Migrant is a Threat! : Securitisation of Migration in Greece

Migrant illustration. Photo from Al Arabiya News

Many migrants and refugees faced violence in the European borders and were denied entry by border patrols (HRW, 2021). The use of force in border management control is an example of security measures adopted as a part of stricter European immigration policies (Huysmans, 2000). This essay argues that the securitisation of migration heavily dominates the latest political debates by constructing migrants as a threat, resulting in harsh immigration policies. To support this argument, this article will present scholars’ definitions of securitisation and how migration is securitised related to security, identity, and economy. It then analyses the case study of securitisation of migration in Greece and the effect on political debates on migration using the Copenhagen and Paris School securitisation theory.

For some time, security has been closely linked to military force. However, since the end of the Cold War, security has expanded to other issues, such as the economy and environment (Hammerstad, 2014). An issue that had never been considered a security issue then became a security problem. This changing focus showed that there is no objective security issue in the world; instead, security is a social construction (Hammerstad, 2014). Based on this understanding, Copenhagen School developed the concept of securitisation as a speech act: an issue that is proclaimed as an existential threat will be prioritised to be solved, even using extraordinary actions that should not be used in a normal situation, including the use of violence (Buzan et al., 1998, cited in Hammerstad, 2014). Thus, it is essential to analyse the discourse used in the political debate. Copenhagen School’s definition is criticised for being too concentrated on speech acts. Paris School introduced that securitisation could be done by “the actions of bureaucratic structures or networks associated with security practices and the specific technologies they use” (Lenoard, 2011, cited in Dimari, 2020). Hence, we should also look at these non-verbal actions.

In the context of migration, some scholars explained how security threats led to the securitisation of migration. The 9/11 tragedy and terrorist attacks in many Western countries are among the example of securitisation (Malešič, 2017; Kaya, 2009). However, in line with the Copenhagen School, these events do not directly result in securitising migration. Some actors actively construct that these events are caused by ‘others’, especially Muslims, and the solution to prevent such attacks is by regulating migrants. This is the process of framing migrants as a threat to national security. For example, Hungary Prime Minister, Orban, said that “more and more terrorists were misusing migrants flows to reach the EU” (Malešič, 2017, p. 955).

The other issue is how the violation of immigration law by migrants or refugees–for instance, by entering illegally–is portrayed as a security threat. The use of terms such as ‘genuine immigrant’, ‘bogus immigrant’, and ‘illegal immigrant’ by political actors and media (Goodman and Speer, 2007) instil that such migrants are not entitled to enter the country. This discourse smooths out the way for the authorities to implement harsh policies towards all migrants because all migrants could be ‘bogus’.

Not only as a security threat but migration is also depicted as threatening societal identity. Some people feel that the arrival of migrants–which have different identities with them–threatens their national identity. Again, this fear does not emerge all of a sudden. It is the result of the reproduction of ‘othering’ discourses. Their differences are highlighted, and the migrants’ cultures are described as incompatible with local values. In addition, the use of words such as ‘influx’, ‘flood’, and ‘invasion’ (Kaya, 2009) tries to illustrate as if migrants invade the host country; thus could replace the national culture. Elite’s portrayal of migrants as a ‘common threat’ serves as a strategy of nation-building projects to unite people with different interests (Bello, 2020). In doing so, they could maintain their control over the territory (Wimmer, 2002, cited in Bello, 2020).

The elite also projecting migrants as a risk to the economy. From the lens of the migration-development nexus, developed countries life is guaranteed by social security and bureaucratic protection, but underdeveloped countries life lacks such programs (Duffield, 2008). Hence, we have to contain the movement of people from underdeveloped countries to maintain stability in the developed world (Duffield, 2008). Migration is securitised by constructing that migrants are rivals to get job opportunities and access social services; even some see them as illegitimate beneficiaries of welfare policies (Huysmans, 2000). This construction not only exists in Europe but also in the Global South. For example, Indonesia has not signed the Refugee Convention because of worries about the economic impact of the asylum-seeking process and domestic criticism of asylum seekers–the idea that we should prioritise our people (Mathew and Harley, 2014, cited in Curley and Vandyk, 2017).

