Mariana Álvares, 31 May 2021
In 2015, the European Union (EU) faced an unprecedented challenge when a huge number of asylum seekers arrived at its external borders asking for international protection. The EU and its national governments portrayed the situation in an emergency and security framework building a discourse that defined this migration flow as an ‘invasion’ and ‘threat’, and the people arriving at its borders as ‘criminals’. This institutional approach contrasted, at first, with the European media representation of the situation that focused on the humanitarian perspective, showing the devastating and degrading environments these people were fleeing from and the risky and inhumane travels they had gone through to reach a safe zone. Nevertheless, the media soon aligned its narrative with the EU’s and national governments’ attempts to securitise the situation and normalise the term ‘refugee crisis’ and, in this way, opened the space for exceptional and extraordinary measures to be taken (Santos et al. 2019, p.104).
Albeit the numbers show that the arrival of refugees at the EU’s borders was much smaller compared to other countries (UNHCR 2015, p.7), such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon, the institutional and mediatic discourses continued portraying the situation within a security framework. Additionally, these institutions called for urgent and exceptional measures to stop the human flow from entering the EU’s internal space. After five years, a consensus has spread among public and institutional domains stating that “the current system [Common European Asylum System] no longer works. And for the past five years, the EU has not been able to fix it. The EU must overcome the current stalemate and rise up to the task” and that the EU Member States lacked solidarity among them when responding to the situation. Contrary to this argument, I argue that the lack of solidarity was originated by a misconception and misunderstanding of what solidarity should mean; that is, the term should not be restricted to an institutional and legal conceptualisation but, instead, should be understood in a wide and inclusive sense that avoids any division between the EU (‘us’) and the refugees (‘them’).
Figure 1: Bandic, 2015
The media’s functional role in the securitisation of refugees
The securitisation process, according to the Copenhagen School (a theoretical approach in security studies) entails a process through which a situation, issue, or subject is described as a security threat, enabling exceptional measures to be taken in order to fight that threat (Buzan, Wæver & Wilde 1998, p.21) which, in this context, may take the form of de facto detention of asylum seekers when international and European law explicitly forbidden it or the sexual abuse and robbery reported against refugees by coastal and border guards. The securitisation process encompasses two dimensions: discursive and subjective. The former corresponds to the means used to describe the security threat, which is done through acts of speech; the latter points to the fact that the targeted audience has to perceive the security threat as such, even if the security object itself is not an existential menace. In this process, the media play a functional role which, according to Buzan, Wæver and Wilde (1998), voluntarily or not, significantly influences decisions in the field of security.
The persistent and continuous representation of refugees as criminals and threats by the European media has reinforced the gap between the EU (‘us’) and the refugees (‘them’) and, in this way, has hindered any conceptualisation of solidary outside an institutional framework, which grants the governmental and mediatic institutions legitimacy to act against the refugees and call for solidarity only among their peers; instead of seeing the refugee as a human being just like every other European citizen begging for help and solidarity.
The media’s description of the refugee as the black man trying to take advantage of Europe’s welfare system and the Muslim asylum seeker coming to violate women’s rights has played a functional role in the legitimisation of exceptional measures carried out by the EU institutions and its Member States. For example, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy and Greece have been using de facto detention of asylum seekers in its territories frequently and commonly, which goes against international law (Matevžič 2019, p.4).
A big part of the literature assessing the operationalisation and effectiveness of the Common European Asylum System points to the lack of solidarity among member states as a key reason explaining why this asylum system has not been working for the past five years. Contrary to this trend, it seems obvious that the EU and its member states have been aligned with each other when it comes to portraying the refugees as the ‘other’ and as the ‘threat’. Through this small piece, I have attempted to show that the securitisation process being carried out by the European institutions and the media has opened the floor to exceptional and extraordinary measures to be taken, most of them contrary to the interests of the refugees. To change this situation, the EU and its member states should change the discourses about solidarity, assume the management of refugees as a possible and feasible task and describe the situation with the dignity and humanity it requires.
Buzan, B, Wæver, O & Wilde, J 1998, Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Colorado, US.
Matevžič, G 2019, Crossing a Red Line: How EU countries undermine the right to liberty by expanding the use of detention of asylum seekers upon entry, Hungarian Helsinki Committee, accessed 13 April 2021 <https://helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/crossing_a_red_line.pdf>.
Santos, R, Garraio, J, Giuliani, G, Roque, S & Santos, SJ 2019, ‘A «crise dos refugiados» nos media europeus: alteridades, securitização e desconstrução das alteridades’. Mundo Crítico, October, accessed 13 April 2021 <https://f0a93530-6515-4b25-b422-06869b7fcec4.filesusr.com/ugd/f99988_4fd5853c46f049caacc1102581964168.pdf>.
UNHCR 2015, ‘UNHCR Global Trends 2015’. UNHCR, accessed 13 April 2021 <https://www.unhcr.org/576408cd7.pdf>.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Politik's editorial stance or the views of UNSW.
Get to know the Author
Mariana Álvares is studying a Bachelor of Political Science and International Relations, and is a gradate of a Bachelor of Science. She is currently working as a project assistant for a Portuguese NGO. She has an interest in African and European Studies, particularly Euro-African relations in the domains of security and development. This is Mariana's first contribution to Politik Insights.