This article belongs to the debate » 9/11 und Migration, Asyl und Staatsbürgerschaft
15 November 2021

The countering of migration with security

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Europeanization received a particular boost in the European Union with the idea of creating a „Common European Asylum System“ (CEAS). Even a statement by Spain’s then-acting Foreign Minister Pique shortly after the attacks shows how immigration and terrorism were now directly linked: „The reinforcement of the fight against illegal immigration is also the reinforcement of the fight against terrorism.“ Concerns about the negative impact of migration on, for example, economic prosperity, national identity, social order, and state sovereignty preceded 9/11, but they transformed concerns into migration-related security fears. In Germany, too, the events triggered a debate about internal security; under the Red-Green-led (referring to the Social Democratic-Green coalition, which governed Germany from 1998 – 2005) federal government, there were calls for „tightening the law on foreigners.Although this has always been a law to avert danger, it is only since 9/11 that links have been drawn to the threat of terrorism: away from the concrete danger to an abstract threat.

In the course of the so-called refugee crisis, which is already semantically inherent in the threat, attempts to provide security had resounding success: The structural defeat of the European border regime in the summer of 2015 was followed by temporary closures of the internal borders and a continuing arms race among the member states to seal off migration law. With the re-abolition of internal border controls, the protection of the common external borders is now being harmonized and strengthened in order to be able to control who enters the territory of the EU. The credo, driven by instrumental reason, is that a common European problem becomes a national problem if the European solution does not work, and vice versa.

From the Asylum Package to the „Hau-ab-Gesetz“

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the Asylum Package I introduced a far-reaching tightening of asylum law in October 2015. Among other things, it included benefit cuts for asylum seekers and tolerated persons in Section 1a of the Asylum Seekers‘ Benefits Act (AsylblG) and the classification of Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro as so-called „safe countries of origin.“ This designation made it easier to reject asylum applications from people from such declared states. In 2016, Asylum Package I was followed by Number II, and the Integration Act. The „safe countries of origin“ were joined by Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, family reunification was suspended (eventually until 2018) and, for example, a residence requirement was introduced for refugees who had already been recognized. The Act to Improve the Enforcement of the Obligation to Leave the Country followed in 2017, and was followed by a migration package containing seven laws, including the „Orderly Return Act“ including a toleration „light“ in Section 60b of the Residence Act (Aufenthaltsgesetz, AufenthG) for persons „with an unclear identity“, and whose extensive changes to asylum, residence and social law came into force at various times in 2019 and 2020. In sum, these are security and foreign policy measures designed to prevent migration movements from occurring, if possible, and to make access to protection more difficult, even impossible. How was this increasingly restrictive migration policy legitimized?

Migration securitization

High numbers of migrants arriving at Europe’s external borders put a strain on the asylum system and the capacities of the host countries. The situation in the summer of 2015 eroded citizens‘ trust in a functioning asylum system. This narrative cries out for solutions. And it clashes with human rights safeguards, such as the „refoulement“ prohibition enshrined in Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. It prohibits the refoulement, expulsion or extradition of persons to a territory where their most basic human rights are at risk, and thus does not establish a right to asylum, but at least a right to a fair and individual asylum procedure – but the supposed protection of the German state and its citizens contributes to their undermining.

This implicit or explicit construction of an existential threat is captured in political science by the term ’securitization‘. With regard to migration, it was first examined within the EU by Didier Bigo and Jef Huysmans. Their central finding is that migration and asylum are linked to internal security issues such as terrorism, forming a continuum of ’security‘.1) According to the Copenhagen School, „security“ is not an objective given, but is socially constructed – it is a declarative speech act, the result of a discourse within which social phenomena are declared to be existential dangers or threats and are thus constructed.2) The framing of migration as a threat is thus by no means a natural reaction to given circumstances, but the result of political discourses and decisions. Once the public is convinced of the threat, extraordinary measures such as far-reaching tightening of asylum laws can be taken to avert the supposed security threat with the help of the state, whose role thus becomes indispensable.3)

