Applying the theoretical framework provided by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies, this article is critically discussing the extent to which the transformation of Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone as a result of a series of securitisation policies adopted at the European level.
It is undeniable that since 2015, the EU has witnessed one of the largest influx of refugees and migrants in its territory (Stivas, 2019). The conflict in Syria, which had entered its 4th year by the time of this crisis, drove the majority of the influx. In response to these mass movements, the EU adopted a series of restrictive policies to deter people from crossing its borders illegally, such as the closure of the Balkan route, the deployment of NATO and FRONTEX operations in the Aegean Sea, and the conclusion of the EU-Turkey deal. These measures had as a direct result that asylum-seekers would remain stranded in Greece, as there was not any legal route to continue to central Europe. On the one hand, the Balkan route was closed and on the other hand, due to the EU-Turkey statement, the asylum-seekers were stranded in the Greek islands, without the ability to even move to the mainland.
To establish whether these policies were results of a broader securitisation policy, one needs first to understand the securitisation theory. Thus, in the next chapter, a theoretical analysis of securitisation will be given, in accordance with the Copenhagen School of security studies. Moreover, in the same chapter, the nexus between the securitisation theory and migration will be analysed. The findings will be based on literature reviews, especially on the articles of Huysmans (2000), and Buzan et al., (1998). In the second chapter, a special focus will be given to the EU and the way it responded to the influx of refugees, with a special focus on the way the EU policies transformed Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone. The analysis will start from the moments of summer 2015 to the closure of the Balkan route and the NATO’s mission in the Aegean, and then to the conclusion of the EU-Turkey Statement in March 2016.
To assess whether the transformation of Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone was the result of the EU securitised policies, the theoretical framework provided by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies seems to be the most relevant, and this will be critically elaborated during the essay. Therefore, emphasis will be given on the securitising actors which in our case is the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament, and the Heads of the EU states and governments. Official documents will be presented and the language that is used will be highlighted. In the second stage, policy analysis will follow to examine if the adopted policy is perceived as an ‘emergency act’ to respond to a ‘crisis’. Finally, reference will be given to the audience acceptance that means the way the EU citizens reacted to these developments.
For more than a year, I found myself in reception centers both in the mainland (Idomeni) and in the islands (Lesvos – Moria Camp) as a member of the International Organisation for Migration. The experience in the field necessarily affects you. Thus, in this paper, personal reflections will be present, especially with regards to the consequences of the European policies on refugees and immigrants that remained stranded in Greece after the adoption of a series of restrictive measures at the European level. Working in the field, in a period of continuous securitisation of borders, gives you a great insight into the issues of migration, border management, and first and foremost, human security.
2. Migration and Security
This chapter will refer to the theoretical framework of securitisation, trying to underline its relationship with migration. According to Stone (2009), the securitisation theory, as developed by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies, broadens the notion of security threat, indicating that this does not include only political and military problems, but also other issues that can be perceived as public security threats. The nexus between security and migration is focusing on the social construction of threats, indicating that migration can be seen as a security threat that requires the states to act against it.
2.1. The Copenhagen School of Security Studies
The Copenhagen School of security studies developed the notion of securitisation arguing that ‘security’ has a different meaning than the traditional one that was developed before the Second World War. Specifically, before WWII, security was linked to military threats and state sovereignty. According to Waever (2011), ‘security is, in historical terms, the field where states threaten each other, challenge each other’s sovereignty, try to impose their will on each other, defend their independence…’. Barry Buzan, Jaap de Wilde, and Ole Waever (1998), the representatives of the Copenhagen school, went beyond this definition and recognised the notion of security in its broad sense. They refer to other factors that can be considered as security challenges, such as economic, societal, food, and even environmental threats. Securitisation occurs when a securitising actor claims that a particular referent object is existentially threatened by some of these factors (Buzan et al., 1998).
The securitisation theory follows three steps: 1) the identification of existential threats, 2) the emergency action that needs to be taken to prevent and face the threat and 3) the consent of the audience (Buzan et al., 1998). Security is thus constructed as an existential threat that means ‘if we do not tackle this problem, everything else will be irrelevant – because we will not be here or will not be free to deal with it in our way’ (Buzan et al., 1998: 24).
Waever (1995) refers to the fact that one can regard the concept of ‘security’ as a speech act. Language matters according to the securitisation theory. Thus, even the use of a word can be considered an act. This means, that by saying that something is a threat to security, the state representatives can claim a special right to use whatever means necessary to disrupt it (1995). Therefore, speech acts can be said to be the ‘securitising moves’ that turn into a threat because also the public consents to it (Buzan et al., 1998). Specific examples will be given in the following sub-chapter to indicate how the use of some words can justify emergency actions in accordance with the securitisation theory.
