Politics / Reports

Securitizing the Syrian refugee influx: How Visegrad group countries use language to turn migrants into threats

Migrants_in_Hungary_2015_Aug_018by Givi Gigitashvili

The Syrian refugee crisis has once again sparked debates about the existence of two different Europes, with deep-seated discrepancies between the Eastern and Western European countries. From its outset, political leaders of Central and Easter European countries portrayed the Syrian refugee crisis as European security issue. Against this backdrop, Visegrad group countries (Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary) unanimously dismissed the proposal by Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, about mandatory refugee quotas, arguing that compulsory quotas cannot tackle the causes of uncontrolled immigration, an remain a short-term solution.[1] Afterwards, political leaders in these countries encouraged xenophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric, showing their intention to make security the theme of the debate over Europe’s immigration crisis.  In doing so, they employed language which spread a mood of fear and mobilized people, enabling them to take extraordinary measures amid the refugee influx. This is the securitization of migration by Visegrad countries – turning a human tragedy in to a security threat.

The Copenhagen School of security studies argues that there are no security issues in themselves, but only issues which have been ‘securitized, meaning constructed as such through securitization ‘speech acts’.[2] As long as threats are socially constructed in linguistic ways, it is prohibitively complex to determine whether these threats are real. As Stefano Carulli puts it, in security discourse, political leaders dramatize and depict the issue of migration as representing a hazardous threat to the national identity, ideas which the local population are persuaded to adopt.[3] Often, political leaders are tempted to blame immigration for causing various problems in the country, such as increased crime, unemployment, economic difficulties etc. The securitizing actors allege a necessity of and a mandate to deal with migration issue by exceptional means in order to ‘protect society’, even if the perceptions of threat are not real.[4] The case of Visegrad group countries plainly illustrates the politicization and securitization of migration, while xenophobic statements aggravate anti-migrant fervor in society that helps the government legitimize extraordinary measures.

The V4 political elites have created ‘external, threatening Others’ out of refugees, to reaffirm their their own identities, and in the meantime, this has become the standard precondition for securitizing of migration. Furthermore, the Paris terrorist attacks have emerged created fertile ground for claims linking refugees with terrorists, representing them as threats for national security. Migration has been made into an issue of internal, and cultural, security.

Internal security and refugee influx  

To begin with, the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party figure and former Prime Minister of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, publicly announced that Muslim refugees would bring parasites and diseases to the local population.[5] Along similar lines, the incumbent Slovakian president Robert Fico underlined that he would not accept a large Muslim community in Slovakia and added “the only way to eliminate risks like Paris and Germany [terrorist attacks] is to prevent the creation of a compact Muslim community in Slovakia”.[6] He even went further and openly announced that his government monitors “every single Muslim” in the country. Finally, the president of Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, claimed that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood uses money from several states to finance refugee exodus in a bid to ‘gradually control Europe’.[7]

As we can see, political leaders disseminate narratives about insecurity that produce perceptions of refugees as a challenge to the state’s internal security. Hostile attitudes toward refugees and asylum seeker have prevailed in media as well. Julia Tallmeister argues that connection between illegal immigration and terrorism is a constructed rather than objective reality. She cites Saux, who draws upon Moral-Panics Theory, arguing that the perceived danger of terrorism caused people to blame a certain group of people, designating them as the enemy and creating a division between “us” and “them”.[8] The domestic security-immigration nexus has attracted significant attention post-9/11, when the media and political leaders demanded restriction of liberal immigration policies. However, in case of 9/11, it has been confirmed that terrorists entered the United States as foreigner visitors on a temporary visa basis, meaning they were not immigrants.[9] As for the Paris terrorist attacks, it has been confirmed that eight terror suspects possessed EU passport, while participation of refugees in this event has not been confirmed yet.[10] There simply isn’t the evidence to claim that Syrian refugees imported terrorism into Europe. Visegrad group leaders instead unfairly stigmatize refugees as a threat – but this is a constructed reality. Nevertheless, people’s perceptions of refugees as challenge to internal security allowed governments to adopt extraordinary security measures, such as rejection to accept Muslim refugees, refusal to compulsory refugee quotas, erecting of protective fences, enhancing security control nationwide etc. As Didier Bigo notes, “the more the threats are ill-defined, considered as invisible and diffuse, the more they appear to be “coming from nowhere” and the more they catalyze various fears and generate misgivings (about, for example, transnational organized crime, a global Mafia, terrorism) that justify the vigilance of institutions”.[11] In the aftermath of the Paris attack, the connection of refugees to terrorism has definitely come from nowhere. The populist leaders who have gained momentum to generate misgivings before the Paris accident was properly investigated and participation of refugees disproved. The Syrian refugee crisis could not be considered an objective danger for internal security, thus it remains a constructed, perceived danger.

