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Securitisation of migration after the refugee crisis: Increasing insecurity for everyone?


In Europe, despite the fact that the implementation of a common migratory policy is still far from being achieved, the outlook of public policy responses to migration of third-country nationals (TCNs) has accredited the idea of the creation of a so-called ‘Fortress Europe’, i.e. an area where internal mobility is promoted whilst barriers are erected vis-à-vis countries outside the EU (Geddes 2003). The origins of ‘Fortress Europe’ have been traced back by scholars to the 1968 Council regulation 1612/68, which distinguished between the right of free movement of nationals of member states and the right of free movement of nationals of third countries (Huysmans 2000; Ugur 1995). The establishment of freedom of movement for EU citizens has only exacerbated this divide. This was initiated by the Single European Act in 1986 and brought forward by the ‘EU citizenship’ provisions of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Third-country nationals’ rights of access to the EU were, on the other hand, progressively but steadily restricted. The consequences of the adoption of this extremely tight approach to migration from third countries, at both the EU and national level (Geddes 2003; Boswell and Geddes 2011), have been an increase in irregular migration and the progressive ‘securitisation’ of migration. By ‘securitisation’, the experts mean the development of migration into a ‘security issue’, which has to be managed by security agencies such as, for example, Europol (Huysmans 2000; Guiraudon 2018 [1]; 2000).

Scholars of EU integration point out how the process of Europeanisation of migratory policy is highly correlated with a consensus about the need to adopt more restrictive measures against migration from third countries and a new vision of migration as a security threat (Huysmans 2000; Guiraudon 2000, Kostakopoulou 2000).


The EU approach to migration faced new challenges with the extraordinary inflow of refugees from Syria in the period 2014-2015, what came to be known in the literature and in the mass media (e.g. Trauner 2016) as Europe’s ‘migrant or refugee crisis’. Together with being a social crisis, the refugee crisis became also an institutional one, with the widespread perception that the EU was unable to manage it in a consistent and coherent way. Indeed, the EU Member states failed to find a suitable agreement to reform the Dublin approach to refugee policy, did not succeed in properly establishing an EU wide resettlement scheme and reverted to the re-adoption of border controls within Europe, notably by suspending Schengen prerogatives [2].


Much of the confusion about whether the crisis was a ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ one comes from the fact that asylum seekers, unable to enter the first safe country within the EU by regular means, had to revert to irregular entry into the EU, often using one of the dangerous routes used by irregular migrants. Indeed, whereas both the UN Convention on the status of refugees of 1951 and the Dublin Convention (later Dublin regulations) gave the right to refugees to ask for asylum-seeking status in the first safe country (first EU country under the Dublin regime), both failed to specify ‘how’ precisely the first safe country could be reached. As regular entry is usually allowed to those showing regular documents, it becomes very difficult for someone fleeing a situation of civil war or political prosecution in its own country, to obtain a regular visa leaving no other choice than to revert to irregular entry precisely as irregular migrants [3]. Hence the confusion in the public opinion, press and, sometimes, even in the literature, between migrants and refugees (similarly Guiraudon 2018).


At the peak of the crisis, the European Commission had tried to implement a more balanced distribution of asylum seekers, relocating on a voluntary basis 160,000 refugees stuck in camps in Greece and Italy. In September 2015, the EU Council passed a plan providing for the relocation of 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states in the following two years. This had to happen on the basis of the GDP, population and previous numbers of asylum applications. The asylum seekers exceeding this quota, would have to follow the regular Dublin procedure, including registration with EURODAC and application in the first country of entry. Eventually, the plan failed, with only 5% of the refugees in the quota having actually been distributed to other countries from Italy and Greece by the end of 2016 (Guiraudon 2018, 157).


