If security is such a broad concept, why does security policy so often seek to exclude the most vulnerable from protection? Leonie Mills-Woanya looks at the UK’s approach to international development, border control and policing and finds it consciously polarising and exclusive, not so much from a lack of resources as a lack of political will.

Security is a multi-faceted concept that is difficult to define precisely because it covers so many elements. Paradoxically, despite this conceptual breadth, security can also be characterised as quite exclusionary in certain aspects. There has been a push to make it inclusive, both theoretically by widening the perspectives considered and practically by including various actors outside of the ‘traditional’ sphere of ‘hard’ national security.

Specifically, in theoretical approaches, there has been a push to diversify the epistemological basis of security: how we understand it, and who that ‘we’ is. This has led to calls to decolonise security, as there is an acknowledgement that for too long security has been defined by those in the Global North from a heteronormative patriarchal perspective.

In practical application, there are also increasing efforts to expand what is considered security, with a broader range of issues such as the climate, housing, education, food and generally a better quality of life.

While the striving for greater inclusivity is necessary as security affects everyone globally, is security inherently an exclusive concept? It depends on whose security is being prioritised and what the threat is considered to be. Security can be seen as finite, or a ‘zero-sum game’, as resources, including money, manpower and technology, must be allocated to building or upholding it. There may also be trade-offs between different aspects of security, such as border security (which emphasises the rights of an established, contained community) and human security (which tends to emphasise the common rights of humanity). In this framing, security can be seen as limited by the availability of resources and the need to prioritise certain goals over others.

UK Aid or Britain First?

In a globalised context, security is interdependent as some countries require greater assistance to fulfil their security needs. The UK has been considered one of the biggest spenders in foreign aid but in November 2020 the government announced a reduction in its spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI), justifying this via the impact on the economy of the global pandemic.

The National Audit Office (NAO) found in 2022 that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) had reduced the budget in 35 of its 44 country and regional offices and 15 countries saw reductions of more than 50%. The decision to reduce the aid budget shows how narratives around security can be shaped around political trade-offs. For the UK to maintain its own economic security it cuts foreign aid, which had been intended to reduce the potential for further insecurity abroad. Fewer resources to ensure basic needs puts more lives at stake. And while the 2021 Integrated Review states that the government wants to pursue an increase in diplomacy, a reduction in aid can weaken these relationships, making it harder to cooperate on security issues and other matters of mutual interest.

Borders and the demonisation of outsiders

Security presents itself as exclusive if there is a defined inside and outside group. This exclusivity has become abundantly clear when it comes to issues of borders. Borders are seen as a way to maintain territorial sovereignty in the interests of those who are considered insiders, whereas those seeking safety can be deemed as outsiders and therefore threats, making the border a source of security contestation rather than protection.

Since the initiation of the hostile environment by Theresa May in 2012, there has been a devastating impact on refugees and asylum seekers who are asserting their human rights under the Refugee Convention to seek safety. Between 2014 and 2020, over 20,300 migrants went missing, presumed dead, while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to the EU (then including the UK), which bore responsibility through the reinforcing of its border security at the expense of asylum seekers’ lives. Tens of thousands more remain stuck in limbo, or even slavery, in camps in Libya and the Sahara. Refugees and asylum seekers are extremely vulnerable and yet are positioned as threats before they have reached the UK border.

Since they are considered outsiders and a threat, asylum seekers have been confronted with cruel and inaccessible systems once they reach the UK. This has been codified into law through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which has been described as one of the most draconian pieces of legislation. There have been numerous instances of violations of human rights and international law, including inhuman living conditions, obstructive bureaucracy and attempts at deportation to Rwanda. The government continuously cites that the security of the nation supersedes the security of certain individuals. Yet these marginalised groups do not inherently pose such threats and in fact, require extra care to ensure their security needs are met.

Policing and institutional discrimination

There are also many instances where security becomes limited to particular groups due to institutionalised discrimination. For example, the Metropolitan Police Force is an institution that is supposed to ensure public safety and to do so fairly and equitably. Regardless, it has been shown to perpetuate insecurity, being deemed institutionally racist, sexist, and homophobic. Greater attention is being paid to the violent acts and crimes committed by police officers and it now appears to be a systemic failing rather than occasional incidents. This has led to an increase in mistrust of this institution, particularly from the Black community and women.

Police officers serve as practical enforcers of security yet some display racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. views, thus causing further marginalisation and exclusion instead of providing safety. This highlights the cognitive dissonance between conception and implementation. When those in powerful positions commit to discrimination, they exert unnecessary force to maintain the status quo. This level of mistrust can lead to an increase in violence and can threaten the collective security as divisions widen.

Security and justice for all? 

Can security policy be designed to be inclusive and serve the needs and interests of all stakeholders? Is it possible to implement measures that are fair and just for all? 

Security can be seen as an expanding and dynamic resource due to continuous changes in political agendas on issues such as sustainability, development and social welfare. Investments in areas such as education, public health, and infrastructure can contribute to overall security by preventing further marginalisation and empowering communities. However, this heavily relies on there being the political will to expand and enforce more inclusive practices. Because, ultimately, who is included in security strategies is a political choice. And more often than not, excluding people from security provisions is due to a lack of political will, rather than any financial or other resources.

Thirteen years, five prime ministers and as many national security strategies on, it is right to question this government’s commitment to fairness, justice and inclusion and to recognising and tackling discrimination against minority groups. Policies that should centre the most vulnerable groups such as refugees and minorities are continuously disregarded for policies that position them as the threat. Security is not an inherently exclusive concept and policies can be designed to be far more inclusive. However, the existing approach has been polarising and exclusive, presenting a dichotomy of the protected and the threatening, leaving many groups unfairly targeted and excluded from its benefits.


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: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images, taken on the southeast coast of England on June 15, 2022.