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Securitization Theory for Refugees

“Increasingly refugees and Internally Displaced Persons are regarded as harbingers of insecurity, rather than victims of it” – Discuss with reference to two case studies.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, the late Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman quoted Bertolt Brecht by saying; Immigrants personify particular fears and anxiety in privileged inhabitants of a place, about losing their economic, cultural and hence political place and status in the world. Bauman explained that “refugees and migrants bring with them a certain insecurity regarding mysterious and obscure global forces that disturb the stable idea of a neighborhood, a habitat. Hence the world’s resentment of dispossessed people, who are demonized, ironically, for what they do not possess rather than what they do”. The essay’s main argument follows Bauman’s line of thought and expands on it in three main ways. Firstly, the mainstream media when is mostly unbalanced when covering refugees and internally displaced persons, often they portray them in a negative manner. Furthermore, those who are fleeing from conflict in the Middle East are viewed as “the other”, they are made to be feared by the media and the government, often government officials use dehumanizing language when referring to them. Secondly, the securitization theory developed by the Copenhagen School explains why this group of people are categorized as a security threat, they are politicized and generalized as a security threat because of the actions of a few. Thirdly, within this context there are some countries such as Germany who have opened their borders and have taken on the responsibility of settling refugees, have to an extent balanced media coverage and are accepting as a whole. In order to explain these points in depth, this essay will be using the UK and Germany as a comparison. Therefore, this paper will agree with the quote “increasingly refugees and Internally Displaced Persons are regarded as harbingers of insecurity, rather than victims of it” especially in the current atmosphere of Islamophobia and deadly terrorist attacks that are mostly linked to “Muslims” by the Media and several European governments, it doesn’t help that most refugees seeking refuge in the West come from the Middle East and North Africa.

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In the aftermath of the Cold War, the more utopian prophets of globalization argued that the rise of a new “borderless” world was in the making and national borders would soon become irrelevant and obsolete. Many governments have since then dismantled systems that promote barriers and tariffs in an effort to encourage the free movement of capital and commodities, and engaged in regional and transnational agreements that have renounced traditional tenets of national sovereignty. At the same time, the past two decades have also been regarded as an “unprecedented political concern with borders being viewed as symbolic markers of national identity, and as barricades against the movement of unwanted people”[1] (in this case refugees and IDP’s). In various countries, from the United States to Britain, governments continue to reinforce their borders with new physical barriers, technologies and personnel.

The process of simultaneously softening yet hardening borders has been particularly conspicuous in the European Union. On the one hand, European governments have created a “united Europe” with the reintegration of Eastern and Western Europe through abolishing internal border checks and the creation of a “vast space of freedom, security, and justice”, which just a few decades ago seemed almost impossible. Within this space approximately 500 million European citizens can live and work freely anywhere on the continent. On the other hand, European governments have simultaneously gone to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to limit and monitor the entry of people coming in from outside the continent (particularly refugees and IDP’s). European governments make sure to have police, soldiers, border guards, naval patrols and an array of physical barriers and different technology at the borders, this amounts to the most extensive border enforcement effort in history. The overarching priority behind the new border regimes is aimed at preventing ‘illegal immigration’.

Evidently this draconian style system has had devastating consequences for the people it is designed to exclude. In the past few years at least 15,000 migrants have lost their lives while trying to cross the EU’s maritime and land borders. Migrants have gone so far as to kill themselves while trying to escape deportation, detention or simply because they were reduced to stateless destitution – “It has now become an undeclared war that not only views but treats migrants as criminals, as harmful intruders, as a signal of insecurity and they must be kept at bay through a quasi military enforcement effort”[2]. The extensive security efforts undertaken by most European countries during the refugee crisis suggests that they view those fleeing conflict ridden countries and seeking refuge in Europe as transporters of insecurity, violence and arguably terrorism.