A closer look at the interconnectedness of securitization and migration shows: Migrants are constructed as a threat to the survival of the state and society, the welfare state, cultural particularities, and/or the identity of the host countries – with them, according to a common narrative, come terrorism and crime.4) Or, in other words, if bombings are committed in the name of an extremist, anti-Western ideology, terrorism is also a „threat to national identity.“5) In addition to so-called push factors such as persecution, civil wars, and climate change, the focus turns to pull factors of migration, and attributions of responsibility and blame are made: Border management is flawed, return rates are too low, the Dublin system does not work, and different recognition rates and procedure lengths ultimately lead to „asylum abuse.“ In response, security actors such as the military and the arms industry are given an important role.6) They provide the border protection agency Frontex with personnel and equipment, for example, or take over border protection directly themselves (such as the Libyan coast guard as part of the country’s own navy). In addition to the tightening of asylum law, there are other laws, such as the Data Exchange Improvement Act, which created the legal framework for the introduction of a new core data system based on the Central Register of Foreigners, which gives the authorities access to the master data of arriving refugees, and which can be assigned to the security-migration continuum.

It is particularly striking that mostly only so-called „irregular“ migration is securitized. Within the distinction between „irregular“ migrants and those who are „really“ in need of protection, the former are even framed as a threat to the latter, because they would illegitimately block the existing reception capacities. However, this obscures the problem that such a distinction of migrants can only be made in an individual and fair asylum procedure. Thus, in practice, domestic and foreign security measures affect all fleeing people, especially as long as there are hardly any legal access routes to Europe.

Moreover, the increased focus on combating the causes in the countries of origin completely ignores the fact that factors such as colonial history, arms exports or asymmetrical trade relations are just as causal for refugee movements.7)

Security fragments of a Bundestag session

A look at excerpts from a Bundestag session exemplifies the rhetoric of securitization in debates on migration law. October 1, 2015, the parliamentarians react to the increase in the number of refugees. Under agenda items 3 a and b, they discuss for the first time the draft of the Asylum Procedure Acceleration Act (Asylverfahrensbeschleunigungsgesetz) and the Relief Acceleration Act (Entlastungsbeschleunigungsgesetz) to ease the burden on the states and municipalities in receiving and accommodating asylum seekers from the above-mentioned Asylum Package I. Stephan Mayer from the CDU/CSU parliamentary group states:

„[…] In September alone, several tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers arrived in Germany. They were not registered. They were not controlled. I would like to state in all clarity: This also poses a major security risk. It is therefore the order of the day that we return to the rule of law. Every refugee and every asylum seeker must be registered and checked as quickly as possible when they set foot on German soil. This is in Germany’s interest.“ [Author’s emphasis.]

To applause from his own parliamentary group and individual members of the SPD, he continued:

For me, one thing is crucial: Germany and Europe not only have obligations to people in need of protection – we very much do – we also have an obligation to our domestic population in particular to ensure a functioning community and safe and social living conditions. Above all, it is the people in our country to whom we are obligated. […] With this law to accelerate the asylum procedure, we are sending an important signal to all those people who are not in need of protection not to make their way to Germany. […] Whoever reacts with ignorance to the fact that fears manifest themselves in the population, and whoever negates the problems in the population, ultimately endangers internal peace and also our social cohesion.“ [Author’s emphasis.]

A speech under agenda item 6 then exemplifies the link between migration and terrorism from a constructivist perspective. Parliament is debating the German government’s request for the participation of armed German forces in the EU operation EUNAVFOR MED to stop the business model of people smuggling and trafficking networks in the southern and central Mediterranean. According to Roderich Kiesewetter, also from the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, this debate is „about how we as the European Union deal with the refugee situation at Europe’s borders. “ The numbers of deployed warships and aircraft are referred to, they are „a sign of European solidarity, but […] also […] part of the necessary strategy“. This strategy, one learns in the course of Kiesewetter’s contribution, also aims at:

the interdiction of terrorist networks, to which the door has been opened in Libya. It is also a question of containing the spread of weapons and proliferation, but also of trained terrorists. That just means that in addition to development cooperation and foreign policy strategies, we also need some police and military accompaniment.“ [Author’s emphasis.]

