When Minorities Become a Threat: From 9/11 to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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


Since the turn of the century, the concept of securitization has not only become a recurrent theme in scholarship on minorities in regard to both so-called “old” (national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious) minorities, as well as new minorities stemming from recent migratory flows. It has also started to enter the public imaginary, being used in some progressive journalistic accounts.

First developed in Security Studies, securitization refers to the process through which an issue is presented as an existential threat requiring exceptional measures outside the normal bonds of politics. An increasing amount of research has explored and analyzed many instances in which minorities in Europe and beyond, like Russian-speakers in Estonia and Latvia, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Roma and migrants in various European countries, have been perceived in discourses and practices as a danger to the majority society and the nation, and thereby discriminated, marginalized, and subjected to illiberal actions (e.g. Olesker 2014; van Baar, Ivasiuc and Kreide 2019).

Such process seems to be often interwoven with specific critical events, like economic crises or terrorist attacks, which raise the insecurities of the society and the need to find a culprit for its ills. Following a common understanding of politics in terms of punctuated equilibrium, according to which political changes happen through critical junctures, specific dramatic events are, indeed, considered as external shocks that offer the opportunity for the realignment of political forces and the reconfiguration of political institutions. In particular, they might spark the expansion of state power at the expense of civil liberties of (not necessarily only) minorities.

This contribution elaborates this preliminary observation and explores the question of when securitization of minorities takes place, focusing on the link between processes of securitization and two types of events that have so far strongly characterized this new century (at its beginning and its current endpoint): 9/11 and following Al-Qaeda’s attack, and the COVID-19 pandemic (also in light of previous episodes of pandemics and epidemics). In this way, the following reflections shed light on purported patterns of securitization processes vis-à-vis minorities and their temporal dimension.


Securitizing minorities? From 9/11 to COVID-19

Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on 9/11 has strongly contributed to the securitization of minorities agenda. In light of the responses of many countries to the terrorist attacks, first of all the US, there has been a proliferation of this type of research. Indeed, in the initial understanding of 9/11, the attack was considered an “epochal event” (Checkel 2004) and “a historical turnaround,” which has “changed the course of the world” (Archibugi 2001). Among the changes required there was (in addition to new foreign policy and anti-terrorist strategies) a re-conceptualization of the concept of security that needed to be extended to other areas such as transport and migration (Keohane 2002). Increasing the value of security and protection, the attacks encouraged proposals for draconian measures to control the borders and tighten migration law, and favored the development of a nexus between migration and security (Zolberg 2002). In the US, such links were epitomized by the transfer of the federal agencies that dealt with migration issues in the newly created Department of Homeland Security. In addition to this security-migration nexus, some scholars highlighted the securitization of Islam and Muslim communities as a result of 9/11 (Cesari 2018).

Soon, however, the temporal link between the Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks and processes of securitization of migrants and/or religious minorities was questioned. On the one hand, some scholars saw 9/11 as a catalyst event that has enhanced a process of securitization of migration that was already unfolding (Lutterbeck 2005), or even argued that the attack did not bring significant political developments, and little was new in the post-9/11 world (Reflections 2002). On the other hand, some researches highlighted the relevant differences in securitization of migration among various countries (Schein 2008). For example, in Spain, which a few years later was also the target of an Al-Qaeda attack (11-M), the government reaction did not foresee a securitization of minorities with draconian measures against migrants or the Muslim population; rather, in the years immediately following, Madrid enacted liberal migration policies, including a program of amnesty and measures to facilitate channels for documented migration and migrants’ social integration (Carlà 2018).

Moving to the current COVID-19 pandemic, in various countries we have witnessed many instances of securitization of some minorities in discourses and practices as part of states’ responses to the spread of the virus. The war rhetoric and state of exception used against the virus ended up affecting some minority segments of the population. This process has included scapegoating, disinformation targeting minorities and linking the spread of the virus to specific traits and cultural practices, and excessive use of policing activities of minority groups and neighborhoods, especially Roma communities in countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Spain (Carlà and Djolai forthcoming). Furthermore, the pandemic has overlapped with the so-perceived “refugee crisis” and related antimigrant stances (GRITIM-UPF 2020, 12), filling the securitization discourses of some right-wing populist political actors to justify their anti-migration rhetoric. Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, well epitomized this development when he spoke of a “two-front war,” where “one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus” and there being “a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement” (cit. in Al Saba 2020, 7).