Cultural security and refugee crisis

Apart from expressed concerns over internal security, V4 political leaders have conflated worries about European and national identity. Witold Waszczykowski, a member of Polish parliament for the Law and Justice Party has said that: “an individual, who will arrive in Poland must demonstrate that he or she can integrate in our culture and society, therefore, we can place greater hopes that Christian refugees have more potential to assimilate”.[12] In the same interview, he added later “security is more significant than any beautiful ideals”.[13] Likewise, the Slovak Interior ministry spokesman, Ivan Netik, announced that Slovakia would accept only Christians when it takes in Syrian refugees under a EU relocation scheme.[14] The spokesman justified his claim by saying that Muslims would find it hard to feel at home in Slovakia, because there are no Mosques in this country. Blaming refugees for committing the New Years Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, President of Czech Republic, Milos Zeman claimed that Muslim community is impossible to integrate into European societies. “Integration is possible with cultures that are similar, and the similarities may vary,” he said.[15] Finally, Euobserver quotes Viktor Orban’s, PM of Hungary: “While I am PM, Hungary will definitely not become an immigration destination. We do not want to see significantly sized minorities with different cultural characteristics and backgrounds among us. We want to keep Hungary as Hungary”.[16] He also added “what we have at stake today is Europe, the European way of life, the survival or disappearance of European values and nations, or their transformation beyond recognition … We would like Europe to be preserved for the Europeans”.[17]

Whereas we speak about social construction of migration as a threat for national identity, the notion of identity is constructed itself. As Julia Tallmeister notes, “ideas of national identity and notions of which cultural and ethnic groups can be accepted into a community inevitably change over time”.[18] Thus, a constructed threat of migration ‘endangers’ national identity that is also constructed (as Anderson called it, ‘imagined community’). Against this backdrop, Echavarria notes that “immigration fixes identity boundaries us/them: suspends questioning of ‘we’ and turns attention to ‘other’; security brings a particular community into existence through violence and exclusion”.[19]

The above-mentioned statements expose fears related to cultural homogeneity and European identity. Refugees are perceived as a threat to culturally homogeneous space in Europe. Victor Orban refers constantly to ‘keeping Hungary as Hungary’, demonstrating his fear of a culturally heterogeneous society. Visegrad leaders claim that refugees can render traditional instruments of social and political integration useless, but these claims are ill founded. As Huysman puts it, “migration is identified as being one of the main factors weakening national tradition and societal homogeneity. The discourse reproduces the political myth that a homogenous national community or western civilization existed in the past and can be re-established today through the exclusion of those migrants who are identified as cultural aliens”.[20]

Visegrad group political leaders revealed their skepticism regarding possibilities of integration of refugees into local societies. Thus, they assumed that this inability to integrate would have harmful consequences for the host society. Therefore, asylum seekers embody a hazard for the security of society, as they must either conform to or confront European values and European national identities. Although adoption of refugees based on their religion is a clear violation of the EU’s non-discrimination laws, these leaders have defended their policies by referring discomfort of their own population’s with growing Muslim communities.

In the Visegrad countries, political elites have claimed that migration is an existential threat to their states and societies. Their anti-immigration outbursts portrayed refugees and asylum seekers as a challenge to the internal stability of European countries, and to European and national identity. Political leaders in V4 countries exposed a great deal of discursive convergence that has helped them to securitize the Syrian crisis, which is ultimately a human tragedy – not a threat.

