Tag Archives human security

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.


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Positioning Academia | Who is a migrant? Choosing a human security approach to rehumanise migration

Contemporary policies and discourses on migration largely overlook human dynamics of migration and focus on migrants as a policy problem to be ‘dealt with’. A human security scope is a sustained call for a major overhaul of how we think about human mobility towards rehumanising migration, writes Ali Bilgic.

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

What is a migrant? No, you have not misread it. I mean migrant as a ‘thing’. Migrants, including refugees, are painted as undesirable, opportunistic, criminal. They are framed by politicians as washing over the European continent’s shores like a tsunami. They’re seen as a faceless mass coming to take away jobs and threatening a Western way of life. They are seen as ‘things’, not humans. They are treated as problems, not as humans.

What is a migrant?

A ‘migrant’ is needing a diploma to prove your worth.

A ‘migrant’ is needing a bank account to qualify for a visa.

A ‘migrant’ is needing a language test score that ensures integration into the job market.

A ‘migrant’ is needing a statement, along with a return flight ticket, to give to the border police, who needs to be convinced of intent.

A ‘migrant’ is needing to submit evidence to the asylum case officer who relentlessly seeks gaps and lies in the evidence.

A ‘migrant’ is a threat lurking in the woods, close to the beach, waiting for the next boat.

A ‘migrant’ is the 2,000 euros that moves that boat towards the waters.

A ‘migrant’ is a good transferred in containers.

A ‘migrant’ is a charity remembered occasionally.

A ‘migrant’ is an economic burden to the welfare services.

A ‘migrant’ is a generous contributor to the welfare services.

A ‘migrant’ is the difference that allows nations to claim to be multiracial, diverse societies.

A ‘migrant’ is the difference that ensures the doom of the nation.

A ‘migrant’ is the colour of one’s skin.

A ‘migrant’ is the accent you have.

A ‘migrant’ is hidden under shiny thermal blankets.

A ‘migrant’ floats in water or sinks to the depths.

The ways in which migrants have been ‘handled’ revolve around the same mentality: a migrant as a thing. Policies, statistics, working papers, or endless conferences bringing together law enforcement agencies, charity appeals, and so on, make us see migrants as things—objects which are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for ‘us’ depending on which ‘things’ we are talking about, and, in fact, who we think we are.

There is another question that the existing frames of mind conceal, push away, and encourage us to forget on a daily basis: who is a migrant?

A ‘migrant’ loves those left behind.

A ‘migrant’ misses those left behind.

A ‘migrant’ gets sick.

A ‘migrant’ gets angry.

A ‘migrant’ helps.

A ‘migrant’ thinks.
A ‘migrant’ worries about the future.

A ‘migrant’ strategises about the next move.

A ‘migrant’ forgets about being a migrant.

A ‘migrant’ is reminded of being a migrant.

A ‘migrant’ wants to live.

A ‘migrant’ struggles to be a part of the new country.

A ‘migrant’ finds it too easy to blend in.

A ‘migrant’ wants to be invisible and unrecognisable.

A ‘migrant’ wants to shout, ‘I am here, see me!’

A ‘migrant’ suffers, fears, cries.

A ‘migrant’ creates, trusts, laughs.

After all, a migrant is no different from so-called natives, locals, citizens, the nation—all those ‘non-migrants’. However, policies, discourses, cultural codes, social processes, the economy, a piece of paper (or lack thereof) quickly turn a migrant into a thing. Once migrants are converted into a thing, they are easier to deal with, to lock up, to deport, to silence, to give a food voucher, to pester, to patronise, to dominate. All the complexities stemming from ‘whoness’ of a migrant can be discarded.

When I decided to study migration, it made me uncomfortable to take the perspective of ‘whatness’, which still enormously shapes the International Relations’ (IR) take on migration by ignoring the ‘whoness’ of migrants. That’s why I have adopted a human security scope, which, in my opinion, is the closest framework in IR through which the ‘whoness’ of migrants can be brought about. It has never been a straightforward task to understand the whoness of migrants, as it brings up complexities and ever-changing human social, cultural, and psychological dynamics and forces us to shed light on them. An analytical nightmare is due because the whoness of migrants defies neat statistical models, insightful forecast analyses, carefully thought-out policy strategies. All the stuff we are expected to produce if we would like to be heard by the ministries… and who wants to be ‘irrelevant’?

However, this is an endeavour that is worth pursuing. It requires talking to migrants, listening to them, hearing about their worlds, reading their stories, watching their experiences with the sliver of hope that maybe I as an analyst, and as a migrant, can understand a small portion of who a migrant is and aspires to be.

This is not only an analytical, but also a political choice. Although human society has moved across the world since, well, they evolved to stand on their two legs, the global modern nation-state system has reconceptualised humans on the move as migrants and converted them into things. As human mobility could not be stopped as a social inevitability, cultural, economic, and psychological tensions have emerged between the realities of whoness of migrants and political forces that repeatedly reduce migrants to a whatness. Human security understands these tensions and challenges them in favour of the former.

Human security encourages us to look at human mobility not as a policy problem, statistic, diploma, language test score, bank account, or charity project, but a process that brings together and separates global human society. Human security is not a solution—it is a prism through which it dissolves into a rainbow of endless colours of being human. It is a call to perform a major overhaul of the way we understand human mobility by focusing on humans as humans. It encourages us to listen to them and see which of those problems allegedly created by migration would remain intact, unhurt, uncracked once the words of migrants hit them.

About the author:

Ali Bilgic served as Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity on the topic of ‘Human Security and Migration’ between 2017 and 2019 and is currently Emeritus Professor at the ISS. He is Reader of International Relations and Security at Loughborough University, UK. Read a post he wrote for Bliss here.