In addition to governments playing a vital role in furthering the opinion that refugees and IDP’s are harbingers of insecurity, the media is also undoubtedly an important tool in society. It targets urgent issues of the community. This has an impact on the readers, because many a times their opinions may be shaped or influenced by the media. In the case of the ongoing European refugee crisis, media coverage has given the public an insight in to the refugees escaping the conflict ridden Middle East. However there reporting has been mixed. On the one hand there has been outstanding coverage concentrating on the harsh reality of the struggles faced by those traversing the Middle East then mostly Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and beyond, in search of a safe haven mainly in Western Europe, often with young children in tow. Media outlets such as the Guardian and the Independent have often focused on the human element of the crisis. On the other hand, the right-wing media have in general reacted to this crisis differently, choosing to focus on national security instead. Publications such as The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Mirror have reportedly been shunned on social media for using dehumanising language when reporting on the refugee crisis, firstly they often replace the word “refugee” with “migrants”. The difference in these two terms is crucial and “the editorial decision to use one term over the other necessarily impacts the tone of the article or feature that it relates to and therefore on how the public may respond to the report”. The United Nations defines refugees as ‘persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution’. Whereas migrants are defined as people ‘who choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education or other reasons’. For example, in 2006 a study was carried out and it was found that the term “illegal immigrants’” was used the most by The Mail (25) and The Times (18), the study found common usage of the term across all national media in the UK. In support of this study, was in the Telegraph when they reported that “David Cameron is to insist that illegal immigrants are deported to the European country in which they first arrived”[3]. However, these “illegal immigrants” are then defined as “people fleeing the troubles in North Africa and the Middle East”. This questions the accuracy of tabloid newspapers when they are unable to differentiate between the given categories – “In a climate where the British government is cutting expenditure and there is concern over scarce resources, irresponsible coverage may be opportunistically exploited by anti-immigration groups”[4].

Furthermore, the terminology employed when discussing refugees and IDP’s is more often than not negative in British Media, this tends to play on the emotions and pre-existing fears of the public as a whole, and could potentially result in a negative response towards accepting refugees. We live in a period where people like Katie Hopkins have a substantial following in British Media can refer to refugees dying in boats as “cockroaches” or when the Prime Minister speaks of “swarms of people, and the foreign secretary denigrates marauding Africans who seek to change our way of life”[5]. Refugees in this context are no more than insects, or are subject to crude racial stereotypes. This could suggest why a recent poll conducted by the BBC suggests that attitudes towards allowing refugees into Great Britain have hardened. From 31% in September 2015, it has increased to 41% so two in five people of the 2,204 people interviewed by Comres say Britain should accept fewer refugees from Syria and Libya.

Edward Said offers one explanation as to why refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are treated as “the other”, the above paragraph has shown how they are referred to in dehumanising language and Said argues this is because there have always been negative connotations/ascribed terms attached to the Arabs and although they may have changed according to the times, they still belittle the Arabs. For example, in the past Arabs and Muslims were spoken about in the West with terms like “erotic”, “primitive”, “ignorant”, “slave traders” among other derogatory terms. Recently these words have been replaced with terms such as “terrorist”, “fundamentalist”, and “blood thirsty”.  Such expressions when adopted by the mainstream media at large tend to play on the fears that some may already have, thus not only do they view the Muslim refugee as the “other” but they view them through a negative lens and fear them even more. As a result, Howden claims that the flurry of inaccurate or misleading reports had drowned out all context – “the presence of openly racist and xenophobic stances among individuals, policy makers and political movements is only part of the problem. Even the more civilized and political correct is often very confused and poorly informed”[6]. Lee and Lynn in support of this studied the way in which refugees and asylum seekers were constructed in the UK media, through analysing letters from members of the public discussing the asylum debate. They found that asylum seekers and refugees were constructed in a negative way within these discourses. This was achieved “through a reconstruction and repositioning of the social order of the other groups in society so as to position them as outside of society”.[7]

Said’s theory may prove to be true following the treatment of refugees in Calais. In April 2009, a raid was conducted at the camp, French authorities arrested 190 peoples and used bulldozers to destroy tents. The arrests were made because they were “illegal inhabitants” even though they are/were refugees.  Said once noted that the West promotes a deep-rooted hatred for Islam, today Islam is “peculiarly traumatic news in the West”. Especially since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 caught Western attention, the media have portrayed Islam in a very misleading way – “In many instances Islam has licensed not only patient inaccuracy, but also expressions of unrestrained ethnocentrism, cultural and even racial, deep yet paradoxically free-floating hostility”[8]. Which could explain why the Calais Jungle is so often described as an Islamic invasion (Berlusconi’s Italy, extreme right wing politicians have called it an invasion) which specifically targets Middle Eastern and North African refugees as well as IDP’s because it is seen as an Islamic invasion that threatens to undermine European culture and civilization.


