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Stephen Castles

Refugee Studies Centre (RSC)

University of Oxford



The New Global Politics and the

Emerging Forced Migration Regime


[Draft 4 November 2002. Words: 8600 (without references).

Not to be quoted or citied]




This paper is based on a paper prepared for the Queen Elizabeth House Elizabeth House and Refugee Studies Centre Seminars series for the current term. All the seminars are concentrated around a common theme – one of great importance for everybody working and studying in the field of forced migration and humanitarian assistance. They examine the practices and institutions that make up a global humanitarian system or regime as a whole. They discuss the evolution of these practices and institutions and how and why they have changed in the last half century. They examine current trends and discuss the potential future directions that these suggest. They go on – and this is the real purpose of the undertaking – to discuss what these trends mean for all of us who work, teach and study in this area. In addition – and equally important – they investigate the consequences for those most affected by the humanitarian sector: refugees and other forced migrants. At the same time the seminars look at the significance for international politics and society.


The inspiration for this Seminar Series came from the recent book Global Governance and the New Wars, by Mark Duffield of Leeds University (Duffield 2001). Duffield, who has been a humanitarian worker in the Sudan and elsewhere as well as an academic, examines the way new forms of warfare are related to emerging patterns of political and institutional regulation which go beyond traditional nation-state forms. He shows how this has transformed the conditions for humanitarian action, and argues that further fundamental changes are currently taking place. All this he puts in the context of a theory of globalisation influenced by the monumental work of Manuel Castells (Castells 1996; Castells 1997; Castells 1998), but going beyond it in important ways. Duffield is, of course, not the only observer to note these shifts. Many others have analysed the evolution of the regime and the challenges it currently faces – a small selection from many important works includes: (Chimni 1998; Helton 2001; Kaldor 2001; Loescher 2001; Review 2001; UNHCR 2000; Zolberg and Benda 2001; Zolberg, et al. 1989).


Duffield and many of the others emphasise the politicisation of forced migration and its inclusion in the burgeoning discourse of national security. This is the place for the now obligatory statement that the event of 9 September 2001 has changed everything. Yes and no. There is certainly an increase awareness of the links between population mobility, conflict and security. But this is not new, but rather a reinforcement of long

established trends. Population movements have always been seen as issues of national security and sovereignty. The quantum leap came not in 2001, but around the beginning of the 1990s, when states (especially of highly developed countries) began intensive collaboration on the control of migration and asylum.


My paper adopts a very broad approach. Rather than a lengthy theoretical justification, let me quote a scientific explanation of the need for understanding the universe as whole, provided by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin {Chardin, 1955 #1906, 48}:

The farther and more deeply we penetrate into matter, by means of increasingly powerful methods, the more we are confounded by the interdependence of its parts… All around us, as far as the eye can see, the universe holds together, and only one way of considering it is really possible, that is, to take it as a whole, in one piece.


To understand anything, we need to study everything. That is a difficult undertaking, so we need to structure our inquiry by putting forward the most important questions. Here is a list of the questions that I think we need to pursue, in order to understand the global forced migration regime and the way it is changing.


Questions on the forced migration regime and its future


1.           Is there a global forced migration crisis? If so, how can it be characterised and explained?

2.           Why has forced migration increased since the 1980s? Is this only a temporary phenomenon?

3.           What are the causes of forced migration? In current political debates, this is often posed as the question of the relative importance of persecution versus poverty.

4.           What are the links between underdevelopment and conflict?

5.           Are the differences between economic and forced migration becoming eroded?

6.           What are the purpose and the objectives of the humanitarian regime (or regimes)?

7.           To what extent have governmental and intergovernmental protection and assistance agencies become part of the global political and military order? What about non-governmental agencies (NGOs)?

8.           Is there still a humanitarian regime? In other words is protection and assistance still driven by humanitarian and ethical goals?

9.           Why has the humanitarian regime changed its emphasis from resettlement to containment?

10.        Has containment failed – for instance in Afghanistan and Iraq?

11.        Has containment been abandoned and replaced by social transformation?

12.        Why did the USA and its allies not follow up military victory in Afghanistan with adequate help to restore security and economic growth?

13.        What interest conflicts are behind the debate on containment versus social transformation?

14.        Can cosmopolitan politics be a force for change?

15.        What is the role of domestic politics in reshaping the humanitarian regime?

16.        What are the contours of a possible reformed forced migration regime?

17.        Who are the potential actors in reform?


It is possible that we may not manage to answer all these questions this evening – we may even end up with more questions than answers. I believe that posing these questions and attempting to answer them over the next eight weeks through a range of different perspectives will be of intellectual and practical value to all of us. I hope that all the participants – and not just the speakers – will help us open our minds to new ideas.


Is there a global forced migration crisis?


Since the early 1990s, there has been much talk of a ‘global migration crisis’. Academics have published worrying prognoses for future mobility trends (Weiner 1995), politicians have warned of economic and social consequences, and extreme right parties have grown through exploiting popular fears. The media have had many field days. States have built walls and fences, purchased patrol boats, built detention centres, tightened up laws and even changed their constitutions.  Part of the discourse has been about growing numbers, but other elements have also been important, especially the nexus between asylum and undocumented migration, and the nexus between poverty and persecution.