Yet, it might still be too early to determine the impact of the pandemic in the long term and whether these instances of securitization of minorities and migrants in light of health concerns would be institutionalized and become structural, or instead be overturned once the sanitary emergency is passed. In this regard, some clues might come by considering previous episodes of pandemics and epidemics. Historically, there are examples of minorities and vulnerable groups being made easy scapegoats for pandemics and epidemics, and securitized through discourses and practices in response to health concerns; and have in turn been subjected to practices of sociopolitical discrimination and exclusion, if not even direct violence. The most notorious antecedent case is the Black Death of 1347-52, when Jews were blamed for spreading the Plague, leading to pogroms that wiped out entire communities throughout Spain, France, Rhineland, and Eastern Europe (Morthorst 2020). More recently, outbreaks of diseases fostered milder securitizing moves against minorities, such as the practice of stigmatizing minority members as carriers of a disease and of labelling a sickness with the name of a specific minority, or minor episodes of discrimination. This happened for example in the US to Jewish and Italian migrants in regards to early twentieth century tuberculosis and polio, or Haitians vis-à-vis the HIV/AIDS crises. There is a tendency to highlight these antecedents. However, an analysis conducted by Cohen (2012) on hundreds of epidemics and their effects on society since ancient times shows a more nuanced picture. Indeed, more often than not, health emergencies did not spark reactions and blaming or violent responses against specific minorities. Instead, they often reinforced social cohesion as happened during the 1918-19 Great Flu and yellow fever outbreaks in nineteenth century US.

Thus, as shown by this overview of the consequences of terrorist attacks and pandemics, specific critical events do not lead necessarily to processes of securitization of minority communities, despite being dramatic and raising several security concerns. When then do processes of securitization of minorities happen?


The “when” of securitization

In the original understanding of the concept of securitization, as developed by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies, the temporal dimension of such process was clear. Securitization started with a specific speech by an actor in position of power, which is accepted by the general public, and followed by extraordinary measures. Further theorizations of securitization, however, have provided a more complex picture.

For example, some have pointed out that securitization as a speech act is a Eurocentric concept, which is hard to identify in non-western undemocratic countries, where the public has a different role in decision-making processes, and it is more difficult to distinguish normal politics from exceptional politics (Howell and Richter-Montpetit 2020). In addition, in his analysis of India’s securitizing actions against militant attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, Kapur (2018) has questioned the chronological structure of the process, arguing that it does not follow a linear path since Delhi adopted a double speech act that proceeded and followed its extraordinary measures. Furthermore, according to the Paris School of Security Studies, processes of securitization are the result of a collection of patterned practices and rationality of governance, like methods of social control and surveillance technologies (rather than speech acts). As pointed out by Bourbeau (2015), in this approach it is difficult to identify the policy changes related to securitization.

The process of securitization of minorities is indeed a multifaceted one without any clear beginning and ending and “tipping points” (Donnelly 2015, 917). It is not an outcome, but the result of a “sum of actions” (Floyd 2015, 128). Further complicating the picture is the fact that there are a variety of discourses on security and, as pointed out by Messina (2017), processes of securitization come in different degree. For example, securitization of migration affects various categories of migrants differently, with irregular immigration seen as the biggest threat. Furthermore, together with securitizing discourses and practices, we witnessed the development of alternative countermoves and complementary or competing discourses that contest securitization or foster de-securitization processes, removing the sense of existential danger, such as statement that correct misperceptions, narratives that present minorities as integral part of the society, and policy approaches that focus on matters of justice and social cohesion rather than security considerations. For instance, during 2005–2015 in the UK securitizing and anti-migration attitudes of some political leaders clashed with discourses promoted by the religious elites (the Church of England), which presented migration in non-threatening terms and highlighted the positive impact of diversity (Paterson 2018; Paterson and Karyotis 2020). Vice-versa, in the new century in Greece, discourses of religious leaders, i.e. the Greek Orthodox Church that presents itself as the guardian of national identity, overshadowed attempts by political leaders to de-securitize migration issues, for example, through their objection to the construction of a mosque in Athens (Karyiotis and Patrikios 2010). Along these lines, in the past decades, the European Union has addressed migration with a securitizing approach, while implementing at the same time a different perspective that stresses the need to fight xenophobia and racism, and prevent isolation and social exclusion of the migrant population; for example the Directive 2000/43/EC that implements the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin (Pinyol-Jiménez 2012). Finally, it should be noted that securitized groups might take measures in response to securitizing acts, sparking in this way what Rytter and Pedersen (2014, 2035) call a “spiral of alienation,” impacting the entire society and thereby extending the long-term effects of securitization processes.

