Publication: Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment 2016
03 June 2016
Economic factors remain the most significant driver of human migration globally. Yet security concerns also play a major role in such activity, as people leave their homes to seek refuge from violence and other forms of instability. Mobility was a given before the establishment of nation-states, but there have been growing constraints on migration, especially from the early twentieth century onwards. For a variety of reasons, migration has become one of the most important topics in contemporary international politics, and three dimensions of it are particularly relevant to Asia-Pacific security. The first of these is the highly confused terminology used to describe irregular migration, which needs clarification. Secondly, there is the contradiction between the definition of human security put forward in 1994 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and many states’ framing of migration as a threat to national security. The third dimension concerns the prospects for establishing regional and international protection regimes for migrants.
The confusing terminology of migration stems from an often-unclear conceptualisation of the nexus between migration and security. In recent descriptions of migrants from conflict areas, the mass media has used ill-defined terms such as ‘illegal’ and ‘irregular’, ‘unauthorised’ and ‘forced’, ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’, ‘victims’ and ‘survivors’, and even ‘refugees’ and ‘terrorists’. Some politicians have also used these terms inaccurately, thereby influencing public perceptions of migrants – despite experts’ efforts to clarify and correct the terminology. Rational policymaking becomes difficult in the absence of a deep understanding of the root causes, migratory routes and facilitating factors that shape migrant flows. While migrants often help countries meet significant national economic and demographic challenges, the public perception of them is frequently negative, partly because of media coverage1 that emphasises the importance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security and criminal justice. Perspectives on migration that stress the importance of individual freedom, global justice and migrants’ socio-economic conditions are sometimes overlooked.
For many people in the Asia-Pacific, economic, food, energy and environmental challenges are real and immediate threats to their survival and resilience. Economic migrants (including ‘marriage migrants’) from developing Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam have moved to richer countries in the region or further afield, and send substantial remittances to their countries of origin. Problems of food security are evident in several parts of the Asia-Pacific, especially North Korea, which has a chronic shortage of food. China, Japan and South Korea have created plans to improve their long-term food security – particularly in relation to rice – and energy security. Both of these areas involve seasonal labour forces. Residents of archipelagic countries such as Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines are especially vulnerable to typhoons and other natural disasters, while people in parts of mainland Southeast Asia face man-made environmental degradation and sometimes forced evictions as a result of dam construction and mining.