Over the last decade there has been a surge in the securitisation of different aspects of migration, especially in relation to mixed flows, including refugees, using irregular pathways. This essay outlines what securitised and criminalised mixed migration looks like and how security concerns are used to justify and normalise what were previously exceptional policies and practices around the world. It will also explore how these trends might change in the future.
Securitisation from start to finish
Migrants and refugees in irregular flows face securitised conditions at many stages in their journeys. Initially, such conditions in countries of origin or point of departure may be a significant mobility driver for many, particularly refugees. Then, over the course of their journey they often face securitised borders and national security apparatus designed to deter, restrict or control their movements. Indeed, their presence in certain countries can prompt a level of securitisation that in turn may make the context more insecure, such as in Niger or Sudan. They then face increasingly securitised conditions at or approaching border areas of their chosen destination countries (e.g. in Mexico or in the Mediterranean Sea) driven by policies and processes that are the focus of this essay. Finally, within destination countries they may face further securitised situations including detention and deportation, as well as a hostile environment that undermines integration and acceptance.
A new security agenda
Evidence of securitisation of migration has been with us for many decades. Securitisation can be described as the repositioning of areas of regular politics into the realm of security by increasingly using narratives of threat and danger aimed at justifying the adoption of extraordinary measures. The last decade has seen a significant expansion of these narratives, backed by a normalisation of measures, operations, laws and policies that were once regarded as extreme. Many continue to regard them as extreme, making the nexus between security and migrants/refugees highly contentious.
In the post-Cold War era of neoliberal globalisation and the end of the bi-polar geopolitical stand-off, the new security threats took the form of rogue and fragile states, and terrorists. We have seen a conceptual shift from personal security to national security. Some argue this is one of the pressing contradictions of globalisation, where despite greater political and economic integration, insecurity continues to be present and reveals itself in new forms. The “new security agenda” encompasses issues such as ethnic conflict, environmental degradation, violent extremism, resource scarcity, weapons proliferation, uncontrolled migration, and organized crime. The erection of a record number of border fences and walls globally is emblematic of this paradox in an increasingly globalised world. Securitisation also has a “mass psychological dimension” insofar as it activates fear of migration through perceived existential threats and specifically cultural, social and political concerns.
State sovereignty & political expediency
The most common arguments used by securitising actors, including states, relate to economic factors, social cohesion (identity) and political stability. Such arguments attempt to link migration with dangers relating to the economy, health, and crime, including terrorism. Although other types of migration (including tourism, student visas, etc.) and integration show signs of increased securitisation, the main target is irregular migration.
Controlling borders and registering those within a territory is seen by governments, particularly their security sectors, as critical and an inherent part of national sovereignty and security. In a time of increased transnational crime, violent extremism, and potentially life-threatening contagions such as Ebola or swine flu (H1N1), border control is seen as non-negotiable and many citizens share their governments’ concerns.
In what some refer to as “hyper-securitization” following the 9/11 attacks in the US, securitisation of migration was not only stepped up considerably but developed the key new dynamic of “blurring” the lines between counterterrorism and immigration policy. At the same time, the perceived threat of Islam arising from increased numbers of Muslims coming via regular or irregular channels was constructed and kept alive during the so-called “war on terror”, and still continues.
In democracies where migration and asylum space has become politicised to the degree that policymakers and other politicians understand their future depends on their electorates’ perspective, the securitisation of migration also becomes politically expedient.
Despite a paucity of supporting evidence, the old myths are strong and alive: migrants take jobs, reduce wages, overburden public services, bring crime, terrorism and disease, and threaten social cohesion and national values. When linked to existing xenophobic and racist tendencies, these perceptions make it easy for political parties and governments to frame migrants and refugees as a threat, and thereby exacerbate those tendencies in a vicious cycle.
This is the political and cultural reality in which politicians and states operate. The gradual securitisation of migration allows measures to be implemented that restrict, control, and ultimately curtail uncontrolled and especially irregular movement.
Legitimising increased securitisation
The size and nature of uncontrolled arrivals into Europe in 2015 and 2016 was a cautionary shock to many about the disruptive impact of irregular mixed flows. The more extreme anti-migrant and anti-refugee measures taken at that time and since were not only legitimised by securitising irregular movement but soon became normalised and more tolerated as practice, no matter how many complaints publically made by advocates such as human rights organisations, other NGOs or multilateral global agencies such as the UNHCR. “In the name of urgency and survival, these measures often reach above and beyond the law and the ordinary political process.”