The data only partly confirms the prophets of doom. Global migration has increased only slightly faster than global population. Today, some 185 million people have been resident outside their countries of birth for 12 months or more – about 2 per cent of the world’s population. The crisis is more one of distribution than absolute numbers. Although most migrants move between countries of the South, immigrants make up larger shares of the population of Northern countries:  8.6 per cent in North America, 3.2 per cent in Europe and the former USSR and 17.8 per cent in Oceania (these figures are for 1990 – the latest global UN statistics (Zlotnik 1999).


Whether implicitly or explicitly, the crisis is really perceived as one of forced migration. And here the data seem to prove the point. The global refugee population grew from 2.4 million in 1975 to 10.5 million in 1985 and 14.9 million in 1990. A peak was reached after the end of the Cold War with 18.2 million in 1993. By 2000, the global refugee population had declined to 12.1 million (UNHCR 2000). However, this only includes to officially recognised refugees under the fairly narrow definition of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which refers only to people forced to leave their countries due to individual persecution on specific grounds. The fall in refugees after 1995 is due mainly to the ‘non-arrival regime’ set up by developed countries to prevent refugees entering and making asylum claims. This has led to containment of refugees in the areas of origin, as well as to growth of people smuggling as the only way for many desperate people to make asylum claims.


The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) – those forced to flee their homes, but who have not crossed an international border – has rocketed: from 1.2 million in 1982 to 14 million by 1986 and to over 20 million by 1997 (Cohen and Deng 1998). The number of countries with IDP populations grew from five in 1970 to 34 in 1996 (UNHCR 1997). As for asylum seekers, annual applications in Western Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA combined rose from 90,400 in 1983 to 323,050 in 1988, and then surged again with the end of the Cold War to peak at 828,645 in 1992. Applications fell sharply to 480,00 in 1995, but began creeping up again to 534,500 in 2000. The UK had relatively few asylum seekers in the early 1990s, with 32,300 in 1992, but numbers increased to 55,000 in 1998 and 97,900 in 2000 (OECD 2001).


There are other types of forced migration that are hard to define precisely, and even harder to quantify. An estimated 10 million people are displaced every year by development projects such as dams, airports, roads, luxury housing, conservation areas and game parks  (Cernea and McDowell 2000; World Commission on Dams 2000). In addition, many people have to migrate because of environmental degradation, natural disasters and industrial accidents or pollution. In such cases, it is extremely hard to distinguish between environmental, economic and political factors, so that the label ‘environmental refugee’ is misleading and even damaging, since it can divert attention from complex causes (Black 1998) (Myers and Kent 1995).


It is thus impossible to provide accurate figures on all types of forced migration and their growth, but there is ample evidence to show that the phenomenon has grown sharply in recent years. This has confounded the hopes that the end of the Cold War would provide a ‘peace dividend’ encouraging peaceful change and development, and thus reducing the need for forced migration. On the contrary, globalisation and the dominance of a single superpower have increased conflict and forced migration – not reduced them.


Thus, if there is a migration crisis, it does not seem to be a global one, but rather a number of specific and localised crises. Migration does not present an economic or social crisis for the North. Immigrant numbers have increased rapidly since 1945 in

virtually all developed countries. However, many of these migrants came from other developed countries, and the main reason for their presence is that they are needed to fill jobs in industry and services. Undocumented entry of unskilled workers is seen as a problem, but is actually a result of Northern economic structures and immigration policies. Since there is a high demand for such workers in construction, manufacturing and services, the result is a burgeoning of undocumented work and the informal sector. Today, there is a growing realisation that both demographic and economic factors make immigrant labour a necessity for countries of the North. Recent political initiatives, particularly in Germany and the UK, are opening up a debate on such topics.


Nor do refugees and asylum seekers present major economic and social problems for Northern countries. Although entries fluctuate, they are currently lower than in the early 1990s.  Most refugees stay in the South, and those that do come cannot be seen as a serious strain for rich Northern countries. Indeed, most refugees enter the labour market, and often provide valuable skills.


If there is a migration crisis in the North, it is an ideological and political one. Migration is symbolic of the erosion of nation-state sovereignty in the era of globalisation. It is becoming increasingly difficult for states to control their borders, since flows of investment, trade and intellectual property are inextricably linked with movements of people. Elites generally benefit from transborder flows. It is the groups who feel threatened in their security by economic restructuring and social service cuts who generally oppose migration most vocally. The visible presence of migrants in Northern cities symbolises wider changes in economy, culture and society.   Polemics about the ‘migration crisis’ thus seem to have two sources. One is the manipulation of widespread popular fears about globalisation to build right-wing parties and movements. This can be seen as a conservative-nationalist form of anti-migration mobilisation.[i] The other source is the trend to ‘securitisation’ of migration issues, which has gained new momentum in the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001.[ii] This can be as a neo-liberal form of anti-migration mobilisation, linked to US polemics against ‘rogue states’ and fundamentalism.


As for the migration crisis in the South, it has two main aspects. One is the massive increase in forced migration, due to the proliferation of internal wars and the widespread abuse of human rights. The other aspect is the blocking of free mobility to the North, which forces would-be migrants to rely on informal networks or people-smugglers in their search for a better life. Thus the so-called migration crisis arises because of the vast imbalances between North and South with regard to economic conditions, social well-being and human rights. Border restrictions, however draconian, will do nothing to eliminate unwanted migration flows, as long as these fundamental disparities persist. Migration (or even forced migration) should not be seen as a crisis in itself. Rather international migration should be understood as an integral part of relationships between societies. There is currently a crisis in North-South relationships, and migration is one facet of this crisis.


