Securitisation and the challenge for higher education

Nov 3, 2019 by

Bernhard Streitwieser –

I was recently invited to participate in a European Union Horizon 2020-funded project in 13 European countries that explored how youth at secondary and post-secondary levels think about and respond to the allure of radicalisation. I agreed to participate on one condition: our work would not conflate radicalisation with increased migration.

My scholarship studies the impact of migration on educational access, particularly for refugee populations, and also looks at how higher education institutions are responding to threats of student radicalisation.

Migration and radicalisation are both on the rise at the moment, yet drawing a cause-effect relationship between them is a dangerous fallacy. Unfortunately, that very misjudgment has recently ensnared some influential policy-makers in the United States and abroad.

Those caught in this confusion characterise migration as the root cause of any societal development that does not adhere to their world view. While international migration has indeed continued to grow, and radicalisation and extremism are also on the rise, the complexity of cause-and-effect links between these disparate phenomena are extremely difficult to establish and likely fallacious.

Migration is a worldwide issue

The globe is currently experiencing the unprecedented forced migration of 70.8 million, including 28.9 million refugees, the largest numbers recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since World War II.

Increased forced migration has been caused by conflicts in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where the Syrian Civil War continues to push even more refugees into the already overloaded neighbouring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Trouble spots in Asia scatter refugees from Afghanistan into Iran and Pakistan, Rohingya minorities out of Myanmar, and refugees from Bhutan into Nepal.

Instability also rages in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where protracted conflicts in Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Congo, South Sudan and Yemen displace a quarter of the worldwide refugee flow.

In Latin America, gang violence, the drug war and autocratic regimes in some countries are driving migration northward.

Securitisation Theory

Securitisation Theory, proposed by Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde in 1998, can help to explain how complex phenomena like migration and radicalisation can become misunderstood and oversimplified. When a phenomenon becomes ‘securitised’ it comes to be seen as an existential threat, whether military, political, economic, societal or environmental.

According to the theory, ‘securitising actors’ are politicians who, for political advantage and to shift an agenda in their favour, deliberately characterise a normal event, such as migration, as dangerous and threatening to the public.

On 5 April 2019, United States President Donald Trump on a visit to the US-Mexico border declared: “Our country is full… so turn around”, a sentiment the Washington Post likened to Nazi era propaganda. While any comparisons of current-day phenomena to the totality of evil during the Third Reich are dangerous (and in this case inappropriate in my view), the administration’s rhetoric continues to advance earlier divisive campaign language that called all migrants “rapists and murderers”.

That language is not only a striking departure from acceptable speech by previous US leaders, but also poses a much more insidious danger if it is left unchecked. Per Securitisation Theory: “If by means of an argument about the priority and urgency of an existential threat the securitising actor has managed to break free of procedures or rules he or she would otherwise be bound by, we are witnessing a case of securitisation.”

The floodgates of malice enacted by some groups and individuals in the United States and abroad because of this unchecked rhetoric have already borne out deadly consequences in recent domestic and international terrorism.

Indeed, with rhetoric going beyond accepted norms, it threatens to shift the view of migration as a normal part of human development to a threat against the security of all individuals.

Twenty years ago, scholar Jef Huysmans already warned that “the political process of connecting migration to criminal and terrorist abuses of the internal market does not take place in isolation. It is related to a wider politicisation in which immigrants and asylum-seekers are portrayed as a challenge to the protection of national identity and welfare provisions.”

In other words, the use of language untethered by traditional convention can quickly have dangerous implications.

Victimising the wrong group

In the United States, the messaging from our leadership has indeed turned very dark on migration. Under the Trump administration, refugee admissions have gone down 70%.

Between January 2017 and January 2018, 29,722 refugees were admitted to the United States; during the same time period only a year prior under the Obama administration 98,266 were admitted.

In 2018, the Trump administration issued executive orders halting refugee admissions and announced a limit of 45,000, the lowest yearly limit instituted under the procedures set by the Refugee Act of 1980.

These actions are predicated on fear of refugees, which is further driven by the administration’s weaponisation of language and the malice it has inspired.

According to FactCheck.org of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, while the United States has taken in more than three million refugees since 1975, few of them have attempted terrorist attacks on US soil and not a single refugee was involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

Yet the Trump administration has tried to link migrants directly to 9/11 and the current administration maintains that they pose an imminent danger to the well-being of the general public.

A divided public

The US public has clear-cut and sharply partisan views of the current debate around immigration policy.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center public perceptions study, those who view migration as a burden on US society make up 34% of the population, versus 50% who see it as a strength.

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, a large majority (74%) favours granting permanent legal status to immigrants brought to the United States without documentation when they were children and 60% oppose a border wall.

Twice as many Republican and Republican-leaning independents (63%) as Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters (30%) consider refugees to be a major threat to the country. Seventy percent of Republicans feel that refugees represent a major threat, while 19% of Democrats feel this way.

Yet among the same groups polled, other international threats rank higher: 79% of US citizens called ISIS a major threat, 71% said the same about cyberattacks from other countries and 64% called North Korea’s nuclear programme a major threat.

There is also a noticeable age gap in fears of refugees: 58% of US citizens 50 years and older view refugees from Iraq and Syria as a major threat, while only 34% of those aged 35 to 49 and just 31% younger than 35 hold this view.

In many European countries such as France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, where right-wing parties have entered the political process over the past decade, the ratios of support and opposition to migration are nearly identical to those of the United States; Hungary and Greece are outliers with anti-immigrant sentiment hovering in the mid 70% range.