After looking at the discourses used to portray migrants as a threat, this essay will briefly examine the case study of securitisation in Greece from 1990–2012 and the impact on political debates on migration. In the early 1990s, migration became the government’s concern with the arrival of mass migration from neighbouring countries, particularly Albania (Karyotis, 2012). Since then, the securitisation of migration has begun. During the political debate of the law of migration 1991, the government used political discourses to construct migrants as a source of problems, “There are many problems that our country is faced with because of the mass migration…” (Karyotis and Patrikios, 2010, p. 46). In addition, countering the criticism from liberal parties, one conservative MP insisted that security considerations should be the top priority, even if it means that we have to supersede humanitarian considerations (Karyotis, 2012).As a result, the law gives authority to the police to handle immigration and asylum seekers, preventing the entry of illegal immigrants and allowing smooth deportation (Grigoriadis and Dilek, 2019).

Thus, in line with Copenhagen School, the speech act by the government during the political debate of migration influenced how migrants were perceived and treated. Furthermore, migration was also securitised by the routinised practice of security professionals and bureaucrats. There was militarisation of migration with the police, and the army became the leading actor of Greek migration policy, implying that migration is indeed a perilous threat (Karyotis, 2012).

In the early 2000s, the political debate shifted to a more soft attitude towards migrants (Karyotis, 2012). This is based on the acknowledgement that migrants contribute to the country’s economy and demand from NGOs to advance migrants’ human rights (Karyotis and Patrikios, 2010). However, following the economic crisis and the flow of migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa in the late 2000s, political debate on migration again became heavily securitised. In 2010, socialist government policy to allow up to 250,000 immigrant children and young adults applying for Greek citizenship faced nationalist backfire (Karyotis, 2012). This situation forced the government to satisfy the public by proposing the exceptional plan to build the Evros fence across the land border with Turkey to fight illegal migration (Grigoriadis and Dilek, 2019). The Minister of Citizen Protection said that “Illegal migration…is an issue of national security and survival” (Grigoriadis and Dilek, 2019, p. 176).

Evros fence construction was continued by the New Democracy (ND) conservative government. The Prime Minister repeatedly used rhetoric that depicted migrants as an existential threat, saying, “in order for [Greece] to return to normality…, the mass invasion of lathro-immigrants had to end” (Enikos, 2012, in Stivas, 2021, p. 8). In addition to the speech act, securitising practices were also applied, such as installing surveillance systems and deploying more border patrol (Grigoriadis and Dilek, 2019). The ND government also introduced Operation Xenios Zeus that regularly checked migrants’ documents in regions with a high population of migrants, and detained those who failed to present the documents (Grigoriadis and Dilek, 2019). Defending this operation, the Minister of Public Order mentioned that “Migration is an even greater problem than the economic crisis” (Grigoriadis and Dilek, 2019, p. 179). This speech implies that the government tried to divert public attention from the economic crisis by securitising migration. Furthermore, the operation itself is also part of securitising practices by displaying to the public that undocumented migrants are criminals.

In conclusion, the securitisation of migration influences political debate by constructing migrants as an existential threat. This could be done using political discourse and practices of securitisation itself. Interested actors portray migrants as a threat to security by linking migrants to criminals and terrorists. Migrants are also narrated as ‘others’ threatening national cohesion and homogeneity. Furthermore, migrants have been deemed a burden to the social service system and the economy. In addition, daily security measures towards migrants also reinforced the securitisation of migration by embedding that migrants indeed should be handled by a security approach. This process of securitisation, in turn, led to more restrictive immigration policies, as demonstrated in the case of securitisation of migration in Greece.

This essay was written for the final assignment on Understanding Global Migration and was published here with minor editing.


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Sayyid AM

Sayyid AM


International Relations Student at Universitas Gadjah Mada