The Threat of Securitisation

By Akanksha Munshi-Kurian

Aspirations for a close-knit international community and a globalised, multilateral order have been under siege for some time now. Britain formally exited the European Union in a breath-takingly impulsive display of protectionism in 2017; the US continues to tighten its stances on immigration and excessively militarise its borders; Australia spent more than $4 billion on ‘border protection’ policies in 2018; and India formally closed its borders to Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh last year. Sitting back and waiting for the populist storm to pass is not, evidently, a viable solution.

“Securitisation” refers to the funnelling of certain political discourses into the realm of security. Immigrants and asylum seekers are portrayed as an immediate threat to state security, allowing political leaders to draw normative distinctions of themselves as defenders of their people’s safety, sovereignty, and identity, and ethnic minority immigrants as “the other”. Counterterrorist policy and immigration policy have become increasingly intertwined across the West, and the perceived ‘threat’ of ‘the other’ has catalysed a spread of hate politics and exclusionary political systems. 

As the world’s richest democracies seal their borders and expand their walls, the crushing effects of protectionism on asylum seekers are becoming all the more apparent. 

Towards the end of last year, the US Supreme Court permitted the government to enact statutory bans on the majority of Central Americans seeking asylum in the US. A month earlier, the Trump administration confirmed that they would start detaining asylum-seeking families indefinitely until their cases were decided, despite expert warnings that children could be psychologically damaged through detention and that the policy would circumvent due process obligations.

Across the border in Canada the same year, the government made an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act under urgency, deeming refugees ineligible to make a claim if they had already applied in the US, UK, Australia or New Zealand. This was passed to prevent refugees “sort of shopping around and making applications in multiple countries” (a quote from Canada’s Minister of Border Security), perpetuating a falsehood that refugees are actively taking advantage of an excessively free-handed asylum system. 

Closer to home, the Australian onshore immigration detention system was last year declared to be “more and more like prison” and more inhumane than any other similar operation in the West by the Human Rights Commission.

Such actions show a fast backtracking of the West from their international legal obligations. The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which 146 countries are signatories, defines a refugee as anyone who flees their country due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The convention prohibits governments from sending those seeking asylum back to where they might face danger and bars any form of penalty or punishment against them.

The backtracking from such explicit commitments is normalised through stigmatising rhetoric – in which asylum seekers are often referred to as “shoppers” or “illegal immigrants” by politicians — which eschew the reasons for their asylum in favour of narratives brushed with bigotry and misinformation. Growing xenophobia normalises the hardships of those who have no option but to escape their homelands.

Such labelling legitimises securitisation and encourages policies that obstruct thousands of asylum seekers’ access to fundamental rights and to safety. They also, worryingly, convey populist agendas that adopt Eurocentric national identities, influencing exclusionary immigration politics.

Furthermore, security strategies targeting asylum seekers and refugees – for instance, the discriminatory use of policing – have not only been found to have no effect on public safety but often divert attention away from genuine local social issues. They thus neither provide security for the country nor protect refugees: to the contrary, they foster societal fissures and deepen existing inequalities. 

The international trend of growing securitisation and the extrication of states from their multilateral responsibilities are having devastating consequences for those most vulnerable: the people who have been forced to leave their homes due to circumstances outside of their control. And with more than 70 million displaced people worldwide – a human rights crisis deemed ‘unprecedented’ by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – the need for inclusive and empathetic policies is all the more pressing. 

Dismantling the misplaced panic and fear around taking in asylum seekers, and centring the focus on those experiences of displaced peoples who are seeking safety instead, is imperative for achieving a safer world. No country can exempt itself from the global table: this crisis is not something that one state can solve alone.