For some to be free, all must be secure: the paired narratives of security and globalisation

by Joseph Markus

I was reading recently a piece about the extraordinary security measures to be put in place for (and kept in place after) the London Olympics.

It struck me that security is a feature of present-day political discourse that has become steadily more prevalent. It began, perhaps most noticeably, in the days following 11 September, nearly 11 years ago. But it’s probably right to say that it is a phenomenon that is of older origin.

There followed the creation of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees a string of negotiations over a ‘right to asylum’ to be enshrined within the corpus of international treaty law. These negotiations fell through as a result of what was principally the opposition of developed and Western nations. The perceived risk was a massive influx of refugees, asylum seekers and—the unthinkable—economic migrants.

This tendency to fear ‘the Other’ is a common one and it is tied into the security discourse. Linking this back to migration and asylum, I can think of two other particularly appropriate examples.

The 'boat people' of Christmas Island

The first, and most obviously wrong, was the Australian ‘Pacific Solution’. This policy—in force between 2001 and 2007—was the euphemistic and somewhat chilling name given by the Australian executive to the policy of transporting asylum seekers to detention centres on small-island nations in the Pacific Ocean before they had chance to land on the Australian mainland.

Julia Gillard, Australian Prime Minister, has elevated this issue of ‘border control’ to totemic status. It was one of the reasons why her coup d’état against Kevin Rudd was successful and, in an economic climate where introversion and scapegoating become effective political strategies, in the pipeline for Australia were two further potential (off-shore processing) Solutions: an ‘East Timor Solution’ (strongly opposed by the East Timorese) and a ‘Malaysia Solution’ (this one peremptorily ruled illegal by Australia’s High Court).

Second is the example set by the European Union. Here, through a series of measures, including Frontex (the EU border-control force), the Dublin II system, EURODAC (‘European Dactyloscopy’ – the European fingerprint database for identifying asylum seekers and other ‘irregulars’), ‘safe third country’ and transfer agreements, as well as a couple of Directives dedicated to asylum, the EU is rapidly pushing asylum seekers and migrants to the outskirts of the Union—the south and east—to the points where they first entered. This is the Dublin process and it is unjust, leading to severe overburdening of border countries (one of them being Greece, the subject of a number of highly critical ECHR and ECJ rulings).

A member of Frontex scans the horizon for 'irregulars'

One of the results of this has been the settlement of, often questionable, agreements with ‘third countries’ outside the Union (Italy enjoyed a fruitful history of partnership with the Qaddafi regime in Libya). These agreements can be framed to allow EU members to transfer their migrants—asylum seekers happen to get caught up either through a summary process introduced under other EU Directives or through illegal transfer—to third countries.

Migrants and asylum seekers are gradually forced out of the ‘area of freedom, security and justice’ and, once outside, they aren’t allowed back in. The frontiers of Europe are policed by Frontex, an armed border force. In sum we have seen the securitisation of Europe’s borders, turning it gradually but irresistibly into a ‘fortress Europe’.

The single most important question is why this has happened. It comes back to that watchword—security—and one other concept, that of globalisation.

The EU is a microcosmic example of how full globalisation might look. It is an (internally) borderless Union. The Union is supported by a single foundational idea of the ‘four freedoms’. These are the freedoms of the free movement of goods, capital, services and people.

These freedoms also go some way to identifying what are the logical ends of globalisation. Inevitably, if we were to let it run to that conclusion, we would see globalisation in all areas of life. So, in Europe, we can have virtually unlimited free movement of virtually everything.

There is a double standard here created by this global-external, ‘asymmetric’, approach to globalisation, characterised by the sort of strict border policies pursued by the EU. Safe within the Union, Europe continues to dedicate itself to the ideals of the single market and everything that comes with it. Freedom in Europe is guaranteed; it is guaranteed at the price of security, because without security what freedom is possible? Consequently, outside Europe, we see globalisation of certain, discrete areas of life—capital, communications and culture—but not others, such as labour and people.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are 214 million international migrants worldwide, accounting for some 3.1% of the world’s population. In 2010 they sent home an estimated $440 billion in remittances.

Where these migrants go is a separate question. Anecdotal evidence and common sense would suggest that Europe is a desirable destination. It represents, from far-away places, a shimmering oasis of prosperity, justice, peace and, importantly, safety. Why would it not be attractive to outsiders?

This, then, is the problem of maintaining pools of extreme wealth alongside seas of poverty (and that, as my co-editor Babak Moussavi has written, wherever you end up will be as a result of ineluctable luck). It’s the equivalent of the warring tribes of olden times building walls around their cities to keep them safe from marauding foreigners and bandits whose only goal was to pillage and take. It’s the equivalent, even, of osmosis… To safeguard all those values of which Europe can be proud so that Europeans already living there can continue to enjoy them, Europe must be kept safe and exclusive. The maxim by which Eurocrats rule is this:

Europe must be (externally) secure to be (internally) free.

It is justified in any number of different ways. One obvious justification could be the risk of terrorism. Another could be the reactionary perception of foreigners taking local jobs from local people. These tropes are regularly riffed on by those governing us: here we have the vote-grabbing tactic of the UK Tory-led Government of seeking to impose a highly arbitrary cap on immigration. Particularly in straitened times these narratives can represent the sum of reasoned debate over migration.

The truth most frequently overlooked is that security prevents diffusion, both of wealth and of people. Securitisation keeps us rich and them poor.

More 'boat people', off the coast of Italy

Practically speaking, the effect is this: European companies can extend their enterprise to distant parts of the world to enjoy the cheap labour and negligible labour rights of developing countries and encouragingly-titled Free Trade Zones—not luxuries they can enjoy in the single-market world of minimum wages and human rights. But the reverse doesn’t hold. Workers from those poor and unjust places can’t simply make their way to Europe to take advantage of all the wonderful prosperity.

The obvious question to ask is what could replace a world of borders, closed to people, and avoid at the same time the risk of a downward-spiralling race-to-the-top?

I can think of at least one thing, however vague and impractical, and however much it goes against the grain of contemporary politics: equity.

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