On the other hand, the dangerousness of the Mediterranean route became evident when tragedy came to the island of Lampedusa in October 2013, when more than 360 migrants drowned (Trauner 2016, 318). In reaction to those dramatic events, the Italian Government started a search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean known as Mare Nostrum. It enabled many migrants to be rescued in 2014. However, it is worth noticing that 2014 and 2015 were record years not only for the number of asylum seekers reaching Italy and the EU, but also for the number of those who died in the Mediterranean. These were estimated to be around 3,300 in 2014 and 2,872 until September 2015 (IOM 2015).


On 1st November 2014, Mare Nostrum was substituted by the much less ambitious, and less costly, EU joint operation Triton, managed by FRONTEX. Despite the fact that Triton did not have a mandate for search and rescue of migrants, nor could it operate in international waters (and instead it was a much-reduced service based only within 30 miles of the Italian coastline) its budget was tripled in 2015 (Trauner 2016, 318) [4]. In June 2015, as part of the EU Common Security and Defense Policy, a new operation, called Sophia (or EUNAVFOR MED) was launched with the aim of intercepting and stopping human traffickers and migrant smugglers at sea, including in international waters. This was a proper military operation, under the orders of an Italian admiral in Rome. Finally, drones started to be used to monitor migratory routes within the so-called EUROSUR system of surveillance.


All the measures described above accounted for a de-facto militarization of the border. However, they had little or no impact on reducing the number of victims at sea. In 2016, the IOM reported that 2,977 persons had been found dead in the Mediterranean only in the first six months of the year. (Guiraudon 2018, 157). So the question remains why the EU decided to react to the refugee crisis of 2014/2015 by further increasing the securitization approach, thus adding to the paradox of securitization of globalization.


Overall the future outlook of the EU common migration regime seems to leave little hope for a more liberal and open-minded approach to the entry and establishment of ‘aliens’. However, this might even worsen the security challenges posed by migration to Western developed countries. Indeed, the imposition of strict border controls in a climate of rising migratory pressures, inevitably following from the process of globalisation, produces as its only consequence an increase in the number of undocumented migrants. This can and does in turn lead to a sort of self-selection process of the incoming migrants, favouring those that have fewer problems in undergoing an irregular migratory process.

Notes and references

[1] See Guiraudon, Virginie. 2018. ‘The 2015 refugee crisis was not a turning point’. European Political Science, 17, 151-159.

[2] Trauner, Florian. 2016. ‘Asylum policy: the EU’s “crises” and the looming policy regime failure’. Journal of European Integration, 38(3), 311-325.

[3] The UN Convention on the status of refugees actually explicitly recognises the possibility that asylum seekers enter a safe country illegally.

[4] For the differences between Mare Nostrum and Triton, see Rai News. 12 February 2015. ‘Scheda: Mare Nostrum e Triton, le differenze’ (accessed on 13 May 2016).

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Leila Simona Talani

Leila Simona Talani is Professor of International Political Economy in the department of European and International Studies since 2014. In 2017 she was awarded a visiting Professorship at the Kennedy School of Government of the University of Harvard. She was also appointed as Jean Monnet Chair of European Political Economy by the European Commission in 2012.

She was previously at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and in the department of European studies of the University of Bath since the year 2001. From November 2000 until September 2001 she held the position of Associate Expert for the United Nations Regional Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention based in Cairo, working on irregular migration from the Middle East and Northern Africa to EU countries. In the academic year 1999-2000 she taught ‘The political Economy of European Integration’ at the European Institute of the London School of Economics where she had previously held a research and teaching fellowship for the academic year 1998-1999.


Leila Simona Talani got her PhD with distinction at the European University Institute of Florence in 1998.


She is the author, among other titles, of The Political Economy of Italy in the Euro (Palgrave, 2017); The Handbook of the International Political Economy of Migration (Edward Elgar, 2014-2017); The Arab Spring in the Global Political Economy (Palgrave, 2014); Dirty Cities: towards a political economy of shadow dynamics in global cities (Palgrave, 2013); European Political Economy (Ashgate, 2013); Globalization, Migration and the future of Europe (Routledge, 2011); and From Egypt to Europe (I.B.Tauris, 2010).

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