An alternative explanation given to understand why refugees are regarded as transporters of insecurity is the securitization theory. The Copenhagen School has contributed greatly to the formulation and advancement of the securitization theory; they contend that there are choices involved when deciding what should be categorized as a security threat. In this way, “whether or not issue is a security issue is treated not as a result of its objective qualities but rather as a result of what different people subjectively identify as security threats”. In this case, the securitization of refugees is a clear indication that they are perceived as security threats.  This section will thus argue that Europe as a whole has to a great extent politicized migrants and asylum-seekers, resulting in them being portrayed as a “challenge to the protection of national identity and welfare provisions”[9].

Over the past few decades, public discourse in the UK has for the most part shaped the concept of asylum in negative terms, many have gone so far as to cast refugees and IDP’s as a security threat to the UK and its residents. Often refugees and IDP’s have been categorised with undocumented workers or ‘illegal immigrants’. This association has resulted in them being viewed as a threat to British society and its values, as well as a cause for concern for the human security of state residents, such as the “health and welfare services”. Although reasonable security measures are often necessary as part of immigration policy, the issue at hand is the securitization of refugees and IDP’s. Undoubtedly, characterization has negative implications for the group, it also impacts the resident population. In this case, the conflation of refugees with terrorism has “potentially serious implications as terrorism is, by nature, intended to induce fear”[10]. Securitizing actors therefore, risks aggravating fears of terrorism by connecting asylum seekers with terrorists and also claiming that they are present in large numbers in the country.

The securitizing move in the UK rests on the basis that they are “a liability, a risky group that needs to be prevented, contained and preferably, repatriated is one that permeates liberal democracies”[11]. Therefore, among other negative characteristics, asylum seekers are most likely dangerous and are capable of carrying out terrorist attacks against residents of the UK, “thus threatening the existence of the referent object of security”. “Since terrorism has become a part of the institutional framework of security, drawing an association between asylum and terrorism greatly facilitates the ease with which asylum itself can be securitized”[12]. Therefore, refugees and IDP’s are viewed as dangerous. Terrorist concerns are paramount in the security arena for contemporary and categorizing a certain group of people as security concerns undoubtedly securitizes them as well as generalizes them.


Although quite a significant number of European countries have adopted a hard-line policy towards refugees and IDP’s as well as making it significantly difficult for them to apply for refugee status, Germany in contrast considered to be accommodating and willing to provide for refugees. Syrian refugees especially prefer Germany as a destination because they think of it as a wealthy, welcoming land that will provide them with housing, schooling for their children, and an abundance of jobs. There is a willingness to help Syrian refugees in the nation. In comparison to the UK, Germany’s response to the refugee crisis has been a lot more balanced and positive. Berlin has proposed a quota system where thousands of Germans have volunteered to help refugees, and press coverage has been more balanced; this cannot be said for the overall population as a whole but in contrast to Britain’s hardliner policy on refugees, Germany is strikingly accepting.

In Germany’s political discourse and conversation, a clear distinction has been made between immigration and asylum whereas in Britain, ministers after having witnessed the unfolding refugee crisis gripping Europe have not made this distinction. For example, in an article by Theresa May who was the home secretary at the time, promised a tough new approach to immigration. She talked about “the events of this summer” but refrained from using the word refugee. Critics have claimed that the government is intentionally blurring the lines between the two separate categories (refugees and immigrants)[13].

When examining private engagement in Germany, thousands of German citizens have volunteered to help the refugees arriving on a daily basis. Many fill up their cars and homes with food, clothes and other basic needs. Others have offered to teach German, translation and babysitting. This sort of welcoming attitude is reiterated when an MP from Merkel’s CDU party Martin Patzelt, housed two refugees from Eritrea. Whereas in Britain the refugee crisis has not garnered such overwhelming support from the public. Although lots of citizens do want to contribute, it is not the same.

