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Securitising the refugee crisis: The anatomy of a humanitarian failure

February 24, 2016 at 4:39 pm

The on-going refugee crisis on Europe’s borders continues to break grim records, and it is likely to be a central issue in the forthcoming “Brexit” referendum. According to the International Organisation for Migration, this January was the worst month so far in terms of the deaths of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, with at least 244 fatalities compared to 82 last January. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch representative Eva Cossé warned: “People are wearing fake life jackets; if there is a shipwreck, people drown.”

Sealed borders:

The EU taking U-turns on humanity
Click to read the EU’s response to the #RefugeeCrisis

While more than 55,000 refugees and migrants are already seeking sanctuary in Europe, the political and media establishments across the continent have grown ever more hostile to their presence. Thus there are likely to be few better allegories than the “fake life jackets” to describe the role of the EU. For all its myriad promises of promoting “the universal and indivisible nature” of human rights, Europe continues to fail refugees. As Gauri van Gulik, from Amnesty International, put it last summer: “All these crises are symptoms of the same problem: Europe is not accepting its responsibility in an unprecedented global refugee crisis.”

Working out why this failure continued is not necessarily as straightforward as we might think. Indeed, as polling shows, enmity towards refugees among the general population in European states is widespread. This means that for many – otherwise entirely decent – Europeans there is limited empathy available, even for a group of people who have suffered the kind of devastation and hardship that has been – thankfully – uncommon in Europe for decades.

Hostility towards refugees

There have, of course, been various explanations put forward, including claims that this situation is a direct product of racism, or that European states are already “overwhelmed”. A common refrain among many of the mainstream publications and with political leaders, however, is that Europe is doing the best it can but has legitimate concerns over its own survival in this context.

Indeed many of the reasons that European leaders have cited as reasons for these failures hint at this rationale. For example as Hungarian politician, Anna Magyar, stated: “Member states have obligations to their own citizens. When are we going to start protecting our own citizens against the massive flows of illegal migrants?

Could you make it as a refugee?

Since January 2015, over 1 million people have arrived in Europe by sea and land
Take the journey from Syria to Europe and see if you’d survive

Another clear example, from closer to home, was evident in recent statements by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, who stated: “We will have no idea whether these people are coming here to work, or coming to do us harm. People say, ‘you shouldn’t assume the worst’. But in a world where you’ve got ISIL out there, you cannot afford to assume that there is no risk,” using another acronym for Daesh.

While these examples are clearly at the extreme end of the spectrum, they are hardly unusual. This was particularly apparent when the overwhelmingly hostile coverage of the crisis was briefly interrupted when the body of the toddler Alan Kurdi was pictured, lifeless, washed up on a Turkish beach.

Yet, not long after Kurdi’s death faded from the headlines, political language on the topic returned to form. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of a “swarm of people” crossing the Mediterranean and the need to “protect our borders”. The Home Secretary promised “extra vetting” for refugees in the aim of avoiding the infiltration of terrorists; and the press obsessed, hysterically, over the issue of refugees in Calais.

But little of this coverage would focus for very long on the basic – quite astonishing – tragedy that, in Europe, in the second decade of the 21st century, so many people have been forced into such dire straights. Rather the press zeroed in on the apparent threat that refugees pose to Britain.

For instance, while covering the French decision to construct a camp for refugees near the current, makeshift camp, known disparagingly as ‘the jungle’, The Telegraph focused heavily on the proximity of this camp to Britain’s borders: “Britain is facing a new threat to its border after France announced the construction of a ‘Sangatte’-style refugee camp less than 50 miles from Dover, prompting fears it will intensify the migrant crisis.”


This kind of language is obviously articulated for a particular purpose. Indeed to any general observer it is likely to be clear that such language is designed to provide a kind of emotional/conceptual framework that tells us how to think about refugees.

In this case, by focusing so extensively and often on the potential that refugees might be the source of some form of “threat” to Britain, it is evident that the purpose of this framework is designed to encourage antipathy and discourage sympathy. However, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that in this case there is actually something else going on. This can be described as “securitisation”.

Securitisation is a concept pioneered by a particular group of social scientists which has become known as the Copenhagen School of Security Studies. It describes the practice where political leaders seek to influence the way in which a particular issue is discussed by identifying it as a “security concern”. In so doing, the political leaders attempt to shift the topic out of the sphere of normal politics and elevate it to a level where urgent, or extreme measures are deemed justifiable. Essentially, the key idea securitisation is to demonstrate how the concept of “security” is effectively an extreme form of politicisation.

Examples help show how this works. For instance, in a previous article for MEMO I mentioned that in the US, the vast majority of terrorist attacks are carried out by right wing extremists yet the vast majority of coverage, concern and the most extreme responses of the state are reserved for terrorism carried out by Islamist-extremists. In essence this demonstrates that while Islamist-terrorism has been very clearly securitised, right wing extremism has been securitised to a lesser degree.

As Ole Waever – who coined the term “securitisation” – explains: “The word ‘security’ is the act; the utterance is the primary reality.” In other words, the very act of defining something as a “security concern” is political, with very significant political consequences. It is, in essence, the act of picking an issue from amongst a range of others – which may be equally or perhaps even more deserving of concern – and defining it as something that should be feared as an existential threat.

Securitisation of refugees

According to a working paper from Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre the securitisation of refugees is not new. Indeed, in 2010 they wrote: “There are a number of different actors who actively seek to portray asylum seekers as a security threat or facilitate this characterisation without the express goal of securitisation, including politicians, the government, other public figures and the media.”

Yet, while British policy and political language towards migrants and in particular “asylum seekers” has grown more hostile since the late 1980s, since 2000 there has been discernible efforts to conflate issues of “terrorism” and the image of “asylum seekers”. Indeed, after the 2001 attacks on the US by Al-Qaeda, concern over terrorism related to Northern Irelands shifted towards the perceived threat from Islamist extremists, and for the first time, political language started to draw together the issues of terrorism and immigration to the UK.

Moreover, the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act linked the issues in legislation despite the fact “there is no explanation given as to why asylum seekers are believed more liable than migrants to be involved in terrorist activities or as to why foreigners are believed more liable than nationals to commit terrorist attacks in the UK.”

The upshot

Clearly the goal of such conflation of terrorism and migration in political language is to create the kind of environment where the issue of migration can be treated as a threat to the UK by political leaders. This means that it becomes easier to subordinate the legal and political rights of refugees to the will of politicians, especially when they are willing to use the language of urgency and fear.

As the political debate around the potential “Brexit” from the EU comes alive over the summer, and the issue of migration inevitably returns to the fore, that the paradigm of “securitisation” for this issue is hardly objective. (We’ve already seen how the issue of in-work benefits for EU citizens living legally in the UK can be the subject of an “emergency break” despite the fact that there is no obvious “emergency” associated with it.)

This is clearly a time of making choices. Britain will choose its future inside or outside the EU. But we can also choose what kind of country we are: fearful and reactionary or compassionate and judicious? Will we allow the portrayal of refugees en masse as threats to persist or will we challenge in the name of common sense and human decency. Do we continue to fail refugees like so many counterfeit life jackets? Or will we actually do our best to keep our fellow human beings afloat, (just as we would want for ourselves)? 2016 will be a very important year.

Dr. Philip Leech is a Senior Fellow for the Centre on Government at the University of Ottawa. He is the co-editor (with Shabnam Holliday) of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East (Forthcoming, Rowman and Littlefield International) and the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis (Forthcoming, Routledge). His full profile is online at and is on twitter @phil_haqeeqa.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.