The evolution of the international forced migration regime(s)


One regime or many?

As this crisis – and above all the public and political perception of the crisis – has developed, it caused a remaking of the international regime designed to control forced migration and to protect and assist those who have been forced to flee. The international refugee regime consists of a set of legal norms based on humanitarian and human rights law, as well as a number of institutions designed to protect and assist refugees. The core of the regime is the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The regime defines who is officially a refugee – a definition which can make the difference between life and death – and what rights such persons should have. The legal core of the regime is the principle of non-refoulement, which lays down that government may not return claimants for refugee status to a country where they may be persecuted. The most important institution is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), but many other organisations play a part: intergovernmental agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); as well as hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as OXFAM, CARE.


Is there a single, comprehensive regime? In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the plight of millions of IDPs – people displaced by conflict within their own countries, who are often worse off than refugees, because they have no internally recognised legal status and do not enjoy the protection of a powerful institution like the UNHCR. Similarly, there is no specific regime for development displaces. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a number of regimes, at varying stages of development. However, there are also important trends towards convergence. First, principles of international law introduced to respond to the situation of refugees are being applied in various ways to other forced migrants. Second, general principles of international law are being explicitly applied to all kinds of forced migrants – the UN’s Guiding Principles for IDPs are an attempt to codify such practices. Third, institutions that have been set up to work with refugees, especially UNHCR, are more and more concerned with other types of forced migrants. This has led to calls for the establishment of a UN High Commission for IDPs, or for a single humanitarian agency responsible for all forced migrants.


We may therefore use the word regime in both the singular and the plural, and see it as a dynamic concept that represents an evolving situation. Separate regimes are becoming more sophisticated and comprehensive, and more closely linked with each other. This convergence is obviously related to the growing prevalence and salience of institutions of global governance. In this respect (as in others) the forced migration regime is an expression of globalisation.


From Cold War to decolonisation

The forced migration regime has gone though many stages in its evolution since 1945. It was established in response to the plight of over 40 million displaced persons in Europe at the end of World War II. Many Central and Eastern Europeans were selected for permanent migration to Australia, the USA Canada and other western countries, where they met the demand for labour to fuel post-war expansion. This experience helped establish the principle of exile and permanent resettlement as a solution to refugee issues.[iii] The major formative influence of the refugee regime was the Cold War. Offering asylum to those who ‘voted with their feet’ against communism was a powerful source of propaganda for the West. Since the ‘non-departure regime’ of the Iron Curtain kept the numbers low, the West could afford to offer a warm welcome to those few who made it (Keeley 2001).


The regime therefore developed as a eurocentric model designed to provide protection to (mainly white) political refugees and to support Northern political aims. Yet very different refugee situations were developing in the South. The colonial legacy led to weak undemocratic states, underdeveloped economies and widespread poverty in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Northern countries sought to maintain their dominance by influencing new elites, while the Soviet Bloc encouraged revolutionary movements. Many local conflicts became proxy wars in the East-West struggle, with the superpowers providing modern weapons. Such factors gave rise to situations of generalised violence, leading to mass flight (Zolberg, et al. 1989). Northern countries and international agencies responded by claiming that such situations were qualitatively different from the individual persecution for which the 1951 Convention was designed. The solution of permanent resettlement in developed countries was not seen as appropriate – except for Indo-Chinese and Cuban refugees who did fit the Cold War mould. In 1969, the Organisation of African States (OAU) introduced its own Refugee Convention, which broadened the definition to include people forced to flee their country by war, human rights violations or generalised violence. A similar definition for Latin America was contained in the Cartagena Declaration of 1984 (Chimni 1998).


The UNHCR began to take on new functions as a humanitarian relief organisation. It helped run camps and provided food and medical care around the world. It became the ‘focal point’ for coordinating the activities of the various UN agencies in major emergencies. This expanding role was reflected in UNHCR’s budget, which tripled from US$145 million in 1978 to $510 million in 1980, making it one of the most powerful UN agencies (Loescher 2001).


The humanitarian sector as whole was expanding in the same way. Established international agencies like the ICRC, WFP and Oxfam found that an increasing proportion of their work was concerned with forced migrants, while new bodies like MSF were set up deal with conflict and its human consequences. At the national level, assistance to refugees and asylum seekers became a major area of social policy and social work. Government bodies concerned with border control and refugee determination also grew became major employers. The legal system found that more and more of its was concerned with refugee determination procedures. By the 1980s, the forced migration regime had a major transnational industry. Working in this area was no longer necessarily motivated by ethical or humanitarian principles. Indeed the forced migration regime now provided rewarding and interesting career paths for graduates. This is what is meant by the professionalisation of humanitarian work (Martin 2001). As forced migration increased in volume and political importance, the humanitarian sector ceased to be marginal, and became part of the bureaucratic mainstream of national and international governance. Inevitably, this affected the ideas and objectives of the people working in the field. Such trends would become far more pronounced in the years that followed.