What is disturbing in the present US context, which still has the largest number of immigrants in the world, is that narratives that once painted certain populations, such as migrants and refugees, as victims of a humanitarian crisis, are now being shifted by current leadership to seeing them as a threat to national security and the safety of citizens.

As Securitisation Theory warns us, the migrant and refugee issue is being misused for political advantage by politicians who have loud microphones and unfiltered angst. With the current administration in the United States as a bellwether, much of the global discussion around migrants and refugees does not suggest a mood favouring integration.

Historical record indicates that over time when skill gaps narrow and newcomers are integrated and are able to fully contribute to their host economy, migration is seen as a net economic gain.

Yet the current administration has crafted arguments to ban citizens from certain countries or religious groups, disseminated assumptions about immigrants’ criminality and staked out domestic positions that champion and vilify migration in an increasingly polarised country.

Securitisation angst and HE access

Research has shown that when refugees acquire new educational opportunities, despite extraordinary odds, they often prove to be resilient and ambitious learners.

Unlike study-abroad students who engage in mobility to broaden their horizons and become more informed citizens (‘mobility for enlightenment’), migrants generally move to other countries to increase their economic and social opportunities (‘mobility for opportunity’), while refugees leave their countries out of fear of persecution to simply escape, which we must see as nothing less than ‘mobility for survival’.

Integrating refugees and at-risk migrants is a complex undertaking that requires sustained dedication over many years from receiving institutions. Only 23% of refugee children manage to enter secondary education versus the global average of 84% of children of non-refugee background.

In higher education, these numbers are much worse; only 1% of refugees find their way into universities or equivalent educational institutions compared with the global average of 36% of non-refugees.

With more than half of the world’s displaced population under the age of 18, their needs will impact not only education systems at primary and secondary levels, but also in the tertiary sector, vocational and career training and lifelong learning.

For refugee students and scholars, the hurdles of accessing and succeeding in education at any level are vast. These hurdles include working through psychological traumas, completing credential evaluations, often learning a new language, affording tuition, learning how to navigate new academic landscapes and graduating to secure employment.

These barriers impact refugee students who may also be unaccustomed to the educational system in a new country of residence.

Their struggles must become important considerations for educators who work with this population.

In the United States, a robust conversation is not taking place about the challenges of integrating refugees and migrants into higher education. However, the challenges that other countries, such as Germany and Canada, are productively addressing are problems with which educators in the United States also need to grapple.

As the number of new international student enrolments fall in the US – for example, in the 2017-18 academic year they fell by as much as 6.6% – international educators need to work to integrate the many talented refugees and migrants of university age already in the United States and hungry for tertiary education.

US international educators serve as positive role models for the entire academy by being at the forefront of diversifying the higher education system, embracing refugees and migrants and helping to integrate them into student bodies.

The central role of higher education

Securitisation Theory helps explain why the mood toward refugees and at-risk migrants, at a time when their global numbers are increasing, is leading to a political backlash in some countries and political parties.

According to the OECD: “Fostering a cohesive society also depends on the capacity to integrate immigrants and ensure that they develop the skills needed to contribute to the labour market and their communities.”

More than ever, participation in higher education is a key to ensuring this development. The UNHCR tertiary education report advocates that: “Higher education plays a central role in protecting young refugees. It helps to nurture future generations of highly educated individuals who are not only able to work in the public and private sector, but who also engage in their communities to make a difference.”

The Institute of International Education’s 2016 report, Supporting Displaced and Refugee Students in Higher Education: Principles and best practices, speaks to the community of educators even more directly: “As international educators, we know that displaced and refugee students bring with them a host of experiences that demonstrate human resilience, while adding to campus diversity in substantial and meaningful ways.”

The ‘securitising moves’ by the Trump administration are leading migrants to be seen as an out group that poses a clear and present danger. Rather than learning from what other countries such as Germany have done positively in response to their migration challenges, those around the US president are twisting the truth.

Most egregiously, Lara Trump, the daughter-in-law of the president, admonished German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing refugees into the country in 2015. She characterised Merkel’s actions as “the downfall of Germany – one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany”.

While that is not only an unconscionably ignorant statement on many levels, given Germany’s pained 20th century history, those unfiltered statements inevitably have ramifications that may badly damage public support for migration.

Left uncorrected, these uninformed misperceptions of their threat can quickly metastasise into public hysteria. When securitising moves to defend against a fabricated emergency built on a manufactured threat become accepted policy, we enter very dangerous territory.

If the actions by some states and educational institutions that seek to offer sanctuary to at-risk groups are twisted from a humanitarian gesture to one that abets and collude with terrorists, public sympathies can quickly erode.

If that happens and the majority who still feel positively disposed toward refugees falter, society will be doing a disservice, not only to the country and the migrants and refugees who have historically helped it become better, but to humanity itself.

Dr Bernhard Streitwieser is assistant professor of international education at George Washington University in the United States and UNESCO co-chair in international education for development. His research focuses on higher education, with a comparative regional concentration on Germany and the United States, where he studies access and integration of underrepresented students with an emphasis on refugees; the internationalisation of higher education and global competition; and student exchange and study abroad.

This essay, published in NAFSA’s report, International Education in a Time of Global Disruption, available free to non-members here, is an expansion of his earlier article, “Why Migrants and Refugees Have a Place in International Education”, published in the March 2019 special NAFSA Senior Fellows issue of Trends & Insights. As such, some passages have been reproduced from the original essay and are elaborated on for this discussion. The original article argued that if international educators are to be truly responsive to the current global humanitarian crisis, they must also be prepared to act with a humanitarian motivation, and provided examples of university responses.

Source: Securitisation and the challenge for higher education

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