All Bark, No Bite? The Case for Human Security in European Migration & Asylum Governance

In order to prioritise the needs of humans over those of the state, migration and asylum governance needs to shift towards utilising a human security framework. A case in point for the urgency to do so can be found in the inhumane conditions within the European ‘refugee camps’ to which migrants are confined under the nomenclature of ‘national security’. Mainstream frameworks for evaluating camps reveal the illegal and inhumane conditions yet remain unable to challenge their structural existence – all bark, no bite. Through human security, these camps can be evaluated and improved (the bark) and ultimately dismantled (the bite). 

In this blog post, I wish to explore what it means to center the human in migration governance. To do so, I draw on the framework and ontology of human security, prioritising the protection, and security of the human over the state. Looking at European asylum governance practices, specifically that of the ‘refugee camp’ or ‘migrant camp’, which can be broadly understood as spaces of containment and practices of detention, reveals the dire need to center the security of humans over national security. In a 2017 briefing, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles argues that while the “existence of robust and dignified reception conditions is a vital precondition for allowing asylum seekers to recover their dignity and to prepare their applications”, provision of such conditions has remained “a key challenge” for many European countries. This begs the question – how can Europe overcome this challenge? Or rather, to follow a human security line of thinking, how can asylum seekers be guaranteed to have dignified, humane reception conditions? Despite the existence of several prominent frameworks and guidelines for migration governance, this question remains unanswered.

As illustrated in a 2022 policy brief entitled Towards Humane and Dignified Living Conditions for Refugees and Other Migrants: A Human Security Framework for Assessing ‘Migration Camps’ in Europe that I published with the Human Development Research Initiative, despite these well-established international standards and frameworks, inhumane conditions remain the norm within European migration and asylum governance. Illustrative of these inhumane reception conditions are that of Camp Mória, and the space between the Polish and Belarusian border, both of which were explored in the policy brief and widely reported elsewhere (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Médecins sans frontières, UNHCR, ECRE).

These conditions call into question to what extent current practices can be viewed as ‘durable’ (to borrow the vernacular of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)), ‘sustainable’ (in the vernacular of some organizations and academics), and more importantly, humane and dignified. Scholars like Dorothy Estrada-Tanck highlight that within international law, human security “may have the potential to act as a catalyst for the realisation of human rights in the contemporary world”. In this vein, I wish to put forth the argument that human security is capable of evaluating, ‘improving’, and ultimately dismantling the practice of creating camps to hold asylum-seekers.


Mainstream Frameworks: All Bark, No Bite.

We can outline three prevalent frameworks applicable in the management of ‘migration camps.’ The SPHERE standards seek to establish a universal minimal baseline for humanitarian action via a rights-based approach. In a 2016 speech calling for humanitarian reform, David Miliband identifies how SPHERE Standards prescribes minimally “what should be provided for water and sanitation, food, shelter, and health… [yet] are often not enforced”. Within migration governance and extending protection and/or assistance to migrants, the International Organisational for Migration (IOM) has developed the “determinants of migrant vulnerability (DoMV) model” to elicit a “programmatic response” across multiple levels and types of relevant actors, assessing the interlinked domains of: 1) individual factors, 2) household and family factors, 3) community factors, and 4) structural factors.

The UNHCR’s official policy seeks to dissuade the provision of migration camps, instead favoring the three ‘durable solutions’ of repatriation, integration, and/or resettlement to a third country. Similarly, alternative arrangements have been proposed by Human Rights Watch and academics for increasing participation or sustainability in camp design. Yet, despite these alternatives, the existence of migrant camps continues, leading to a considerable body of scholarship referring to the practice of camps as the unspoken fourth ‘durable solution’.

In this way, I argue that the three outlined frameworks fall into the idiom, all bark, no bite – interesting ways for states and NGOs to conceive of and assess the problem at hand, or standards to aspire towards when implementing humanitarian support. Despite these well-established frameworks, there remains a wide sweeping consensus that the previous and current implementation of European refugee camps has failed migrants. To exemplify this, one can think of how the conditions at Camp Mória were found by Human Rights Watch to be blatantly in violation of both “EU and Greek laws”. Thus, while these frameworks provide relevant ways of informing humanitarian action, inhumane conditions persist (a whole lot of bark), yet are ineffective to temper the state’s capacity to confine migrants in order to protect ‘national security’. Importantly, these frameworks do not challenge or hinder the pursuit of the state’s interest over that of the migrant’s – giving them no bite. In other words, none of the three frameworks challenge a state-centric approach toward migration governance, and thus are unable to provide an answer to the key challenge of providing newly arrived refugees and other migrants with dignified, humane reception conditions.


From the bark: Human Security as Evaluating & ‘Improving’.

Similar to the other frameworks, human security is capable of evaluating and identifying ways to improve the conditions within refugee camps. Human security highlights the conditions necessary for a truly human life, inclusive of material and immaterial conditions, physical and psychological health, and other necessary human capabilities. From the outset, the United Nations Development Programme identified seven dimensions of human security, namely: 1) economic, 2) food, 3) health, 4) environmental, 5) personal, 6) community, and 7) political security. The re-orientation from nation state to human is accompanied by mandating a reliable, minimum degree enjoyment of basic human needs in a manner that links to both human rights and human development. All of this to say, the barking stays – by pursuing a human security approach, all the strengths from the mainstream frameworks remain well articulated. Additionally, the ontology of human security centers on ensuring the dignity and rights of migrants themselves as humans, rather than presenting guidelines for professionals to solve problems.

Theoretically, secure and dignified conditions can occur within a camp structure – but previous and current practice shows that the EU and member states have continually been either unable or unwilling to do so. Médecins sans frontières posits that policies such as the EU-Turkey deal promote confining migrants “in awful and unsafe conditions… further traumatising an already extremely vulnerable population”.


To the bite: Human Security as Dismantling Migrant Camps.

To conclude, while human security encompasses mainstream assessments of living conditions within refugee camps, I would like to put forth the argument that it goes even further – both barking and biting. Adopting a human security framework and ontology towards migration governance fundamentally challenges harsh exclusionary practices of detention and confinement pursued in the interest of the state, and the continual framing of migrants as threats to national security – the so-called “European strategy of containing those fleeing conflict and persecution”, as ECRE puts it. Human security articulates both the everyday experience of (in)security, while also drawing attention to the social, political and economic structures which contribute to this (in)security.

Assessing conditions through the lens of human security presents a hopeful way forward – beginning with improving the (im)material conditions which refugees and other migrants find themselves upon their entry in Europe and going beyond that to inevitably dismantle policies of confinement – doing so also empowers and engages migrants themselves, guaranteeing them agency over their situation. Thus, human security is necessary in migration governance to explicitly challenge and temper the interest of the state, reverting the focus to that of human beings themselves rather than nation-states.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Xander Creed holds a MA Development Studies degree from the ISS, within the track Governance of Migration & Diversity and a specialization in Conflict & Peace Studies. Currently, Xander is a PhD candidate at the ISS, where their research interests include human centric ways of approaching migration studies and policy, as well as the relationships between (im)mobility and (in)security.


Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No Comments Yet.