In the Name of (De)securitization: Speaking Security to Protect Migrants, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons?

by Donnelly, Faye. 2017. In International Review of the Red Cross. 99(1)

Key words: (de)-securitization, migration, refugees
Summary by Gwladys Chanard (Leipzig University)


Micro-summary: In this article, the label of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is scrutinized and the author argues that the use of those linguistic labels is correlated to security issues. The concept of securitization fluctuates, it does not hold a fixed meaning, it is unbound. Not only the author observes the proliferation of security narratives surrounding migration flows, but also the normalization of catastrophes framed in terms of security. Those tendencies induce an escalation of security games and language-games within the international community. A game of perpetual securitization is engaged and from this point on, it is increasingly difficult to unmake the process.

Summary: This article mainly focuses on the ways in which migrants, refugees, and IDPs are being spoken about and framed in international discourses. The author argues that those labels are often associated with security and (de)securitization issues. She builds on her article around three main arguments. The first one is about the linguistic label put upon some people or communities which creates a dividing line between life and death. The second argument concerns the language game of (de)securitization which differs according to the population concerned. Lastly, audience acceptance is studied as one key component which influences the adoption of labels as such refugees, migrants, and IDPs.

The author also refers to securitization as unbound, i.e. scattered everywhere, the meaning fluctuates according to the time, the context, and the audience. Consequently, insecurity, the politicization of narratives and the creation of an apparent political void arise. However, first a complete void does not exist and secondly the more crises occur, the more security measures are being implemented without undoing the old ones. This phenomenon creates a loop of unending securitization processes and catastrophes are normalized in one’s daily life.

Subsequently, the author addresses the construction of (de)securitization and focuses on the Copenhagen School. This school of thought argues that the use of security linguistic terms which would frame certain objects as an existential threat, constitutes a securitizing move. The Copenhagen School introduces the notion of the audience acceptance which greatly influences what is seen as a threat and what necessitates security measures and what does not. She mentions the “us-we” identity which depends on the audience’s acceptance and shapes the distinction “us”’ against “them.” Consequently, securitization is studied as a social and intersubjective construct dependent upon an audience. The second generation of scholars further developed the concept of language games where securitization is seen as a continuous process of negotiation, an interactive game. Language constitutes and is embedded in every social interaction and its meaning is multi-layered and can be interpreted differently. Since words can hold multifarious meanings, players can interpret and play the game in many ways. There are also rules that must be obeyed but which can be interpreted and bypassed if framed and justified adequately. Thus, in the case of refugees, migrants, and IDPs, their labels hold several meanings in different language games.

The question of whether securitization is a fait accompli arises as nation-states usually portray migration as a national threat in order to secure and manage their territorial borders. However, according to the author. The idea of securitization as a fait accompli is misleading for three reasons First, since words change meanings then nothing can be a fait accompli. Second, migration is not always labeled as a security threat, so is not necessarily viewed as a crisis. Third, the tendency to oversimplify migration accentuates the reproduction of negative stereotypes which engender more violence towards migrants, refugees, and IDPs which in turn favor the radicalization of refugees.

In principle, securitization should not necessarily be linked to the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers, but there is one scenario where it could according to the author. Refugees would be allowed to speak for themselves to the international community – the audience. In practice, however, the international community is more prone to frame migration flows as an existential threat even within a legal framework. Migrants always have to prove their legitimacy.

Lastly, the author emphasizes the category of IDPs. According to her, IDPs do not get sufficient coverage in the international community as they do not cross any international borders. Still, these populations are extremely vulnerable as they remain in a dangerous environment and therefore deserve some type of special protection.

Follow up: The author suggests several ways to move forward in terms of audience acceptance and the evolution of language games. First, a deeper understanding of this feeling of protection or threat migration, refugees, and IDPs might feel could make the language evolve in favor of those individuals and foster the audience acceptance. Second, labeling refugees, migrants, and IDPs is not enough and does not encompass enough the broad spectrum of migration flows. Many people are still missing in this framework, including IDPs. Finally, the author concludes that a broader acceptance of migration flows could help to move away from security measures and could lead to more durable solutions.

Relevance for the SECUREU Project: The SECUREU Project focuses on the securitization of ethnicity and studies how migrants and other minorities are constructed as security threats. This article balances the idea of migrants as a threat to national security and contextualizes those labels into a broader language game that fosters and perpetuates pejorative images and stereotypes about migrants, refugees, and IDPs. In SECUREU’s search for xenophobia consequences, the author explains that those linguistic labels and their embedment in security discourse create  a fertile field for radicalization of migrants and refugees which in turn further stereotypes and xenophobia.