The ‘asylum crisis’

By the 1980s, increasing flows of asylum seekers were coming directly to Europe from conflict zones in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Politicians and the media began to claim that they were really economic migrants in disguise. Indeed, many asylum seekers had ‘mixed motivations’, for impoverishment and human rights abuses went hand-in-hand. But following the 1973 ‘Oil Crisis’, most Western European countries had introduced zero-immigration policies. Asylum was seen as a way of circumventing these. The USA also experienced increasing inflows of asylum seekers entering illegally across land borders or by boat. Moreover, they were often on the wrong side in the Cold War, as victims of the very military regimes the USA was backing.


Asylum seeker numbers increased dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc around 1990. The most dramatic flows were from Albania to Italy in 1991 and again in 1997, and from Former Yugoslavia during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Many of the 1.3 million asylum applicants arriving in Germany between 1991-95 were members of ethnic minorities (such as Roma) from Romania, Bulgaria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. At the same time, increasing numbers of asylum seekers were arriving in Europe from the South, especially from Afghanistan, Angola, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zaire (UNHCR 2000). The situation was further complicated by ethnic minorities returning to ancestral homelands as well as undocumented workers from Poland, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.


The early 1990s were thus a period of panic about migration. Extreme-right mobilisation, arson attacks on asylum-seeker hostels and assaults on foreigners were threatening public order. While the right under international law to claim asylum continued to be generally respected by western states, they also began to restrict entry to eliminate bogus claims. By the early 1990s, many westeren states had introduced policies aimed at restricting access to asylum including: temporary protection regimes, non-arrival policies (such as imposing visa requirements on travellers and ‘carrier sanctions’ on airlines), diversion policies (such as declaring some transit countries as ‘safe third countries’), and deterrence policies (such as detention and prohibition of employment). 


Such restrictive measures – rather than real improvements in human rights – are the main reason why the number of officially-recognised refugees worldwide has fallen since 1995. The refugee regime of the rich countries of the North has been fundamentally transformed over the last 20 years. It has shifted from a system designed to welcome Cold War refugees from the East and to resettle them as permanent exiles in new homes, to a ‘non-entrée regime’, designed to exclude and control asylum seekers from the South (Chimni 1998; Keeley 2001).


The politicisation of migration in the hierarchical state system


With the end of the Cold War and the dramatic increase in asylum seeker flows to developed countries, forced migration became a central issue in domestic politics. The domestic political impact varied in different contexts, but generally include increased media coverage, asylum as an election issue, speeches by politicians on the topic, frequent changes in relevant laws, the exploitation of immigration and asylum by the extreme right, and the escalation of violence against refugees and asylum seekers.


Realistic and humane policy-making was hampered by irrational factors. For instance the increase in highly visible illegal entry by boat provoked public outrage in Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA. Although such entries were far less numerous than illegal entry by air, or illegal residence following legal entry, they evoked strong emotions. The arrival of boat people clearly had the connotation of invasion and seizure of territory, leading to deep-seated anxieties about territory and security. The angry and fearful reaction were quite out of proportion to the real social and economic costs.  Even policy-makers with a good understanding of the causes of forced migration and considerable sympathy for the migrants found that the political costs of realistic and humane action were too high. In the last five years, a string of election results has shown the power of fear of invasion as a political factor: the rise of Haider in Austria; the election of an anti-immigration government in Denmark; the re-election of the Liberal-National Coalition in Australia in 2001 as a clear result of draconian measure against asylum seekers; Le Pen’s unexpectedly good showing in the first round of the French 2001 presidential election; the electoral success of the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands and, most recently, the feverish attempts by some leaders at the Seville EU Council (including the Prime Minister of the UK and Spain) to put economic pressure on countries of origin.


At the international level, indicators for the growing importance of forced migration include the proliferation of intergovernmental meetings, agreements, conventions and treaties concerned with the control of asylum and refugees. By the late 1990s, IDPs, development displacees and trafficking were receiving similar attention. But the political significance of forced migration was not just growing quantitatively; it was changing in character, and becoming an integral part of new modes of governance in the post Cold War political order. Forced migrants were perceived increasingly as threats to social order and national security. The strategy shifted from resettlement to exclusion and control. In the Cold War period, forced migration had been politically important in terms of propaganda, but not central to modes of governance. In the new situation, control of forced migration took on a crucial role in managing relationships between North and South.


The collapse of the bipolar power system in the early 1990s did not lead to a unified world system. Rather another long-existing dichotomy became dominant: that between North and South. However, this dichotomy is more complex. First it is not a simple territorial division, since groups and areas of great privilege exist in the South, while significant (and growing) pockets of social exclusion exist in the North. Second, although the world falls into two spatial sectors – North and South – there is only one power centre: the USA. This means that there is global consensus in many areas: on basic values such as human rights, rationality, efficiency and notions of the good life; on educational, social and economic goals; on the benefits of technology; and on modes of governance. (This consensus is far from complete, with alternative values and ways of life on offer from religious groups – especially Islam and dissident movements, but these generally lack power beyond the local level). The problem is that the dominant values are set largely by the dominant power, which also insists on regulating the interpretation and implementation of these.


The currently merging world order can be seen as a new stage in international relations. During the half millennium that can be classified as modernity, there has been a succession of modes of political regulation.

