What Does Security Mean for Refugees?

Refugees seek safety in the UK but what they understand by ‘security’ can be different to the understanding of those who have never had to flee. Alice Herve makes the case for putting refugees’ experience of security at the heart of reformed migration policy.

As someone who teaches English to refugees and asylum seekers, I am aware that the words and phrases used to describe what security represents in the context of their lives is very different to the common conventions of the term. What use is a lock on the door when the danger is more likely to come from bombs dropping through the ceiling? What comfort is it to know that the police and the military forces are well-manned and well-equipped when a knock on the door from an armed officer can strike terror into the heart of even the most upright citizen? What value the insurance policy when your home, your business, and your entire city is being destroyed?

Refugees seek safety. This is a truism. But in order to reach safety they may need to embark on the open sea in a leaky boat, or trek for days across deserts or through dangerous jungle. They may have to sleep rough, eat rotten food, drink noxious water and discard all notions of hygiene and healthy living. Not only will they do these things, they may also insist that their children do the same — for their security. Because to stay put when the flood waters are rising, or the bombs are dropping, is never an option, and the options once you set out on the refugee journey are few.

So called ‘friendly countries’ along the refugee route often harbour groups and individuals who are vocal and active in expressing their abhorrence of the ‘tide’ of humanity ‘washing up’ on their shores.  Hostile media often overemphasize the statistics of arriving migrants by referring to such ‘seas’, ‘floods’, or ‘waves’’ of refugees, as if the numbers threatened to swamp the standing population. Refugee camps that offer ‘security’ along the way can be dangerous places, especially for unaccompanied children or single women.

Hostile environments

The ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants in the UK was first tabled by Theresa May in 2012 when she was Home Secretary. The plan was simple, to make life so impossible for those who arrived in the country without the necessary documentation, that they would be forced to give up and leave. This strategy was written into government policy in the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016.

How do I broach the subject of security to an asylum seeker who has left a war-torn African country, survived the widespread risk of detention and torture in Libya, crossed the Mediterranean in a dinghy, walked across Europe, spent a year in what is left of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais and then rowed across the Channel, only to find he is not welcome and the law is about to do its best to send him back again? I use the pronoun ‘he’ advisedly since the great majority (87%, according to the UK Government’s controversial New Plan for Immigration) of those who survive such a perilous journey are male.

Security, once in the UK, will be a shared room in a run-down hotel, or barracks; and removal, often at night, from one unknown city to another. His/her pitiful allowance and constant boredom will be intensified by the fact that work is forbidden. Sometimes an English class can be the highlight of an asylum seeker’s week. It relieves the boredom and it has the illusion of preparing for a life in the UK that is far from guaranteed.

But it may be months, even years, before the asylum seeker discovers that what might have seemed a secure option is actually a locked door – and once on the wrong side of it, the hostile environment intensifies. Nevertheless, nearly all those refused asylum at initial decision go on to appeal. For as Dina Nayeri notes, the term ‘asylum seeker’ is entirely unsatisfactory: ‘We weren’t politely seeking, we were ravenous for it.’

Rebuilding a sense of security

But what of the refugees who are accepted – those who are welcomed into the UK under planned resettlement schemes such as the UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS) or the Community Sponsorship Scheme (CSS)? Bath Welcomes Refugees supports families who arrive through both these initiatives, as well as those who arrive by less official means. Our provision is not just in teaching English, but also in enabling and empowering in a multitude of ways. This includes building bridges that can span the gap between refugee concepts and our own in a way that is reassuring and mutually beneficial.

In terms of understandings of security, this may mean inviting police officers to give presentations and to talk about their functions; or to instigate discussions about the roles of the armed forces in humanitarian schemes such as flood alleviation, food distribution, and other relief efforts. But we must always also give space in these sessions for the contrasting narratives of refugee experiences to be expressed and acknowledged.

It is important that we are prepared to listen to how security and insecurity feature in refugees’ world views. This may be as simple as creating an awareness of sights and sounds that signal threat or engender fear. Being aware, for example, that balloons popping are the quickest way to ensure a children’s party ends in tears. Or recognising the fear in a woman’s voice when she describes how her headscarf was pulled off by a passing stranger.

It is not enough to assure refugees and other migrants that our forces are not corrupt, our laws justifiable (even when they do not appear to be) and our culture diverse and tolerant. For we know it will not always seem that way, or even be that way. We need to explore what security means to others and what assurances we can put in place to make it feel more like the sort of security they sought when they embarked on their refugee journey.  


Alice Herve is Language Support Coordinator for Bath Welcomes Refugees, a volunteer-run charity involved in all aspects of refugee support.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Carol Guzy via Flickr. A toddler is passed through border wire by a family fleeing Kosovo.

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