A blatant illustration of such overreach is the EU’s training, funding and partnering with the Libyan coast guard, who intercept departing migrants and refugees and take them to detention centres where they face well-documented risks of severe human rights abuses, including death. The arrest and detention of thousands of migrants in Libya has been justified by security concerns at the national level. Another example is Hungary, which in 2016 built border fences and recruited several thousand armed police auxiliaries colloquially known as “border hunters”, in an “increasingly hostile State-led approach to migration.” An ominous public information film produced by the Hungarian authorities was a stark illustration of how a member state of the EU and its Schengen area unilaterally criminalised migration and migrants while demonising smugglers by referring to them as “lying human traffickers”.
Political dramas, such as the European migration/ refugee “crisis” of 2015/16, and the large-scale human caravans approaching the Mexican-US border, provide policymakers and ideologues with easy fuel to increase the securitised narrative around supposed existential threats and to implement action that would otherwise be less acceptable. In the process, if part of such politicians’ appeal to voters derives from anti-migrant rhetoric, such events offer strong ammunition for rallying support, even when the rhetoric is counter-factual. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán offered a vivid example in 2016, at the height of the migrant influx into Europe (through Hungary), by saying, “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk. For us migration is not a solution but a problem… not medicine but a poison, we don’t need
it and won’t swallow it.”
Smuggling & trafficking instrumentalised
The role of human smuggling and human trafficking – both illegal under international law – is important in the process of securitising migrants and refugees in mixed flows. A large percentage of those on the move use smugglers, who are well-documented as leading perpetrators of many rights abuses, including deaths. They are sometimes in close contact with traffickers and often conduct trafficking-like practices, such as kidnapping for ransom. Securitising mobility and militarising frontiers are therefore easily linked to the fight against international crime, where curtailing irregular movement is framed within efforts to disrupt criminal networks.
Conflating trafficking and smuggling further serves as a useful cover for those looking for a more palatable justification for restricting migrants and refugees, and criminalising the whole activity of irregular mobility. This criminalisation extends beyond smugglers and those on the move to include citizens attempting to assist migrants and refugees (discussed in more detail below).
Resistance to the securitisation of migration is particularly strong amongst academics, activists, and practitioners in the field of refugee protection and migrant rights. There is a sense of harsh irony that many of those in mixed migration flows are themselves fleeing insecurity, and exist in a precarious and insecure space, and yet are increasingly characterised as the cause of insecurity in transit and destination countries.
So despite the fact that insecurity is a leading mobility driver for many migrants and refugees, some fear that a security perspective on migration “threats” has overridden human rights and humanitarian values. Increasingly, we note that the ethics of solidarity around refugees is at odds with actual appetite to provide resettlement to more of them.
Examples that illustrate these fears and contradictions can be found in the treatment of search and rescue in the Mediterranean as well as in waters off Australia. In both cases search and rescue has become militarised and focused on inhibiting movement.
Advocates for refugees and migrants emphasise moral imperatives and duty of care while playing down the legal ramifications – and in some jurisdictions, the illegality – of crossing borders irregularly. (The 1951 Refugee Convention allows for irregular entry to another country to claim asylum.) They view the securitisation of refugees and migrants as a cynical mechanism that allows states to implement what they deem to be reprehensible, convention-breaching and in some cases illegal activities. These activities include: legislating to criminalise irregular migrants, arrests, detention, deportation, refoulement, separation of parents from children, preventing family reunification, failing to rescue people at risk, allowing those stranded to live in dire conditions, destroying make-shift shelters, failing to share the burden of refugees, cooperating with states with poor human rights records, and turning a blind eye to severe human rights abuses of cooperating partners.
The ramifications of such ideological clashes are profound. When such activities take place on the doorstep of relief agencies who oppose them on humanitarian grounds, those agencies inevitably take on a political stance and are thereby forced to jettison some sacrosanct principles: “The ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’ to which relief groups could lay claim in the Global South makes neither moral nor operational sense now that the crisis has come home… the choice they face is politics or irrelevance.”
Even the humanitarian activities of individual citizens in some destination and transit states have been outlawed. In the United States people have been prosecuted for leaving water for migrants in the Arizona desert and accused of harbouring felons when assisting migrants. In Europe – especially in Italy and France – hundreds of people, including priests and the elderly, have been arrested, investigated, or threatened with prison or fines over the past five years in an attempt to criminalise “solidarity” with migrants.
The current scale of the securitisation of mobility and displacement, particularly of vulnerable people in mixed flows or in refugee situations, is widespread and increasing. Some well documented examples of the militarisation of border security as part of a wider securitisation of mixed migration illustrate this aspect of the global trend:
• In early 2019, the United States beefed up the number of troops (to over 4,000) guarding its border with Mexico, specifically against “caravans” of irregular migrants and asylum seekers. There was precedent for this move: a decade earlier President George W. Bush had 6,000 troops along the border to stop irregular movement.
