This five-part series explains the spiral processes of insecurity-migration-security in the Australia-Asia context. Part 1 argues unless the insecurity concerns are addressed, these spirals will continue with unwanted consequences for both migrants and hosting countries. A regional approach to migration is needed, as individual countries cannot solve the problems.

Vietnamese refugees arrive in Darwin, December 1977. (Photo by Phillip Green/Getty Images)

Migration is a transnational issue driven by individuals' basic security concerns. The main cause of contemporary migration is still economic, but it's becoming increasingly complex, with personal, political and environmental factors all involved. Whether they are reacting to push factors such as armed conflict, poverty or natural disasters, or pull factors such as employment, education and welfare, migrants want to move to a safer place, not just for their own security but for future generations.

Not everyone has the means to leave their homes, especially when there is no guarantee of success or even survival in a new place. The majority choose to stay. But, for many brave and adventurous people, migration has long been used as a means to survive or thrive. Since the movement of homo erectus out of Africa 1.75 million years ago, humans have been migrating to new locations due to climate change or food shortages. Migration is one of the most common evolutionary behaviours in the natural world.

Often, migrant-receiving countries view new arrivals as threats to national security or safety. These perceived threats, exaggerated by the conservative media, security experts, and right-wing politicians, have divided public opinion. According to the 2014 Lowy poll on Australia's population and immigration, 47% think the number of migrants coming to Australia is 'about right' whereas 37% through it is 'too high'. While there is disagreement over the 'right' level of migration, as a nation of migrants, Australians are generally in agreement on the economic value of newcomers to our shores. The 2015 ANU Annual Poll, for instance, suggested 80% of 1200 adults surveyed in March 2015 believe immigration is good for the economy.

At the same time, the securitisation of migration has shaped public perception to the point that migration is increasingly regarded as a security threat, one that justifies extraordinary measures.

In the US, the idea of migrants as a threat to national identity has been framed by academics like Samuel Huntington, who named Islam as the major source of conflicts in his Clash of Civilisations thesis. In his subsequent book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, and similarly in his 2008 Foreign Policy essay, 'The Hispanic Challenges', Huntington described the country's Hispanic population as 'the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity'. Huntingon 'securitises' the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white natives', as a threat to national identity.

Many security experts also associate migration with potential terrorism and risks to border control, focusing squarely on state-centric security perspectives. Khalid Koser has warned against the danger of securitising migration as it would allow states to use extraordinary measures. Prominent migration scholar Myron Weiner has long focused on the nexus between migration and security, noting that the security of states can be affected by population movements and vice versa: population movements can be affected by the security consideration of states.

I suggest we reverse this conceptual approach. It's clear population movements are driven by human insecurity and that the security of both migrants and hosting populations can be affected by mass movements. What has been missing in the migration-security debates is the evolving concept of security, which is shifting from an emphasis on state-centric national security to a more people-oriented view of human security. Securitisation is still seen largely from a state-centric perspective by security experts, immigration officials and politicians. By adding the human aspect, securitisation of migration can serve as a more humane policy framework.

Some 22 years ago, the UN Development Program identified the contents of human security in the 1994 Human Development Report. The report detailed seven pillars of human security: personal, community, political, economic, food, health and environmental.

For many in Asia, economic, food, energy and environmental issues are real and immediate threats to peoples' lives. Many economic and family migrants in Australia are from developing countries such as China, India, the Philippines and Pakistan. Humanitarian migrants, who make up around 7% Australia's migrant intake, are from war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq or Myanmar. Increasingly, many Asian and Pacific countries forecast environmental migrants leaving their countries of origin due to climate change, with its effects on droughts and floods, and implications for disease, malnutrition and chronic food and energy shortages. Japan, the Philippines and many Pacific islands are vulnerable to natural disasters such as typhoons. The Greater Mekong region faces man-made environmental degradation through mining and dam construction, activities that result in forced eviction to non-agrarian land.

While official channels for migration are sought after by prospective migrants, irregular routes are also offered by smugglers and traffickers who target vulnerable populations. Irregular migration includes both unauthorised and forced migration. These two  used to be considered as separate categories, but the current migration crises illustrates the two are merging, creating many grey areas  collectively known as mixed migration.

Terms like 'smuggled refugees,' 'trafficked refugees,' 'economic/environmental refugees' appear in the migration literature. Smugglers turning traffickers, refugees turning smugglers, or failed asylum seekers becoming undocumented labour migrants are all examples of mixed migration in the Asia Pacific. 

The almost exclusive focus on state security in discussions of mixed migration overlooks personal security issues that fuel much of these movements. Short-term border security approaches, including military operations and  payments to dissuade smugglers might have solved some immediate problems but they are not a permanent solution. Unless the  insecurity link in the migration spiral is broken with regional efforts, irregular migration will continue.

In this series of posts, I'll focus on the sources of human insecurity in the Asian region and examine Asian migration patterns to Australia.