Givi Gigitashvili

[1] Schetyna, G. 2015. Poland: seal EU borders. Politico. 21 September. Available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/sel-eu-borders-poland-migration-refugees/ Accessed: 18.03.2016.

[2] Leonard S. 2007. The ‘Securitization’ of asylum and migration in the European Union: beyond the Copenhagen school’s framework. SGIR sixth pan-European international relations conference. 12-15 September, Italy. Available from: http://www.eisa-net.org/be-bruga/eisa/files/events/turin/Leonard-sgir_conference_paper_final_sleonard.pdf Accessed: 01.03.2016

[3] Carulli S. 2016. Securitization and the construction of security. From speech acts to the Syrian refugee crisis. University of Groningen. Available from: https://www.academia.edu/20187969/Securitization_and_the_Construction_of_Security

Accessed: 10.03.2016

[4] Bigo, D. 2002. Security and immigration: toward a critique of the governmentality of unease.  Alternatives: global, local, political. Available at: http://alt.sagepub.com/content/27/1_suppl/63.extract Accessed: 01.03.2016.

[5] Gera V. 2015. Right-wing Polish leader Kaczynski says migrants carry diseases to Europe. U.S. news & world report. Available from: http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2015/10/14/right-wing-polish-leader-migrants-carry-diseases-to-europe  Accessed: 14.03.2016

[6] Kroet C. 2016. Slovak PM: EU migrant policy in ‘ritual suicide’. Politico. Available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/slovak-pm-eu-migrant-policy-is-ritual-suicide/ Accessed: 20.03.2016

[7] Ibid

[8] Tallmeister J. 2013. Is immigration a threat to security? E-international relations student. Available at: http://www.e-ir.info/2013/08/24/is-immigration-a-threat-to-security/ Accessed: 05.03.2016.

[9] Spencer A. 2008. Linking immigrants and Terrorists: the use of immigration as an Anti-Terror policy. OJPCR The Online journal of peace and conflict resolution. Available at https://www.academia.edu/2596962/Linking_Immigrants_and_Terrorists_The_Use_of_Immigration_as_an_Anti-Terror_Policy  Accessed: 07.03.2016.

[10] Eichards V. 2015. Paris attacks; Eiight terror suspects named so far are not refugees and have EU passport. The Independent.  November 2015. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-attacks-the-eight-terror-suspects-named-so-far-all-have-eu-passports-a6738821.html Accessed: 06.03.2016.

[11] Bigo, D. 2002. Security and immigration: toward a critique of the governmentality of unease.  Alternatives: global, local, political. Available at: http://alt.sagepub.com/content/27/1_suppl/63.extract Accessed: 01.03.2016.

[12] Ojewska N. 2015. Poland’s anti-immigrant feeling: Pure hate of fleeting backlash? Middle East eye. Available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/polands-anti-immigrant-feeling-pure-hate-or-fleeting-backlash-1275151419 Accessed: 16.03.2016

[13] Ibid

[14] Migrants crisis: Slovakia will only accept Christians. BBC News, August  2015. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33986738 Accessed: 17.03.2016.

[15] Ibid

[16] Retman A. Orban demonizes immigrants at Paris march. EUobserver. January 2015. Available from: https://euobserver.com/justice/127172 Accessed: 18.03.2016

[17] Muddle C. 2015. The Hungarian PM made a ‘rivers of blood’ speech…and no one cares. The Guardian. July 2015. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/30/viktor-orban-fidesz-hungary-prime-minister-europe-neo-nazi Accessed: 18.03.2016

[18] Tallmeister J. 2013. Is immigration a threat to security? E-international relations student. Available at: http://www.e-ir.info/2013/08/24/is-immigration-a-threat-to-security/ Accessed: 05.03.2016.

[19] Echavarria J. 2010. Migrants as threats: how security discourses define self and Other. Available from: https://theshelterproject.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/echavarria_script_23-05-20101.pdf  Accessed 18.03.2016.

[20] Huysmans J. 2000. The European Union and the securitization of migration. Journal of common market studies. Vol. 38, No. 5. Available at:  Accessed: 01.03.2016


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