The securitisation theory, as developed by the Copenhagen School, has been nowadays an integral part of international relations and security studies, and there is no doubt about this. Moreover, it is not necessarily a negative theory as it can broaden the notion of ‘security’ and it is more related to contemporary world issues. However, ‘securitization is most of the time seen as a top-down process, wherein elites present an issue as an existential threat, dramatizing the need to act urgently and by any means’ (Karyotis, 2012). Indeed, the securitisation actors are usually politicians or people in power that can adopt extraordinary measures (Stivas, 2019). Moreover, as Mc Donald (2008) indicates, what seems to be problematic with this theory, is that ‘securitisation’ is often captured as a general situation, without looking at the particular context or framework that it is being applied. This means that in practice, the concept of ‘security’ is used to address political issues, such as migration, disregarding however other notions that are connected to this phenomenon, such as human security, human rights, and refugee law.
2.2. The Securitisation of Migration
The applicability of the securitisation theory is more apparent than ever in the way the liberal democratic states are addressing migration, and especially irregular migration. It can be generally noticed, that in the post-Cold War period, the states were facing the mass influx of refugees and migrants as a threat to the nation and cultural identity. After the events of 9/11, a general perception was created that there is the need for the states to limit the entry of asylum seekers and immigrants – especially Muslims – to their territory to be protected from terrorism.
Huysmans (2000) is referring particularly to the EU policies on migration, indicating that immigrants and asylum-seekers are portrayed as a threat to the welfare provisions, the good life in western societies, and the European integrity. He continues by explaining that the nexus between securitisation and migration has been developed based on three different issues. First, migration is a threat to the state’s internal security. It is extremely difficult for the states to accept high numbers of migrants as this can destabilise the state and undermine its position in the international arena (2000). Moreover, migration is a matter of internal security as it can increase the unemployment rates and create economic problems for the state. Secondly, migration can be seen as a cultural threat (Huysmans, 2000). It can undermine cultural homogeneity, customs, traditions, and the state’s values. Also, multiculturalism can cause a threat to the social cohesion of the state. Finally, according to Huysmans (2000) migration can be connected with terrorist attacks and criminal issues. Specifically, illegal migration is often connected to terrorism, trafficking, smuggling, and other organised criminal activities and networks.
As it was mentioned above, according to the securitisation theory, language matters, and has an important role to play. Thus, immigrants or asylum-seekers are often referred to by the European politicians as ‘illegal’, ‘irregular’, ‘and foreigners ‘, or’sans-papier’. Bauder (2013) demonstrates that the use for example of the word ‘illegal’ implies that the person ‘has committed a crime, or that he does not belong to this territory and should be removed from it’. The same is being analysed by Nyers (2010): ‘The term illegal implies a breaking of the legal order, a violation of rule-following norms of behaviors, and an intention to commit a wrong’. In the European context, the European Council Conclusions of 2016 are a good example of the importance of language in the securitisation theory. In these conclusions, the term ‘refugees’ was replaced by the term ‘migrants who cross the borders illegally’ (European Council, 2016). In the same way, other European documents referred to the migration influx in Europe as a ‘crisis’ that Europe needs to deal with.
The securitisation theory prioritises migration as a ‘problem’ and a ‘security threat’. This is not without implications. On the contrary, other priorities, such as human security, protection, and human rights have been sacrificed in the name of security. Deprivation of liberty, deportations, closure of the borders, FRONTEX operations, are considered to be emergency acts that need to be taken to protect the European borders from the immigration threat. All these policies disregard human values, the right of people to seek asylum, the right to life, and the freedom of movement. The term ‘illegal’ immigrant does not exist in international law, but it is constantly used to legitimize any deterrence policies adopted by the states.
To better understand the securitisation theory provided by the Copenhagen School of Security studies, and its nexus with migration, this articles will critically discuss the way the EU responded to the mass influx of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from the striking moments of summer 2015 since the conclusion of the EU-Turkey deal, with special attention to Greece. Specifically, the ‘emergency act’ of turning Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone will be analysed, as this provides a fitting example to better explore the theory, motives, and implications of securitizing migration.
3. Greece: From a Transit Country to a Buffer Zone
Since 2015, Europe has been the end destination of one of the biggest population movements that the world has seen after the Second World War. This development is still ongoing because and due to increase because of war, general violence, mistreatment, and mass killings that are occurring outside Europe. The EU found it difficult to deal with the large influx of migrants and asylum-seekers and adopted restrictive policies to secure its borders from the alleged threat. Greece is the EU country that carries the main burden of the EU refugee ‘crisis’. The EU-Turkey deal, the official closure of the Balkan route, and the NATO operations in the Aegean sea have succeeded in their aim to end the movement of extraordinarily high numbers of asylum-seekers on their way to the EU, transforming Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone (Weber, 2017). In this chapter, the analysis of the European Union and EU member states’ policies will take place in accordance with the Securitisation theory, as developed by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies. Thus the analysis of the policies that transformed Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone will be given, referring to 1) the securitisation actors and the language they used to present that there is an existential threat, 2) the emergency policy and practice that was adopted to respond to this threat and 3) the audience acceptance.