• In June 2019, in an attempt to avert punitive US trade tariffs, Mexico deployed 6,000 soldiers to its border with Guatemala to curtail the influx of Central American migrants and asylum seekers heading to the US through its territory.
• Having forced out virtually all non-government search and rescue efforts from the Mediterranean Sea, even previously deployed European Union naval vessels (under Operation Sophia) have now been replaced by air surveillance assets, including drones, to save costs. The bloc has resolved to disrupt the business model of migrant smugglers and human traffickers, especially in the southern central Mediterranean. Arrivals in the first half of 2019 were approximately 3,500, fewer than 17 per day.
• Meanwhile, the size of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is being increased to 10,000 officers. This is occurring in a context where fencing and national military forces already augment local police guarding EU borders against asylum seekers and irregular migrants using approximately 100,000 officers. The agency’s budget reportedly increased 3,688 percent between 2005 and 2016 (from 6.3 to 238.7 million euros).
• In Australia, Operation Sovereign Borders, the military-led manifestation of a 2013 election campaign pledge to “stop the boats” laden with asylum seekers, has effectively ended irregular sea arrivals. More than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia irregularly by sea have been held for several years in detention centres on the islands of Manus and Nauru in conditions widely condemned by human rights organisations.
• Thailand’s navy continues to prevent Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar landing on its territory and implements tough anti-refugee policies including “push backs” of any vessel attempting to land. Malaysia uses a similar approach (also detaining intercepted refugees), while the navy of Bangladesh is regularly used to prevent refugees leaving its territory by boat (with smugglers, allegedly).
• In 2017, South Africa’s National Assembly passed legislation to set up a new “armed service” called the Border Management Authority (BMA) that, if it is ever established, would subsume security roles currently fulfilled by the police and have the exclusive right to perform “border law enforcement functions” including dealing directly with irregular arrivals and asylum seekers. Together with plans to detain migrants at processing centres on South Africa’s borders, the BMA is seen by some as of part of a process of “militarising the margins [that] has become an integral plank in the [African] continent’s new approach to ‘migration management,’” with “Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Niger, and Sudan … all planning enhanced border management strategies, including bio-metric tracking and militarisation”.
• In 2013, Israel began to enhance the securitisation of irregular entry to its territory from Egypt by constructing a fence, stationing troops, and installing electronic sensors along the border. This dramatically curtailed irregular arrivals through the Sinai. The Israeli government also securitized existing asylum seekers and irregular migrants in-country by enforcing mass detention, re labelling approximately 40,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals as “infiltrators”, organising deportation, making employment harder and publicising the criminal threat of these groups in Israeli society.
• In recent years, although accepting over 3 million Syrian refugees, Turkey has securitised its border with soldiers and fences specifically to prevent more Syrian refugees entering its territory
Private sector bonanza
For companies specialising in equipment and personnel to protect borders, the securitisation of migration (and refugee movements) has been extremely lucrative. The global border security market was estimated to be worth some 15 billion euros in 2015 and is predicted to grow to
over 29 billion euros annually by 2022.
The EU’s investment in securing its borders benefits military and security companies which, as well as providing equipment to border guards, surveillance technology to monitor frontiers, and IT infrastructure to track population movements, also influence policy decisions via extensive lobbying. Far from being “passive beneficiaries of EU largesse, these corporations are actively encouraging a growing securitisation of Europe’s borders, with some willing to provide ever more draconian technologies.” Some contractors are among the biggest arms sellers to the Middle East and North Africa: “the companies contributing to the refugee crisis are now profiting from the consequences.”
Australia’s off-shore detention centres also provide rich pickings for canny private sector operators, as do those for migrants held inside the US and the UK, to cite just three examples.
Beyond militarisation – the most visible iteration of securitised border control – the securitisation of migration and refugees takes place at many levels of society in terms of policy, law, and security apparatus application:
“… multilateral and bilateral agreements have been signed, international and domestic institutions have been created, extradition and deportation agreements between receiving and sending states have been authorized, and conventions and protocols have been ratified with, at their core, the linkage between migration and security.”
Evidence and iterations of securitisation of migration (including internal migration) is found not only in main destination countries such as those listed above, but also in locations such as Egypt, Sudan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Jordan and Syria, where the securitised discourse combines migration with competition for scarce resources. Even in reputedly migration-friendly Canada, analysts have accused state immigration and refugee services of having become securitised. In Kenya, the government has repeatedly linked terror attacks in the country to Somali nationals, especially urban Somali refugees and those residing in Dadaab refugee complex. The securitisation of Somali refugees has been the legitimising rationale for the often announced but legally contested and as yet unimplemented closure of Dadaab and repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, many of whom were born in Kenya and have never even visited Somalia.
