State Security vs. Human Security: Is Reciprocity Possible in the Refugee Crisis?

The refugee crises today are some of the worst since WWII. Despite the strong legal frameworks, proliferation of non-state actors, and enhanced communication capabilities available to deal with these sorts of challenges, why is cooperation so difficult to achieve? After the end of World War II, several international organizations were created that introduced the concept of ‘human security’ to a world that had previously understood ‘security’ as something that was the sole reserve of the state. In lessons taken from the world wars, this new concept of human security was claimed to be complementary to state security and even necessary for international peace and security. Yet, today this concept of human security has run up against state security, underlining the lack of political community and reciprocity between the global North and South. Western countries with the resources to resettle refugees refuse to do so and Amnesty International now claims that 86% of the world’s refugees are now in developing countries. In the end, state security continues to be given primacy over the norms of responsibility, reciprocity, and burden-sharing enshrined in conventions to protect refugees.

How does the state define security? The United States has a particularly interesting explanation of why it does not take in more refugees despite its relatively open immigration policies, resources, and space. National security takes the forefront in this debate because politicians like Trump have framed it as such. As Guterres notes, a driver of this discourse of “political populism and sensationalist media coverage”, political actors such as Trump have realigned priorities and norms by “creat[ing] a fear of refugees.” The risks of letting in refugees from the Middle East arguably exacerbate the risks of terrorism in the homeland. Despite the aggressive screening and vetting processes, Trump makes the case that the risk of allowing in even one malign refugee is not worth the benefits to the international community of reducing the state burdens and meeting our responsibilities in the Refugee Convention. This raises the question of whether pragmatism is being excessively overshadowed by principle. A discourse of fear is placing a disproportionate emphasis on national security and undermining norms that bolster human and international security.

In contrast with the US, Amnesty International claims Turkey let in over 2.5 million refugees by 2012 before closing its borders for security concerns. On the other hand, the US let in 10,000 in August of 2016. This lack of leadership has been noticed by other European countries, whose rightist coalitions in have taken to xenophobic discourse to further their policy ambitions.  In step, Lebanon has redefined the status of “displaced” persons and Egypt has barred the UNHCR from registering refugees and imposed a complex visa regime. Closed doors of neighboring countries are a factors driving people to sail across the Mediterranean for resettlement in Europe. An Amnesty International report found that EU governments sought to terminate a humanitarian naval operation in the Mediterranean called Mare Nostrum, “argu[ing] that the rescue operation acted as a “pull-factor” for refugees and migrants”. If the defense of state borders trumps humanitarian imperatives, reciprocity is diluted, others reciprocate by similarly closing their borders, and refugees are increasingly relegated to areas without resources for adequate protection.

Amnesty International published a 2015 report called “The Global Refugee Crisis: A Conspiracy of Neglect” which argued that the global refugee system is “broken”. The reason for this is that its fundamental principles of responsibility and burden-sharing have collapsed. As a solution, Amnesty calls for a “paradigm shift” on refugee protection, including “global ratification of the refugee convention”, “fulfilling all resettlement needs identified by the UNHCR”, and “developing robust domestic refugee systems.” The problem with these solutions is that they overlook the paradigm of state security – they underestimate the national barriers to implementing these measures and they are overly optimistic about the willingness of states to fulfill their international responsibilities when they pose an unacceptable liability on state security. For example, ratifying a refugee convention has not prohibited any countries from absolving themselves of their share of the burden. In addition, international organizations or laws are unlikely able to shape domestic refugee procedures and resource allocation especially when national security is at stake.

Perhaps the best step towards a solution is to help recognize and demonstrate the interrelatedness between state security and human security in policy debates. This includes strengthening the link of complementarity that bridges the two. If the lack of options and funding available to Syria’s neighbors is a factor driving people to sail to Europe, then increasing funding to create local spaces that meet refugee needs will curtail this flow. If reducing the burden of refugees on Europe will reinforce its stability and unity, then a US ally should offer to resettle more itself. If conditions for a life of basic needs and protections are lacking – breeding radical ideologies shared by ISIS and other terrorist groups – the West would do well to actively shape paths to the kinds of security and fruitful lives that they themselves enjoy.

Finally, a broad range of actors that are a part of the state – local communities and civil society – can request refugees to be resettled in their communities to fight back against xenophobia. But in the end, reciprocity and burden-sharing may be more appealing to state policy when we drop a moralistic tone and utilize a lens of realism to recognize that in this globalized world, the security of the state is strategically linked to the security of other human populations. We must reassess the risks that burden-sharing and resettlement pose to national security of the US and Western partners.  Neglecting human security of populations in need risks undermining our own security in the long run.


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