Furthermore, two newspaper cuttings have highlighted the differences in tabloid attitudes between the UK and Germany. In Britain, the likes of Katie Hopkins writing for the Sun compared refugees crossing the Mediterranean to cockroaches. Contrastingly, Germany’s best-selling newspaper, printed a picture of two refugee children captioned “We are helping” as their headlines. The difference could lie in the fact that even right-leaning tabloid newspapers in Germany have a balanced coverage when covering migration, some might even argue that it is sympathetic coverage. Whereas in Britain, the “tone of much tabloid coverage has been remorselessly negative”. In May the Daily Mail printed “How many more can Kos take?”, and then continued “thousands of boat people from Syria and Afghanistan” had set up a migrant camp on the Greek Island, adding that British holidaymakers found the situation “disgusting”[14]. It is quite clear when analysing how UK and Germany compare on migration that Germany is trying make room refugees and does not perceive the presence of these groups as a threat to security as much as the UK does.

As Dr Martin Luther King, JR said – the nation’s security is undeniably an important end, however to refuse protection to vulnerable refugees, who have been the victims of violence and terrorism, “does not advance this end: it undermines it”. The threat to human security should supersede any threat to national security. In conclusion this essay has shown how refugees and internally displaced persons are regarded as transporters of insecurity especially in the United Kingdom, where the tabloid media and the government not only portrays them through a negative lens, but they fail to differentiate between migrants and refugees, they use dehumanising language when referring to them and have painted the whole group with the same brush. It has also shown how the securitization theory helps us in understanding the way in which refugees are chosen and categorized as a security threat. Finally on the flip side, it has shown how some countries such as Germany have a more balanced media coverage in comparison to the UK, and do not have such a hardliner border policy when it comes to refugees in need of protection.


  • Akrap, Doris. “Germany’S Response To The Refugee Crisis Is Admirable. But I Fear It Cannot Last | Doris Akrap”. the Guardian. N.p., 2017. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
  • Briant, Emma. “The UK Media Needs To Stop Referring To Refugees As “Illegal Immigrants””. Newstatesman.com. N.p., 2013. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
  • Harding, Luke, Philip Oltermann, and Nicholas Watt. “Refugees Welcome? How UK And Germany Compare On Migration”. The Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
  • Huysmans, Jef. “The European Union And The Securitization Of Migration”. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 38.5 (2000): 751-777. Web.
  • Parker, Samuel. “‘Unwanted Invaders’: The Representation Of Refugees And Asylum Seekers In The UK And Australian Print Media”. Cardiff University. N.p., 2017. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1st ed. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014. Print.
  • Said, Edward. Covering Islam: How The Media And The Experts Determine How We See The Rest Of The World. 1st ed. Vintage Books, 1997. Print.
  • Shackle, Samira. “How Did It Become Acceptable For Britain To Treat Refugees So Badly?”. Newstatesman.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 6 Mar. 2017.
  • “The Securitization Of Aslyum: Protecting UK Resident”. Refugee Studies Centre. N.p., 2010. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
  • Carr, Mathew. “Essay: Europe’S Hard Borders”. Redpepper.org.uk. N.p., 2017. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.
  • Howden, Daniel. “Analysis: Media, Hysteria And The Calais Jungle”. Refugees Deeply. N.p., 2016. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.
  • Ridouani, Driss. “The Representation Of Arabs And Muslims In The Western Media”. Meknes 3 (2011): n. pag. Print.

[1] Carr, Mathew. “Essay: Europe’S Hard Borders”, 2012.

[2] Carr Mathew,2012.

[3] Briant, Emma. “The UK Media Needs to Stop Referring To Refugees As “Illegal Immigrants” ,2013.

[4] Shackle, Samira. “How Did It Become Acceptable For Britain To Treat Refugees So Badly?”, 2015.

[5] Shackle Samira, 2015.

[6] Howden, Daniel. “Analysis: Media, Hysteria And The Calais Jungle”, 2016.

[7] Parker, Samuel. “‘Unwanted Invaders’: The Representation of Refugees And Asylum Seekers In The UK And Australian Print Media”, 2017.

[8] Ridouani, Driss. “The Representation Of Arabs And Muslims In The Western Media”

[9] “The Securitization Of Aslyum: Protecting UK Residents”, RSC. 2010

[10] RSC,2010

[11] RSC,2010

[12] RSC,2010

[13] Harding, Luke, Philip Oltermann, and Nicholas Watt. “Refugees Welcome? How UK And Germany Compare On Migration”, 2015.

[14] Harding, Luke, Philip Oltermann, and Nicholas Watt, 2015.


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