To summarize, securitization should be considered as continuum, characterized by the development of simultaneous securitizing and counter-securitizing moves by a variety of actors (Bilgic 2013). From this perspective, the challenge is to understand when processes of securitization of minorities become relevant, exploring the broader dynamics in which securitization moves emerge, evolve, and dissolve, rather than the process itself. In this way, it is possible to clarify how specific events interact with and to what extent might spark processes of securitization of minorities. In this regard, 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.

For example, going back to 9/11 and following Al-Qaeda’s attacks, in the US the terrorist threat was linked to migration issues, especially undocumented migration, because it was presented as a tangible foreign organization, and both terrorists and migrants were seen as external entities that contest state’s capacity to control its borders and its sovereignty. Furthermore, in the US, the security concerns attached to 9/11 were combined with cultural and economic anxieties towards migration already present and active at the social and political level. Indeed, since the 1980s, US politics have been characterized by a contraposition and stalemate, crosscutting the republican/democratic divide, between those who were in favor of immigration (for economic and culture reasons) and those who considered migrants as stealing jobs, draining public resources, bringing crime, and challenging the anglophone society. Instances of securitization of migration in light of the terrorist attack broke the existing equilibrium reinforcing existing anti-migrant stances (Carlà 2010).

Instead, the Madrid government presented Al-Qaeda as a transnational idea and focused on the need to avoid its spreading within Spanish society, rather than developing a link between terrorist and migrant mobility. Moreover, at times of 9/11 and 11-M, Spain was still experiencing a major economic expansion, where economic interests and the need for foreign labor force prevailed over other issues raised by the phenomenon of migration. Thus, whatever instance of securitization of migrants the terrorist attacks might have sparked, in those years it did not leave much of a trace in Spanish approach to migration issues (Carlà 2010).

The current pandemic presents similar perspectives. Particularly Roma and some migrant communities might have been linked to the virus because of their mobility and of existing stereotypes regarding their lifestyle and hygienic conditions of the camps in which they might live. Furthermore, in some countries, the pandemic found fertile grounds to foster securitization of some minorities and migration. As mentioned before, the increase in asylum seekers in the years preceding the pandemic has already given more space and voice to right-wing leaders and their re-nationalizing political agenda and xenophobic attitudes.

However, the picture might not be necessarily so gloomy, and the pandemic might also have provided a more positive, if not even de-securitizing, attitude towards migration and minority communities. For example, the pandemic, with its continuous growing death counts and infected people, and debates on measures to tackle it, has focalized the attention of most of the world. In this way, it might have distracted from the concerns attributed to the immigration phenomenon, which has meanwhile not stopped and could be addressed by those in charge on the ground with less political pressure. Furthermore, the tensions with those who deny the pandemic and oppose vaccines and other preventive measures might substitute in the public imaginary the picture of migrants and minorities as the threat to the society. Finally, in these past two years, there have been some developments that benefited minorities and the migrant population in light of the pandemic. There was a re-evaluation of the value of some categories of migrant workers, i.e. those in the healthcare sectors and agricultural workers who provided food production during the lockdown (GRITIM-UPF 2020). The pandemic has brought to light the health and social inequalities between majorities and minorities, which have had a higher death rate and have been more affected by lockdown measures.

From this perspective, the pandemic could also be considered a stimulus for innovation and socio-political transformation (Conversi 2020), providing an opportunity to address the problems that affect minorities, rather than contributing to their securitization. Indeed, it has been made clear that in a globalized world, the problem is not represented by minorities, but by transnational challenges, like COVID-19, which affect the entire society. Facing these challenges requires a renewed sense of the community, where the security of the majority is unlikely on the basis of insecurities of others—minorities and migrants.

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.


Andrea Carlà is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Minority Rights of Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen, Italy. His research focuses on the interplay between minority protection, migration policies, and security issues.



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Published on April 18, 2022.


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