  • The first truly modern model is the Westphalian system established in 1648, in which the world is conceived as a number of sovereign nation-states, which the rulers have freedom of action internally, but must follow certain conventions in relations with each other.
  • The democratic-nationalist model evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was also based on sovereign nation states, but to this was added the principle of citizenship, understood simultaneously as a cultural and a political community. The nation-state became both ideologically-based and expansion, leading to colonialism and to extremely destructive total warfare between states.
  • Some of the destructive potential was tamed through the establishment of a bi-polar world system, in which the balance between two global powers and their satellites prevented all-out war. The invention of weapons that could destroy the whole world helped restrain total warfare, while encouraging constant low-level proxy wars.
  • The end of the Cold War did not  - as at first hoped – to a situation of peace and development but rather to a new and paradoxical form of hierarchical monism, in which power flows from the centre through a set of intermediate-level states, to be imposed on the weakest countries in the South. This is the classical model of an empire, to be found in Babylon, ancient Rome, the Ottoman Empire, and, most recently, the British Empire. Specifically, the imperial power is the USA, the intermediate countries are the UK and other highly developed countries, and a third tier embraces marginal developed countries like Russia and newly industrialising countries like Brazil or Malaysia. The powerless periphery consists of the power countries of the South.


What is new about the American Empire is its global coverage. The Bush dynasty rules not just over one quarter of the globe, like Queen Victoria, but all of it. Another difference is that the power of the new Empire is unchallenged and indeed unchallengeable.  All potential competititors gladly accept the role of privileged vassals, and compete for favour. The emerging imperial system, known appropriately as globalisation, has novel political characteristics. Unlike other empires, the new one is based on democracy, the rule of law and sovereign nation-states, rather than authoritarian and arbitrary rule from the centre.  The emerging system is hierarchical especially in the key areas of relationships between nation-states and citizenship.


Nation-states, based on the legal and institutional format pioneered in France, Britain and the USA in the 18th century, have become the global norm. In principle they are all equal, as symbolised by their equal participation in bodies of global governance like the UN and the WTO. Vital global decision – about war, peace, the environment, trade, aid and many other things – are made in a transparent and participatory manner In fact inter-state relationships are fundamentally hierarchical.

  • International law has rapidly changed in recognition of real power relations. For instance, US citizens are not to be subject to the new International Criminal Court, nor can they be extradited.
  • Rules on trade apply differently to the centre and the periphery. The US is permitted to subsidise its cotton farmers, ruining West African smallholders. When the farmers of Mali give up and migrate to France, they lose all rights. Vassal states can get some of the spoils: Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy is allowed in violation of all the principles of the WTO and of liberal thought.
  • The Westphalian state claimed a monopoly of the means of violence. Today, the empire insists that it has sole legitimacy to possess and use weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivery. The USA has bombed 21 countries since 1945 (some several times) to safeguard freedom and democracy. Peripheral powers that emulate this approach are rogue states which may be legitimately destroyed.
  • As for governance, the de jure equality of voting rights masks a massive inequality in real power. That has never been more evident than in September 2002, when President Bush advised the UN that if it did not follow US proposals, it would lose all credibility. This does not mean that such bodies are unimportant. They do provide a public forum in which alternative interests and approaches can be discussed, but they cannot impose majority decisions that contradict the interests of the USA.


A growing proportion of the world’s population are citizens – that is bearers of political, civil and social rights – rather than mere subjects or worse. However, this legal equality masks a steep graduation of political, military, cultural and economic power, which reflects the hierarchy of nations. Citizenship is equal in name but not in fact. Where people are born shapes their standard of living, their security and protection, and even their life expectancy. Being British, Japanese, or Belgian is a privileged status compared with the rest of the world, but clearly inferior to being American. Other relatively stable and prosperous countries are the next level. Then come countries of the East and South, with intermediate scores on the Human Development Index and a reasonable level of security and human rights. A fourth level consists of the poorest states, where per capita GDPs are low, life expectation is short, and health and educational standards are deficient. Even worse off are the citizens of the increasing number of states devastated by long-term conflicts, declining economies and fragmented states. Here citizenship has little real meaning, and certainly does not confer the right to move to a safer place. Worst of all, however, are non-citizens: people whose state has completely ceased to exist, or who have had to leave their state of origin, yet cannot gain membership of another. These are ‘unlawful persons’ (as Australian law aptly defines them) who have no officially-recognised right to life.


Today, nearly everyone can get a passport but not all passports are equally good. Citizens of the USA can go anywhere, and enjoy unrivalled protection. The passports of other developed states usually confer the right to cross borders – though some UK passports do not include the right to enter the UK. Those who wish to enter rich countries from the South often have no recognised travel documents, and have to pay people smugglers. Control of migration and exclusion of the unwanted is a key dimension of globalisation. As Bertold Brecht wrote some 65 years ago, as a refugee in Helsinki: ‘The passport is the most noble part of a person… that is why it is recognised if it is good, but a person may not be recognised, however good he is’ (Brecht 1961: 7-8).


One paradox of this situation is that the key principles of human rights, human development, and economic well-being are defined and guaranteed by the imperial power. One source of ideological domination is the absence of credible alternatives. Indeed most alternative value systems appear anachronistic, repressive and even brutal by comparison. The Empire is the guarantor of human rights, prosperity and progress. It has declared that the dissemination of western values and standards is the key to happiness, and that management of migration and prevention of ‘unwanted migration’ are crucial to stability.