3.1. The Closure of the Balkan Route
According to Frontex, one of the main routes that drive migratory flows in Europe, is this of the Western Balkans, with final entry into Hungary or Croatia via North Macedonia and Serbia, and then to central Europe (Frontex, 2017). From September 2015 until the ‘closure’ of the Balkan route in March 2016, it is reported that more than 700,000 people crossed the Balkans to north-central Europe (Šabić & Borić, 2016).
First, it has to be noticed that this period of ‘open borders’ was a period of exception for the security policies that in general characterize the immigration and asylum policies in the European continent. Secondly, and an even more important element that determined the practices of the states in South-eastern Europe, was the fear that asylum-seekers would have no other choice than to remain on their territory. Therefore it can be said that the coordination of the states with what regards the Balkan route as a result of fear, as the high numbers of refugees and migrants that arrived in the summer of 2015 were perceived as a ‘security issue’ that needs to be addressed (Despot, 2016).
The European Union was witnessing the phenomenon of ‘open borders’ in the beginning, without condemning it and rather it put pressure on the states – especially the transit states, to improve their hosting capacities. Therefore, the European Council discussed in early 2015, during a high-level dialogue for the issue of Western Balkans and gave the following directions to the transit countries: priority should be given to direct humanitarian aid to the people in need (food, accommodation, legal aid, increase protection capacities, psychosocial support) and the fast process of the asylum claims, concerning the principle of non-refoulement (European Commission Report: Western Balkans Route, 2015). In the European Council meeting in the summer of 2015, the direction changed, and it was mentioned that from now on, priority should be given to the cooperation with third-countries to ‘stem the flows’ and the need to ‘secure the EU’s external borders and ensure ‘returns’ (European Council meeting, 2015). The title of the document, in particular, was the ‘response to the influx of refugees in Europe’. On the 25th of February 2016, Commissioner Avramopoulos following the Justice and Home Affairs Council referred to two priorities that need to be addressed, and both concerned the European borders. First, ‘‘we need to ensure their ‘better management’ and secondly their ‘security’(EC speech Avramopoulos, 2016). On the 1st of March 2016, Donald Tusk in Vienna announced that all the states should respect the ‘Schengen Borders Code’ (European Council, 2016). On the 7th of March, the EU heads of states announced that the ‘Balkan route is now closed’(European Council, 2016).
At the EU States level, at the beginning of 2016, there was also a shift towards more repressive approaches to migration, especially by the EU member states at the northern ends of the Balkan route (Weber, 2017). In January 2016, Austria announced that it will henceforth only allow entry to people who aim to seek asylum in either Austria or Germany, and the same measure was adopted first by Slovenia and then, by Croatia. On 18 February 2016, Austria decided to impose a maximum limit on the number of refugees it would allow daily. Slovenia, Croatia, and the United Kingdom followed by adopting the same measures. A week later Serbia imposed also restrictions on the freedom of movement through its territory. North Macedonia built a fence in Idomeni to limit the movement through safe channels (Tsitselikis, 2018).
At the national level, it is true that the opening of the Western Balkan route in early 2015 relieved some of the tensions on the Greek islands and brought the government some time to complete its policy shift (Skleparis, 2017). However, this shift was interrupted by the restrictive policies that the EU states were adopting, especially the Balkan and central-European states, as mentioned above. At the beginning of 2016, the Greek government adopted a series of restrictive measures, mainly based on nationality. For example, on the 9th of January, Greece evacuated Idomeni, allowing only Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans to stay. From 19 of February onwards, the passage of Afghans was also forbidden and many were detained. The 8th of March was the date that the Balkan routes closed definitively and for everyone (Appave, 2016).
Even the analysis of the language and the policy with what regards the Balkan route does not demonstrate that the refugees are perceived as a threat, it is apparent that while in the beginning both the EU and the states were reluctant to accept refugees and provide humanitarian assistance when the numbers increased, they named this ‘crisis’ and a matter of ‘security’, and priority was given to ‘border management and control’. The EU securitisation actors such as the European Commission and the European Council, but also the Heads of the states or governments immediately adopted measures to protect the Schengen area. The emergency act against this existential threat – according to the Copenhagen School’s securitisation theory, was the closure of the Balkan route and other extraordinary measures that aimed at the better management of the borders i.e cooperation with third countries, the building of fences in Idomeni and Evros.