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Human security and migration in Europe: a realistic approach by Ali Bilgiç

Human security is not a moralistic utopia but a realistic approach to migration, which takes European citizens’ insecurities seriously by focusing on human security of migrants. It is now time to bravely and innovatively rethink Europe and migration, and by extension, what kind of European political community can be imagined.


Today, many individuals, whether European citizens or migrants in(to) Europe, live under fear and anxiety. These two types of insecurity are different, but inherently connected. Both are lives under fear, because Europe’s migration (mis)management dichotomise these two lives—these two insecurities. However, European migration (mis)management policies dichotomise the security of European citizens and migrants from the global South. This dichotomy leads to the three dialectics of European migration (mis)management:

  1. Limited Legal Migration Channels and ‘Criminalisation’ of Mobility: The reduction of legal migration routes, combined with continuing high demand for many types of labour from abroad, has led to higher irregular migration and to the flourishing of the smuggling business.
  2. Mutual Distrust: The European border management system operates based on distrust towards migrants. Such distrust by Europe towards migrants feeds into distrust from migrants to Europe.
  3. Mutual human insecurity: The condition of ‘illegality’ is a source of human insecurity for both migrants and European citizens. Each group’s attempts to secure itself cause insecurity for the other.

Human Securitising Migration in Europe

There have been several renditions and implications of human security. In my understanding, which matches that adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2012, human security broadly refers to each individual’s freedom from fear (threats such as physical and direct violence), from want (meaning unemployment, poverty, sickness), and from indignity (exclusion, exploitation, and discrimination). It imagines communities in which political, economic and social systems do not inflict physical and structural violence on individuals.

Human security is explicitly about problematising power relations that inflict violence on individuals and communities. Being conscious of power relations, human security reveals that the security of those who are disadvantaged and marginalised and the security of those who are more privileged in different power relations are, in fact, inherently connected. A human security perspective asks the following questions:

How does the interaction between economic and political structures in Europe produce violence, fear and anxiety for individuals?

The three dialectics of migration mismanagement result from Europe’s political and economic choices in the last five decades. A human security researcher begins her analysis by questioning political, economic, legal, and sociological consequences of these choices which constructed migration from the global South as a security problem in the first place. A migration management policy starts with turning the mirror to Europe and asks how European policies contribute to the criminalisation of migration.

How do European external relations produce or obscure human security?

Europe’s external relations regarding migration have fundamentally two dimensions. The first one targets the countries of origin to tackle ‘the root causes’ of migration. In theory, addressing root causes of migration can be praised from a human security perspective because they are supposed to address structural problems that inflict violence on individuals. However, first, ‘the root causes’ do not affect all individuals in the same way so addressing ‘the root causes’ does not provide us with a quick solution that is applicable to all. Second, the root causes approach must be a long term policy, which should be accompanied by opening legal and circular migration channels to Europe. A smart root causes approach aims to manage migration, not stop it. Otherwise, it is self-defeating.

Another area that human security researchers can question is EU relations with its North African and Middle Eastern neighbours in particular, the field I have been studying in the last ten years. In the last 30 years, Europe has developed the policy of containing migrants in the EU’s neighbourhood by transforming the neighbouring states into ‘Europe’s border guards’. We call this process ‘externalisation’ of migration management. Highly problematic deals with the neighbouring countries to keep migrants on their territories do not consider rising ethnic and racial tensions and exploitation of migrants’ cheap labour, which encourage migrants to continue their migration.

How can the human security of migrants, EU citizens and citizens of neighbouring regions be addressed together, and not opposed to each other?

Human security of one social group cannot—sustainably and successfully—be pursued at the expense of another group. This idea is known as the principle of common human security. It can be traced back at least to the foundation of the United Nations. The current migration management regime of Europe divides groups. This is not to argue that European authorities are not responsible for the security of EU citizens. On the contrary, it encourages and calls European sovereign authorities to take the human insecurities of EU citizens seriously by acknowledging that their security depends on the human security of non-EU citizens.

Against the backdrop of these three questions, several policy research areas regarding migration to Europe from a human security perspective can be thought. For example, one research area concerns developing a new language that surpasses the dichotomies of ‘good migrant’ and ‘bad migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’. Reflecting the common human security perspective and deriving from the EU Commission’s calls for developing ‘a migrant-centred approach’ in migration management, human security research explores a new language that reflects realities of contemporary human mobility.

Another research area can be how European political community can regain the trust of migrants so they do not feel the need to be ‘invisible’. A question can be asked what institutional mechanisms can be designed at the EU level, and possibly beyond European borders, to re-establish a relationship based on trust, not fear, between migrant and Europe. In my book Rethinking Security in the Age of Migration, I developed the concept of ‘protection-seeker’ and proposed an EU-level regularisation mechanism, examples of which we can observe in several South American states including Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Human security is not a moralistic utopia but a realistic approach to migration, which takes European citizens’ insecurities seriously by focusing on human security of migrants. It is now time to bravely and innovatively rethink Europe and migration, and by extension, what kind of European political community can be imagined.

This article is based on the lecture of Dr. Ali Bilgiç, presented on 12 April 2018 for his inauguration as holder of the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity 2017-19 in the area of ‘Migration and Human Security’ at the ISS. An interview with him (in Dutch) can be found here.

Picture credit: European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta

ali_bilgic_op_prins_claus_leerstoel_migratie_en_menselijkeAli Bilgiç is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Loughborough University. He has a Ph.D. from Aberystwyth University and a MA in European Politics from Lund University. He is the author of Rethinking Security in the Age of Migration: Trust and Emancipation in Europe (Routledge, 2013) and Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy (I.B. Tauris, 2016).