From resettlement to containment: the militarisation of forced migration


Globalisation and its new system of centralised and hierarchical power determines a corresponding system of hierarchical mobility. The global economic and political elites are able to cross borders at will, while the poor are meant to stay at home: ‘the riches are global, the misery is local’ (Bauman 1998, 9 and 74). Even at the height of the ‘asylum crisis’ in the early 1990s, refugee populations in the North were tiny compared with those in some Southern countries. For instance the ratio of refugees to host populations in 1992 was 1:10 in Malawi, compared with 1:869 in Germany and 1:3860 for the UK.[iv] The burden of caring for refugees falls overwhelmingly on the poorer countries of Asia and Africa. The western ‘non-entrée regime’ is designed to keep things that way, but the experience of the last ten years has shown that border restrictions alone are not sufficient. Just as Europeans were willing to endure danger and hardship to seek a better future in the New World a century ago, today’s poor and oppressed are prepared to take enormous risks to reach the North.


This desire for mobility can be seen as an integral part of global processes of social transformation. Gobalisation involves the proliferation of cross-border flows not only of capital and commodities, but also of cultural values, ideas and people (Held, et al. 1999). Flows of people are managed through differentiation of rules and mechanisms to allow the movement of some groups – especially highly-skilled personnel and contract workers – while preventing or restricting the movement of others – especially forced migrants, low-skilled workers and dependants. However, globalisation generates factors favouring mobility, which may be far more powerful than official control measures. The most obvious of these is the growth in inequality between North and South. A second factor is the political destabilisation in many countries of the South resulting from unequal power relations. Often this is exacerbated by the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which undermine social policy. A third factor is the cultural attraction of Northern lifestyles, beamed into every village by the mass media.


This is why entry restrictions in the North are not sufficient.  The rich states and the international agencies (which style themselves ‘the international community’) have adopted a politics of containment, designed to prevent unwanted migrants and asylum seekers from leaving their countries of origin. This is part of a much broader security agenda, in which the excluded South is perceived as a source of conflict, terrorism and instability. The trend towards containment led to the further growth of UNHCR. Its budget doubled between 1990 and 1993, from $564 million to $1.3 billion.[v] Other agencies also expanded their activities, and the UN made successive attempts to improve its coordination capacities, and to improve cooperation between major humanitarian agencies that tend to compete like feudal fiefdoms. However, traditional forms of humanitarian assistance often proved incapable of preventing mass displacement. In the 1990s the ‘international community’ undertook a series of military interventions designed specifically to prevent or stop mass exoduses from conflict zones.


The context of this trend was the inability to achieve economic and social development and the failure to build legitimate and stable states in large areas of the South. What Kaldor calls ‘the new wars’ are usually internal wars connected with identity struggles, ethnic divisions, problems of state formation and competition for economic assets. But they are simultaneously transnational as they involve diaspora populations, foreign volunteers and mercenaries, and international intervention forces. They also draw in international journalists, UN aid organisations, NGOs, and regional organisations. The means of warfare have also changed. The protagonists are not large standing armies but irregular forces. The aim is not control of territory, but political control of the population. Mass population expulsion is often a strategic goal, which is why the new wars have led to such an upsurge in forced migration (Kaldor 2001). Ninety per cent of those killed are civilians. Both government forces and insurgents use exemplary violence including torture and sexual assault as means of control. Many politicians and media commentators saw the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda etc. as the resurgence of ‘age-old hatreds’. It is more accurate to see such practices as systemic elements of a thoroughly modern form of warfare (Summerfield 1999).


Northern economic interests (such as the trade in oil, diamonds, coltan or small arms) play an important part in starting or prolonging local wars. At a broader level, trade, investment and intellectual property regimes that favour the industrialised countries maintain underdevelopment in the South. Conflict and forced migration are thus ultimately an integral part of the North-South division. This reveals the ambiguity of efforts by the ‘international community’ to prevent forced migration. They seek to do this through both entry restrictions in the North and ‘containment’ measures in the South. Containment includes humanitarian aid, peace-keeping missions and even military intervention. At the same time, the North does more to cause forced migration than to stop it, through enforcing an international economic and political order that causes underdevelopment and conflict.


However, violence and forced migration also cause social transformation. They destroy economic resources, undermine traditional ways of life and break up communities. Forced migration is thus a factor which deepens underdevelopment, weakens social bonds, and reduces the capacity of communities and societies to achieve positive change. Post-conflict reconstruction rarely leads to restoration of the pre-conflict situation, but rather to new and often problematic social relationships.


The implication, as Duffield stresses, is that attempts to contain refugees must involve intervention in conflicts. From the 1980s, UN-led relief operations grew in frequency and scope. Starting with Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) in 1989, such operations tried to assist both sides in civil wars, by working in both government and rebel-held areas. The principle of ‘neutral humanitarianism’ meant that aid agencies were supposed to take an impartial position, providing food, shelter, transport and medical assistance to both sides with the central objective of ‘saving lives’. The problem with this approach was, as Duffield comments, that humanitarian assistance ‘inevitably became part of the local political economy’ (Duffield 2001). The aid goods were used by the combatants as a way of sustaining the conflict.


In any case, provision of aid did little to protect victims of war, or to stop mass exoduses. Increasingly, the ‘international community’ turned to direct military intervention. This also had the advantage of justifying the continued existence of Northern military establishments now that the threat of large-scale war had receded. In the course of the 1990s there were seven major military operations designed (at least in part) to prevent mass refugee flows. Six were under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council (in Northern Iraq, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and East Timor), while a seventh (in Kosovo) was carried out by NATO (Roberts 1996).


