The Securitisation of Migration in Europe

Draconian migration policies in action on the Hungarian border.

The field of migration studies has played host to a key development over the past few decades; the explicit linkage of migration to security (Castles et al, 2014). The securitisation of migration has resulted in a discourse that presents immigration as a threat to national security (Karyotis, 2007). Migrants have been ‘transformed into a hostile threat to our culture and our values, to be kept out by… modern immigration controls’ (Webber, 2012). This toxic discourse emphasises a notion of “us” and “them”, with the migrant as the “cultural other” (Ceyhan & Tsoukala, 2002). Migration policy is therefore increasingly reflecting societies fears and identity politics. Asylum seekers and refugees have been constructed as deviant; underpinned by a “politics of exclusion” which regards such deviance as common knowledge (Pickering, 2004). Moreover, the events of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks across Europe have led to the blurring of counter-terrorism measures with immigration policy (Castles et al, 2014). Such action has legitimised calls for exceptional measures and restrictionist policies within the EU. Indeed, this development can be equated to ‘racism’s most modern form’.

Throughout Europe there remains a chronically poor understanding of the differences between immigration and asylum, which has conflated the “immigration problem” (Geddes, 2005). Migration has a high level of epistemic uncertainly, leaving it open to populist forms of framing. Migrants often travel in very insecure conditions, and are susceptible to exploitation and racism. Securitisation has fuelled a notion of belonging, in which migrants are seen as illegitimate recipients of social provisions (Huysmans, 2000; Boswell, 2007). The welfare state is constructed as a pull factor, attracting a large number of migrants. Conceptions of citizenship have produced clear-cut distinctions between those deserving and underserving of welfare (Kymlica & Norman, 2002). Consequently, migrants receiving welfare are stigmatised for committing “welfare fraud” (Faist, 1994). Moreover, a misconstrued discourse surrounding irregular migration has emerged, eroding the label of asylum, and subsequently creating an artificial threat (Zetter, 2007). Indeed, it can be argued that by applying a security lens to migration exaggerates threats to ‘such a pitch that… insecurity is greater’ (Buzan, 1999). In demonising migrants as potential terrorists, the perceptions are ‘far exceeding actual developments’ (Faist, 2006). The dilemma is such that the entire system of asylum has been tainted by the possibility that anyone claiming asylum could represent a terrorist threat (Seidman-Zager, 2010).

In the case of the EU, 9/11 arguably brought the liberalisation of European migration policy to a halt. The EU has continually associated terrorism with migration, security and borders. It is important to consider that there are two aspects to EU migration policy, the “Europeanization” of internal policy, and the “externalisation” of security threats. The security discourse has emphasised the need to strengthen the EU’s external borders, and reinforce asylum and migration policy at the member state level. This development has led to Europe ‘breeding… mindless intolerance of outsiders’ (The Economist, 1992). This has resulted in paradoxical policy, which promotes the free movement of people within the EU, whilst imposing severe restrictions upon asylum seekers, and refugees who wish to enter Europe (Levy, 2005). Securitisation has been used as a tool to protect member states, and the single market against migrants. The Dublin Convention of 1997 emphasised a desire to reduce the number of asylum seekers in Europe (Huysmans, 2000). Indeed, the Convention stated that any asylum seekers rejected by a member state, could not apply for asylum elsewhere in the EU (Bolten, 1991; Geddes & Boswell, 2011). Such an embrace of the security continuum enabled the EU to increase the link between immigration and terrorism. A meeting of The Council of Ministers on the 20th September 2001 increased surveillance measures further. Under Art 2(3) of the Schengen Implementing Agreement, checks on identity documents and visa’s have created a network of informational exchange (Guild, 2003). Indeed, this arguably laid the foundations for the Visa Information System (VIS), established in 2007. This tool has ultimately created a pool of people whose perceived ‘illegalisation… stems from… nationality’ (Maccanio, 2011: 20). The visa itself represents a security tool, as it is utilised for ‘the prevention of threats to… internal security’ (Council, 2007) of the EU.

In recent years there has been an increase in the notion that migrants originating from a Muslim background are susceptible to terrorist activities (Castles et al, 2014). The increasing spate of far-right electoral gains in Europe and the rise in populist sentiments channeling anti-immigrant and racial discourses have been stimulated in part by EU agencies producing migration estimates that are shockingly ‘irresponsible, and serve to fuel racism’ (Bunyan, 2010). Furthermore, the EU has reached out to external countries in an attempt to control migration flows generated by the Syrian crisis. The EU would essentially like to make Turkey ‘a guardian of impossibility’ (Blanchard et al, 2015), in order to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Greece. As a result of the deal the number of migrants arriving in Europe has declined from 57,000 in February 2016, to 3,400 in August 2016 (The Economist, 2017). Increased cooperation with external countries has resulted in the detention of migrants in inhumane conditions, alongside a returns policy that violates the EU’s commitment to human rights (Maccanio, 2011).

The UK’s role in the war on terror, and the subsequent securitisation, ‘exaggerated the threat posed’ (Castles et al, 2014: 206) by migration. The UK has witnessed a rise in Islamophobia, and debates have emerged around the concept of ‘Britishness’ (Webber, 2012). A renewed public discourse has stressed the desire for migrants to speak the language, and possess shared cultural values (Bali, 2013). The migration debate in the UK reached fever pitch during the 2016 EU referendum campaign, in which concerns around migration were a key reason behind the public’s decision to vote for Brexit. The figure released just before the referendum placed net migration at 333,000, with almost half coming from the EU (The Economist, 2016). Prominent members of the leave campaign, including Nigel Farage, made explicit linkages to the principle of free movement, and the refugee crisis; stigmatising those fleeing civil war zones. The debate came to a head when Farage stood in front of a poster that read ‘BREAKING POINT’, depicting a queue of migrants as an incoming threat to national security. The poster is a ‘visual equivalent of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech’ (Jones, 2016), and further advances the notion that multiculturalism damages society (Huntington, 1996). After Brexit, Theresa May has reaffirmed the commitment made by Cameron in 2010 and 2015, to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. May has also stated that freedom of movement cannot and will not continue after Brexit (The Economist, 2016). However as previously highlighted, the issue of migration is complex, and in the words of Brexit secretary David Davis, many of the UK’s industries “depend on migrants”. Once more we can see the gap between political rhetoric and reality, and there is a great danger that the current migration debates will increase the toxicity of the security discourse furthermore.

At present there is an increasing fear in Europe of ‘being swamped by waves of immigration’ (Lohrmann, 2000). Such is the level of confusion and misunderstanding around asylum and migration, all migrants are commonly viewed as a security threat. The EU continues to promote a paradoxical policy of liberal freedom of movement within its own borders, at the expense of citizens from external countries. Consequently, the securitisation of migration has resulted in the development of paradoxical and restrictive policies in the EU. Such legislation continues to fuel and appease xenophobic and racist sentiments, and increases the perception of threats to such a level that far exceeds reality.


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