Deconstructing the Refugee 'Crisis'

Published 1 st October 2015 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

Refugees Are Human Sign

Migrant: "A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions" [1].

Refugee: "A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster" [2].

Crisis: "A time of intense difficulty or danger" and/or "A time when a difficult or important decision must be made" [3].

Before I begin I will say clearly and firmly, refugees and migrants are fundamentally different. References which conflate the two serve to misrepresent the current issues facing the UK and their causes.

The current use of language in the media and political discourse regarding refugees and migrants, framing the situation as a crisis [4], has justified strict migration and asylum controls to protect against this threat. Indeed, the term crisis has been employed repeatedly to frame the current situation as a security or criminal threat, migrants being victims of criminal smugglers, and refugees the victims of marauding violent terrorists and evil dictators - ISIS and Assad. Yet these seemingly simplistic characterisations serve to remove human agency from the debate, bringing our focus to rest on passive recipients of terror rather than active humans seeking refuge or better lives.

Refugees Crossing the MediterraneanNow this reframing is dangerous because when we remove human agency and reduce the issues to criminality or moral evil, it leads to militaristic and security policies. Humanitarian issues become sidelined for the more pressing issues of national security, leading individuals like Donald Trump to say: "If I win, they're [Syrian refugees] going back." [5] Our security in the UK is more important, according to such an argument, than the security of these individuals. Yet what is not being said is that our policies towards such a threat are paradoxically serving to undermine its own goal.

Taking a security lens, academic research has demonstrated a clear link between the presence of refugees in neighboring countries and the protraction of that conflict: "the presence of refugees from neighboring countries leads to an increased probability of violence" [6]. Having refugees in such close proximty to a conflict may enable the spread of arms, combatants, radical ideologies, destabilizing these states and the wider region. It is worth quoting at length the conclusions of the above paper as its findings are extremely relevant to our current debate:

"Effective policy measures therefore require states to manage the humanitarian needs of migrants, deal with the potential security risks associated with refugee communities, and address issues leading to flight in the first place. Thus we believe that from a policy standpoint, generous asylum and refugee programs—both in the initial host countries as well as in developed countries of resettlement—can limit the spread of armed conflict as well as curtail the escalation of conflict in sending countries." [7]

By separating migration from refugee issues and replacing the securitization discourse with one of humanitarianism would provide a more reflective and critical engagement with the current issues. Instead of calling for military action, a comprehensive integration strategy would arguably better serve both our security and humanitarian imperatives. Redirecting the resources that are currently being considered for military intervention instead towards a comprehensive integration plan for refugees would be a more sustainable solution in the long-term.

Refugee camp from Algeria Furthermore, research has demonstrated that entering a conflict on the side of a weaker participant - i.e. Free Syrian Army - often serves to prolong the conflict rather than resolve it: "Arming rebels may be morally pleasing, but may lead to protracted civil wars with atrocities – the worst of all outcomes". [8] The default response of military intervention has a poor legacy of success often exacerbating conflicts rather than resolving them - is there not some connection between UK foriegn policy over the past couple of decades in the Middle East and the current wars in Syria and Iraq?

'What then', you may ask, 'of the ongoing humanitarian and security situation in Syria?' Well I would pose a number of questions in response: How does military action usually resolve conflict? What new leader would we set up to replace Assad? Would the current issues with refugees be resolved following military intervention?

These questions are not to deny that there are few options available, but that militaristic approaches usually result in the escalation or prolongation of a conflict. Instead, hard diplomatic decisions are needed ( see my previous article from January), which engage with Assad to find potential solutions. Conflict transformation begins in the very language we use to describe a conflict, framing refugees wholly as security threats misrepresents and dehumanizes the situation; and in the long-term may paradoxically embed the very conflict we're trying to resolve.

[1] Oxford Dictionary,

[2] Oxford Dictionary,

[3] Oxford Dictionary,

[4] "Calais migrant crisis: Man killed on Eurotunnel tracks", BBC News, 30th September 2015.

[5] "'They could be Isis.' Donald Trump warns against taking Syrian refugees", The Guardian, Thursday 1st October.

[6] Salehyan, Idean; Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede (2006)."Refugees and the Spread of Civil War", International Organization, 60:335-366.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bellamy, Alex (2015). "When states go bad: The termination of state perpetrated mass killings", Journal of Peace Research, 52(5):565-576.