The failure of containment and the rise of social transformation


By the end of the 1990s it was evident that the capacity of international humanitarian action to prevent mass exoduses was severely limited:

·         The ‘international community’ lacked the political will, and the economic and military resources to intervene effectively in most conflict situations causing mass displacement.

·         The selectivity of intervention undermined the moral and political legitimacy of such action.

·         Where intervention took place, it often failed to achieve its objectives, and sometimes exacerbated conflicts and precipitated mass displacement.

·         The principle of neutral humanitarianism required aid organisations to help both sides in a conflict, thus often providing resources to sustain hostilities.

·         Neutrality and limited mandates could mean looking on while atrocities were committed. 


Such experiences questioned the principles of neutrality and altruism which are seen as crucial by humanitarian agencies such as the ICRC, Oxfam or MSF. Rather than being idealistic helpers, such organisations were becoming part of a transnational aid industry which included inter-governmental organisations, governments, the military and private companies. The idea of non-political, neutral assistance became unsustainable. Indeed, combatants in the internal wars of the South began increasingly to see international aid workers as protagonists in the conflict. This led to a disturbing upsurge in attacks on aid workers, including murders in Chechnya, Burundi and West Timor.


Duffield argues that this ‘new humanitarianism’ is linked to new forms of global governance. The new global mode of economic and political regulation (which he refers to as ‘liberal peace’) is marked by persistent underdevelopment in large parts of the South. This is not an economic problem for the North, because, apart from being the source of certain raw materials, many Southern countries are largely disconnected from the global economy. However, underdevelopment is increasingly seen as a threat to global security and stability. This is because the South connects with the North in ways unexpected and unwanted by the latter: through the proliferation of transnational informal networks, such as international crime, the drug trade, people smuggling and trafficking, and migrant networks which facilitate irregular mobility (Duffield 1996, Chapter 3). Such phenomena are partly a result of trends towards economic deregulation and privatisation in the North, which open up the space for informal economies.


Underdevelopment has thus become a threat to the North – even though that very underdevelopment is a result of the hegemony of the North (and especially of the USA as the sole superpower). The result is a fundamental change in the objectives of both development policy and humanitarianism. Containment of forced migration through neutral humanitarianism has failed. Similarly, the Washington Consensus – the neo-liberal credo of the World Bank and the IMF – that underdevelopment could be countered by economic growth based on foreign investments and export-led growth ­ has proved mistaken. Humanitarianism and development policy now have a new joint task: the transformation of whole societies in order to prevent conflict and to achieve social and economic change. 


The principle of transforming whole societies was mapped out in a remarkable lecture by the then Senior Vice-President of the World Bank (and later winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics), Joseph Stiglitz, in 1998 (Stiglitz 1998). He argued that development required fundamental shifts in cultural values and social relationships, and that it was the task of international agencies to help bring these about. Other World Bank policy makers have expressed similar views. President Wolfensohn’s tour of the Jakarta slums in 1998 was emblematic of the Bank’s new understanding of the links between social and economic issues. Yet it does seem that this view has been marginalised in the Bank – Stiglitz’s sudden departure was symbolic of such conflicts.


Development is now seen by Northern governments and international agencies as impossible without security and peace. This means that humanitarian action and military intervention can no longer attempt to be neutral. Rather, such interventions seek to restore peace at the local level through imposing certain political and economic structures as part of a system of ‘networked global liberal governance’. This system has ‘a radical mission to transform societies as a whole, including the attitudes and beliefs of the people within them’ (Duffield 1996, 258). The price of being connected to global economic and political networks is thus the adoption of Northern economic structures, political institutions and value systems.


This analysis seems very relevant to current events. After September 11, 2001, the US government identified Afghanistan as the source of the global terrorist network responsible for the attack, Al Qaida. This organisation can be seen as the epitome of globalisation and transnationalism. It is organised as a non-hierarchical, multi-nodal network, and makes full use of the latest technologies of communication. Al Qaida is not a result of the failure of globalisation, but an indicator of its power. The further deepening of such processes will lead to more Al Qaidas, not to their elimination.


Rather than any attempt at containment, the USA immediately decided on a radical transformation of Afghani society to deal with the root causes of the problem. The first step was military action to overthrow the Taliban regime (itself partly a result of past US support for anti-Soviet Islamic fundamentalism). It was anticipated that military action would lead to a mass outflow of refugees, as well as major IDP problems. The UNHCR and other UN agencies were thus included in the planned action, and were provided with substantial special funding. The next step was to help build a new political order in Afghanistan. Again, the UN was to be heavily involved in this effort. Return of refugees and IDPs to their homes was a central part of efforts at reconstruction.


This is where the theory shows some gaps. The USA and its vassals failed to move to this essential second stage. Funds were pledged for reconstruction, but were not delivered. Leaders stressed the need to restore order, but failed to provide the required troops and equipment. Afghanistan was left to its own devises, although it was clear that the conditions for stabilisation had not been created. The outcome is uncertain, but the prognosis is not favourable. How can we explain this?


