Physical Security: Borders, Movement and the Fear of Migrants

Migration is a physical process that is used by the government to evoke physical fears of insecurity. A decade into the Hostile Environment, Brian Dikoff argues that the physical reality for many migrants in the UK is being inside but excluded, needed but not wanted, a convenient threat.

When we think about the word or the concept of “security” we often think about the idea of physical security and boundaries: police officers, military power and high walls which keep the enemies and intruders away. Evidently, the concept of physical security is important. If COVID has shown us anything it is how easy it can be to take for granted the physical security that we enjoy: the simple ability to walk down the streets safely, to meet our friends and family and to not have to be in any state of alert. 

Migration as a physical act

However, the way we conceive security physically, I believe, is part of the reasons why it’s so difficult to come to terms with the reality of migration, and why it’s so easy for the government to implement an incredibly vicious set of policies for almost a decade, blatantly named the “hostile environment policies”, without really suffering any political backlash.

Migration is an inherently physical process; it’s the movement of an individual from one space to another, which often crosses boundaries that have been set up to keep us physically secure. Show a picture of a malnourished African child or a scared Afghan family scrambling to escape their country, and probably no one would disagree that they deserve help.  However, opinions start to diverge when the way to help them is to allow them to encroach into our physical space: into our country, our neighbourhoods, or even our homes. Suddenly they become a threat to our own security.

It is therefore almost unsurprising that so much of the government’s immigration policies seek, in reality, to artificially re-establish these physical boundaries that have been breached in order to provide a false sense of security for those on ‘our’ side of the border.

Enforcement of internal borders

When Theresa May proudly and formally introduced the hostile environment policy in 2012 she talked about the need to fix a “decade of uncontrolled, mass immigration” by implementing measures to make the UK more “discerning when it comes to stopping the wrong people coming here and even more welcoming to the people we do want to come here”. Yet, a decade of hostile environment legislation and policies under the same government seem to have led us nowhere in achieving this goal. Last year, as she introduced her proposal for new asylum legislation, Priti Patel once again spoke about how the “system is becoming overwhelmed” due to “persistent failure to enforce our immigration laws”.

The problem is not enforcement. The UK is currently the only country in Western Europe which still implements indefinite detention for migrants and asylum seekers. Talk to any of the thousands of the victims of the Windrush Scandal and it is obvious that the government does not shy away from enforcing immigration laws.

The problem is that, despite all the rhetoric, immigration laws and policies are not actually aimed at reducing numbers. If asylum seekers are truly the bane of our society as government rhetoric often implies, then the answer is simple: leave the Refugee Convention. Nevertheless, this notion never even enters the public discourse. No matter how much Priti Patel spews false facts about the hordes of individuals cheating and frustrating the asylum system, she has never proposed that we leave the Refuge Convention.

I believe the reason for this is that migrants and asylum seekers provide the government with an easy means to provide a false sense of security. They are often automatically seen as a threat by the mere fact that they enter our physical boundaries and, as such, what the government does, more than anything, is to reinforce these boundaries.

One of the main distinguishing characteristics of the hostile environment policy is the way it turns citizens into border guards. Hospitals, GP surgeries, local authorities, schools, colleges, DVLA, landlords, employers, and even MPs are all forced to check individuals’ immigration status, and to physically turn away migrants and asylum seekers. Even though they are here, they are nowhere to be seen.

The physical reality of internal borders

Recently I started working with a new member, Ola, who has been in the UK for 23 years and has no status. Under the immigration rules, someone like Ola would be able to make an application for leave to remain on the basis of her private life here in the UK, having lived in the country for more than two decades.

However, trying to find the evidence that she has lived here for 20 years is really difficult. She is not registered with a GP surgery because she was turned away a number of times in the past. She is also not allowed to rent or open a bank account and so she doesn’t have a national insurance number or any official documents from utilities companies or the bank. She is not allowed to work nor is she able to go to college as she doesn’t have the funds for that. Fortunately, Ola is a resourceful and active woman who has had a lot of community support from her church and she also spent a lot of time volunteering at different charities. But, from the point of view of the government, she barely exists. 

Sadly, Ola’s case is not unique: migrants and asylum seekers are systematically othered, removed and isolated from public life. They might be in the country, but at least they are not in our offices, surgeries, schools, and other immediate physical spaces – and in this way, the ‘threat’ is mitigated.

Scapegoating migrants and refugees

The irony, of course, is that there never was any threat to begin with. It is interesting to note how much the public attention was grabbed by Priti Patel and the Daily Mail’s claims regarding the surge of asylum seekers crossing the channel. This despite the fact that the government’s chaotic handling of COVID actually remains a very real, ongoing and significant threat to the safety and lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Yet the additional few hundred asylum seekers in the country somehow made people feel less safe and secure, and being seen to address this ‘threat’ helped the government to portray itself as alert and authoritative.

The British probably know best when it comes to the importance of protecting a society’s physical spaces and boundaries. After all, they simply have to look back at the countless atrocities they committed (and arguably still commit) when they intruded, breached, colonised, looted and destroyed other territories. Perhaps that is why the idea of others migrating and moving into their own physical spaces could engender such instantaneous feelings of anxiety, fear and insecurity.

Yet in an increasingly globalised world, migration is simply a fact of life that we will all have to come to terms with, no matter how uncomfortable for some. Two years since Brexit, the country is already experiencing a labour supply shortage due to lack of migrants. In order for us to come to terms with migration, perhaps it’s time for us to reanalyse and reimagine the way we conceive the idea of security and what – and who – it is that actually threatens it.  


Brian Dikoff is the Legal Organiser at Migrants Organise, a charity based in London. He is a welfare adviser and OISC level 3 immigration adviser. He coordinates a strategic project looking into the issue of mental health and mental capacity in the immigration system called the Migrants Mental Capacity Advocacy (MMCA) project and has recently started a podcast series called Losing Myself: Mental Health in a Hostile Environment.


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: Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, via Flickr. The situation on the Polish-Belarussian border, 11 November 2021 as Polish police and troops block hundreds of mostly Iraqi migrants from entering the EU.

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