These views logically assume that the link between immigration and terrorism is obvious: migrants are foreigners and pose a threat; terrorists are foreigners and also pose a threat; consequently, any migrant can be a terrorist, and therefore the best way to prevent terrorism is to be tough in dealing with migration – a „worst case scenario“ approach that forms the basis of European and thus also German migration policy.8)

Securitization in right-wing conspiracy narratives

Beyond the state-politically driven rhetoric of securitization, the right-wing political spectrum has the myth of a culturally uniform nation or a national identity that must be protected from migration and prevented from disappearing.9) Discursively, the decision for or against immigration is equated with the decision for or against the community. Immigration (especially from the Middle East) threatens Islamization. An incompatible, threatening „culture“ is conjured up and subsequently a collective identity crisis – either „German“ or „European“ – is imagined.10) This often leads to the drawing of lines of connection between migration movements and alleged or actual Islamist attacks or corresponding plans.

The most extreme variant of the securitization of migration can be found in the neo-Right conspiracy narrative of the „great exchange“ of the population. There is a secret plan to exchange the white majority population for Muslim or non-white migrants. In the German-speaking world, this ideology has been used primarily by protagonists of the Identitarian movement, such as the Austrian Martin Sellner. The myth of „exchange“ has been popularized via new-right publications, blogs and forums; representatives of this ideology sit in German parliaments. What their ilk intend to do in the name of security is euphemized with the term „well-tempered cruelty.

Overall, it can be stated that migration is the result of multiple push and pull factors and should be discussed without the almost ritualized linkage to security concerns since 9/11 – because all migrants are affected by the securitization of migration, while the overwhelming majority of migrants are not terrorists.

This text is a translation of the article, ‚Mit Sicherheit gegen Migration‚, by Michael Borgers.


1 Cf. Bigo, Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease. Alternatives 2002, 27, 63-92 (74 ff.); Huysmans, The politics of insecurity: Fear, migration and asylum in the EU, London 2006, 71.
2 Buraczyński The Establishment of Security at the EU External Border – Migration and Border Policy in the Polish region of the Carpathian foothills, Wiesbaden 2015, 35.
3 Bigo, Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease. Alternatives 2002, 27, 63-92 (82).
4 Wagner, Refugees as a Security Risk: Why Human Rights Violations at the EU’s External Borders are Tolerated. A Media Content Analysis of British, German, French and American Press, International Relations Online Working Paper, No. 2016/01, 17 ff.
5 Chebel d’Appollonia, Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States, Ithaca 2012, 15.
6 Hess/Kasparek/Kron/Rodatz/Schwertl/Sontowski, Der lange Sommer der Migration. Crisis, Reconstitution and Uncertain Future of the European Border Regime, in: dies. (eds.), Der lange Sommer der Migration, Grenzregime III, Berlin und Hamburg 2016, 12.
7 Walters, Imagined migration world: The European Union’s anti-illegal immigration discourse, in: Geiger/Pécoud (eds.),The politics of international migration management, London 2010, 73-95 (90).
8 Chebel d’Appollonia, Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States, Ithaca 2012, 15-16.
9 Huysmans, The politics of insecurity: Fear, migration and asylum in the EU, London 2006, 73.
10 Hess/Kasparek/Kron/Rodatz/Schwertl/Sontowski, Der lange Sommer der Migration. Crisis, Reconstitution and Uncertain Future of the European Border Regime, in: dies. (eds.), Der lange Sommer der Migration, Grenzregime III, Berlin und Hamburg 2016, 15.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Gelhaar, Julia: The countering of migration with security, VerfBlog, 2021/11/15,, DOI: 10.17176/20220204-001211-0.

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