It seems that the curtailment of state sovereignty through outside intervention is regarded as legitimate by public opinion in the USA, and is accepted in many other states. Is Afghanistan an extreme, one-off case? Or has it set the pattern for future Northern-imposed social transformations in those states that President Bush considers to be ‘the axis of evil’? The Israeli occupation of Palestine in March 2002 indicates that Afghanistan will not remain a unique case. So does the current US mobilisation against Iraq. It is obvious that the superpower and its followers can impose military defeat. But do they have the will to create the conditions for stabilisation, reconstruction and development? This would appear to fit in with the power constellation sketched out above – but does the Afghan example give pause for doubt?


Contradictions of social transformation


Duffield makes a convincing case that social transformation strategies are the logical imperial response to cross-border flows of migrants, refugees, drugs and terrorists and the like that threaten the North. Yet this does not appear to be happening in every relevant case. Why?


It seems that, as with many global theories, it is necessary to add the important modifying elements of interest conflicts, values and human agency. Interest conflicts seem to be playing a major role in US policies toward Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the dominant interest of major economic and political actors would seem to favour the type of social transformation policy Duffield outlines, these policies have not (so far) prevailed because other powerful political actors have other interests. An analysis of US government and the rise to power of groups with specific sectoral interests would needed to fully understand this. Values are closely linked. The group that controls military and foreign policy in the USA has extremely conservative, isolationist and aggressive views. However, it has not been able to fully assert its power over the more liberal and internationalist circles that have long influenced US policy. Such conflicts give hope for change and moderation, and provide the opportunity for political debate and influence from the broader community. Similar conflicts are taking place in Britain and other satellites – whose consent is needed for political legitimation.


Human agency is, for us, the most useful and hopeful contradiction. Holistic analyses of complex systems inevitably emphasise the logic of the system, and its tendency to work toward pre-determined solutions. Against this, our most powerful weapon is Murphy’s law, that if a thing can happen, it will – however improbable. The many small cogs that make up an overpowering system are actually individuals and groups, with widely varying values, goals and aspirations. The hope for a more just and humane relationship between North and South – and by implication a fairer forced migration regime lies in the many diverse actors who can influence the system. This includes us, as participants in the system in our various ways, as well as the much wider circle of people who are involved in or merely interested in politics. Oxfam, the Labour Party, or even the RSC can be collective forces for change, because of the political processes involving individuals within them. Even government agencies or intergovernmental organisations can undermine system logic, if informed individuals  question official wisdom.


So how should we assess trends towards externally-imposed social transformation in countries of the South? Obviously, peace is better than chronic internal war. The regimes concerned are often notorious for corruption, economic rapaciousness, disregard for human rights and oppression of minorities and women. Many of the international civil servants and NGO personnel involved in processes of change are genuinely striving for greater equality, accountability and democracy. Yet is it really possible to believe that Northern powers want to help build political and economic systems that bring about higher living standards and better social conditions for the population of less-developed countries? The whole thrust of neo-liberal politics and economics in both North and South for the last 25 years has been the removal of social safeguards and the reduction of controls over powerful corporations whose operations drive the inequalities and crises that fuel forced migration. It seems unlikely that the ‘new humanitarianism’ will do anything to reverse such trends.


Kaldor suggests that current trends in international cooperation could lead to a model of ‘cosmopolitan governance’ based on universalistic humanist principles, in which transnational institutions, nation-states and local governments would work together to end war through ‘cosmopolitan law-enforcement’ (Kaldor 2001, 147-52). This project is worthy of support, but there are few signs that the world is moving in this direction. It seems much more probable that future humanitarian action and military intervention will follow the Afghanistan model of imposing a political and economic system that fits the interests of the North, but fails to address social inequality. This new form of Northern dominance is likely to reinforce resistance movements based on non-western identities and values (Castells 1997). Under these circumstances, local wars, terrorism, Northern intervention and forced migration seem destined to continue. Cosmopolitan politics seem highly desirable, but perhaps too ambitious at the present time. Building civil society at the local, national and transnational levels seems more feasible. In fact this is happening all the time. If we feel the need to support this, then we can become actors in the process.


This brings me to a final question. Is there still a humanitarian sector? In other words, are protection and assistance still driven by humanitarian and ethical goals? The answer should be clear by now. Humanitarianism in its original sense has no place in the system logic of globalisation and Empire. The humanitarian regime has become deeply inhumane. However, anyone who works in the sector is aware of the strength of ethical, moral, religious and philosophical principles that refuse to accept this dominant logic. This makes critique, change and reform possible – though not easy. There is no end to history – despite some intellectuals’ announcements to that effect (Fukuyama 1992), and the conflict will continue. Let us hope that it will be a non-violent and creative conflict.



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[i] Zolberg (2001). provides a valuable discussion of the political interests behind the notion of a migration crisis.

[ii] A recent development is the emergence of the new field of ‘political demography’: the study of migration and other demographic issues in relation to their effects on security and political stability (Weiner and Russell 2001).

[iii] Jewish refugees sought resettlement in Palestine. This led to major conflicts at the time, with Britain (which controlled the territory under an international mandate) opposing Jewish entry.  The establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of many Palestinian Arabs led to the world’s longest-standing refugee situation, which cannot be discussed in detail here (Adelman, 2001).

[iv] (Chimni 1998).

[v] By the end of the 1990s, as containment measures reduced the number of recognised refugees, the UNHCR’s budget was cut to just under $1 billion, leading to major cuts in staffing.