More mixed flows to come
The essays in this report and the many sources used in compiling them outline compelling reasons why the level of global displacement, which reached a record 70.8 million people in mid-2019, is likely to keep growing.
Even though cross-border mixed migration makes up only a small percentage of global displacement, the political impact of irregular movement is disproportionately large. There are clear indications that the mixed migration phenomenon is likely to expand, not least because of unequal global demographic changes forecast for the next decades and the considerable disruption climate change might deliver.
A lively smuggler market has shown itself to be very responsive to demand for its services, and as political instability and conflict shows no signs of reduction this demand will no doubt grow too. The situation will be exacerbated if the current reluctance to accept asylum seekers and resettle refugees, coupled with a declining appetite for low-skilled labour migration, continues.
The hard and the soft…
Developments that might thwart an increase in mixed migration are closely linked to the securitisation of migration, including refugee movement, in ways such as those set out in the brief border security examples listed earlier in this essay.
As unequal global pressures mount in relation to economics, politics, the environment, demographics, security, and opportunity, the trend we are now witnessing of normalising extreme policy measures relating to movement might not only continue but become more extreme and entrenched. To secure borders against unwanted irregular access will entail both further “hard” fortification and militarisation and “soft” measures where legal, administrative and policy cooperation barriers are erected. Migrant and refugee countries of origin and transit can often be bought off or bullied into compliance by enacting containment policies, as evidenced already in countries such as Mexico, Sudan, Libya, Niger and the EU’s relationship with the African Union itself.
…and the counterproductive
Ironically, current policies, especially those of border externalisation and containment, could result in “heightened inequality within and between countries, along with increased poverty and likelihood of conflict [that] will create precisely the pressures to migrate that Europe hopes to contain.” For example, stricter implementation of anti-smuggler legislation in Niger (instigated by the EU) could well lead to greater impoverishment and unemployment providing militants with more potential recruits that may disrupt society and cause larger displacements in the future.
Equally, the EU’s discreet cooperation with and funding of Sudan in the realm of migration control have reportedly supported the empowerment of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). This paramilitary unit – which grew out of the Janjaweed militias that gained infamy in Darfur – have acted harshly to stem smugglers and migrants in Sudan’s deserts and, on several occasions in mid-2019, opened fire on anti-government protesters, leaving many dead. The ensuing civil instability in Sudan could lead to considerable displacement. Only history will show whether in these kinds of paradoxical developments the purported cure (for irregular movement) turns out to be more dangerous than the phenomenon itself.
Deeper securitisation of migration will be central to achieving the goal of containment, leading to a potential scenario of increased involuntary immobility: large groups of stranded and probably destitute refugees and migrants, and accompanying humanitarian crises. Involuntary immobility could increase frustration among those stranded as well as among local host populations, particularly the growing youth cohort in the global South. This in turn risks exacerbating insecurity, in the form of violent extremism, recruitment by ideological movements, internal conflict, and political instability, further feeding – to complete the vicious circle – legitimacy for securitisation and, by likely even if counterproductive extension, yet more irregular migration.
It was with an eye on these potential negative outcomes that the proponents and architects of the two global compacts for migration and refugees worked to achieve their widespread international adoption in late 2018. The first Global Refugee Forum will be convened by UNHCR at the ministerial level in late December 2019 to deliver “concrete pledges and contributions that will advance the objectives of the Global Compact on Refugees and achieve tangible benefits for refugees and host communities.” It remains to be seen whether these initiatives and the Sustainable Development Goals (which also stress the importance of international agreement around migration) as well as other multilateral initiatives will make a difference.
Increasingly, countries will need additional migrant workers, but such labour demand may be at odds with electorates’ intolerance for higher volumes of migrants or refugees and the continued securitisation of mobility. As one analyst wrote more than 12 years ago:
“How then do states regulate migration in the face of economic forces that push them toward greater openness, while security concerns and powerful political forces push them toward closure? States are trapped in a ‘liberal’ paradox — in order to maintain a competitive advantage, governments must keep their economies and societies open to trade, investment, and migration. But unlike goods, capital, and services, the movement of people involves greater political risks.”
These are risks many governments are currently unwilling to take, and future expected pressures suggest they will be even less willing to take them in the medium term.
The history of migration and the numbers of people potentially involved suggest that future migration and refugee issues can be managed through international cooperation given enough political will. Yet, enforced by significant sociocultural intransigence, current political will seems firmly directed towards the continued securitisation of migration. So the key question is: to what extent can this be rolled back and an alternative approach adopted to avoid negative and self-reinforcing outcomes?
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