility. In that vein, two prominent sub-themes can be highlighted: 1) counter-securitization and resistance by minorities and 2) the promotion of minority rights. There is a need for further research in investigating how the active contestation by minorities and the promotion of minority rights (including by minorities themselves) impact each side’s ontological security. An underexplored focus is vernacular security, focusing on the migrant or ethnic minority perspective beyond simply being an object of securitization. Building on this theme, further research should develop concrete solutions for minorities and majorities to be able to enjoy ontological security simultaneously.

A further area of research embeds securitization in the power structures within which it takes place. It calls for examination of the link between diversity, or the historical management of diversity, and ontological security and securitization. This sub-theme gives rise to several questions: are more diverse societies more or less prone to securitization? How do different types of state-building and historical management of diversity (e.g. assimilation, accommodation, exclusion) impact societies’ need for ontological security or propensity to feel ontologically insecure, and therefore ultimately, a society’s propensity to securitize migrants or minorities? This sub-theme points to the link between securitization/ontological insecurity and the prevalent political culture, socio-economic context, institutions, and structural social relations in a society. Accordingly, this sub-theme focuses attention towards more historical and structural conditions to understand processes of securitization and particularly, ontological insecurity. Other considerations are the tensions between local and national processes and horizontal dynamics.

A fourth theme looks to the past, to historical traumas and securitization, and to the role of memory in insecurity. Research on this theme brings emotions, memories, and historical experiences into the understanding of securitization processes. It emphasizes the importance of considering the role of emotions and the “primitive” instinct behind securitization. Processes of securitization can unfold from historical experiences of exclusion, subordination, and violence, which create a collective trauma and can in turn be exploited to create the conditions for and justifying securitization.

A final theme looks at different ways that “othering” can take place. Firstly, “othering” can take place through spatial dimensions and links between spatial access and securitization. Further research will therefore focus on how the association of certain zones/neighborhood/cities/countries/regions with danger or insecurity contribute to processes of securitization of the groups present in these zones. The theme also looks at cutting edge strategies used today and into the future and focuses on new forms of “othering” such as biometric borders, surveillance, and algorithmic control. A further form of “othering” examines how groups can be divided into “us” and “them” by abstract concepts such as trustworthiness.

In addition to its research agenda, the SECUREU network plans collaboration and research activities, comprising of short research stays, scientific workshops (Glasgow and Istanbul), and symposia (Barcelona and Brussels). The network will also introduce young researchers to both the ethnicity/migration and securitization bodies of knowledge, state-of-the-art methods, and then involve them in hands-on applied research with SECUREU’s more senior team members. Teaching activities include two summer schools (on methods and applied research in Amsterdam, and policy implications in Bolzano) and a webinar series with the aim to create digital modules for interdisciplinary academic teaching on the topic (Herder Institute). The network is also committed to the dissemination of findings, with the Council of European Studies European Office as a key member of the team. CES will carry out maximum international diffusion of network activities to diverse target groups (i.e., scholars, students, the policy community, and the wider public) through a variety of strategies including online content for non-specialists. We invite the readers of this special feature to follow and engage with our activities.




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Lesley-Ann Daniels is currently a research fellow at IBEI. Her two current areas of research are on identity claims and stability in post-conflict societies and on sub-national territorial claims in Catalunya, Scotland and Northern Ireland. She has published in the Journal of Peace Research, International Studies Quarterly and Journal of Conflict Resolution. She is a former AXA Research Fund post-doctoral fellow with her research on “Minority rights and the stability of post-conflict environments.” She defended her doctoral thesis on the use of amnesty during civil wars at the Pompeu Fabra University in 2016. She also has extensive experience of project coordination prior to working in academia, including as coordinator for the funding bodies of the EU peace program in Northern Ireland. Her research interests are political violence, civil wars, post-conflict peacebuilding, transitional justice and identity rights.


Published on April 18, 2022.


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