Although the majority of the member states accepted this development, many were also critical about it. These developments raised a series of issues on human security since being stranded in Greece entails prolonged insecurity for the refugees and migrants (Sorensen et al., 2017: 3). We will not contest that the Balkan corridor contained very serious risks for the asylum-seekers as well: human traffickers and smugglers, the violent police practice at the borders, and the arbitrary detention were not rare phenomenons linked to the states’ securitisation policies. However, whoever was present in Idomeni before the ‘semi-legalization’ of the corridor, at its duration, and after its closure, knows that the worst threat to human security has been the closure of these channels, and the adoption of restrictive policies that impact the ability of the people to move. The Balkan route was, and will still be a passage for asylum-seekers, even now that it is considered to be closed. It will just be more dangerous.
3.2. NATO’s Operation in the Aegean Sea
Along with the closure of the Balkan corridor, securitization of the borders took place in the form of a NATO intervention in the Aegean Sea. On the 11th of February 2016, in response to a joint request from Greece, Turkey, and Germany, the NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 was deployed in the Aegean Sea to strengthen Greece, Turkey, and Frontex in their efforts to deal with ‘the refugee and migration crisis’(Garelli & Tazzioli, 2016). Since the presence of NATO in the Aegean Sea, the number of illegal crossings has been reduced (Dibenedetto, 2016). However, despite NATO’s operations, the number of deaths at the sea is still high. For instance, 2408 people died in the Mediterranean Sea from January until August 2017, while in the same period of 2016 the total number was 3203 (IOM, 2017).
This NATO operation was first presented in the media as a ‘humanitarian intervention to fight migrant traffickers and smugglers’ (Garelli & Tazzioli, 2016). The Nato operation in the Aegean is not the only indicator of the general tendency to militarize policies to secure Europe’s borders. Sophia, an EU Naval Operation launched by Frontex in the Central Mediterranean was deployed in 2015 for the same goal ‘to fight the smuggling and trafficking of migrants’. These naval operations were also named ‘rescue operations’. NATO’s mission was not to return asylum-seekers in Turkey, but its role was to identify people in danger at sea and inform the Greek authorities about their location so that a rescue operation can be organised.
As Buonofino (2016) mentions, security issues may in language be framed as human rights issues and be justified in the need to protect the European values. NATO in its nature is a security agency that is implementing military operations and is usually deployed in armed conflicts, rather than humanitarian crises. The EU to justify the NATO operations at sea used human rights arguments such as the ‘fighting against migrant smuggling and human trafficking’. Of course, while the EU documents are highlighting these human rights concerns, there is also a clear reference to ‘strengthening and securing’ the borders. Thus, the EU’s choice to deploy NATO in the Aegean sea is the emergency act and can be considered as a securitisation act itself, although there is no reference to an existential threat – to the need to fight ‘smuggling and trafficking’ and thus, to protect human rights.
However, again the European citizens, and especially the Greek population, were critical about having NATO in their internal waters. Questions about its relation to human rights were issued. How can these operations truly disrupt illegal crossings when there are no legal means to cross the borders to seek asylum? When the resettlement programs can serve less than 1% of the population in need? According to Garelli and Taziolli (2016), the reality is that people have to cross the borders illegally to seek asylum and the mandate of military operations to ‘monitor the illegal crossings’ is in reality a mandate to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe.
Therefore, the aim of NATO’s mission in combination with the closure of the Balkan route, was the disruption of the eastern Mediterranean route and the reduction of the number of requests for international protection in Europe, as ‘illegal’ migration poses a threat to European security. The same purpose that the EU-Turkey Statement aimed to achieve as of March 2016.
3.3. The EU-Turkey Statement
The EU-Turkey Joint Statement was published as a joint agreement between the leaders of the EU states and their Turkish partner on the eighteenth of March 2016, after the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan. The EU-Turkey deal entails two kinds of obligations: First, the obligations that Turkey undertakes, and the rest reflects what the EU gives in exchange. The scheme that is described in the agreement is a 1:1 scheme under which for every Syrian being returned from the Greek islands to Turkey, one will be resettled from Turkey to Europe (Council of the European Union, 2016).
The main argument for the conclusion of the deal was to ‘fight irregular migration and decrease deaths at sea’ (Council of the European Union, 2016). The same document indicates that the EU-Turkey deal is a ‘temporary and extraordinary measure’ that needs to be adopted to decrease deaths at sea and restore the European borders. There is constant mention of ‘irregular migration’ and ‘illegal routes’ which is in line with the securitisation theory that perceives someone who is ‘irregular’ as a threat that justifies the ‘extraordinary measure’ of disrupting the movement of the persons who do not belong to the EU. Moreover, there is again a combination of securitising language with human rights norms (end human suffering – restore public order). Finally, the Commission report of 2017 presented the influx of refugees as a ‘challenge’ that we need to tackle together (European Commission Report, 2017).
The emergency action that was adopted was exactly this 1:1 scheme. This agreement is another example of the securitisation policies that the EU adopted to deter migrants and refugees to arrive in Europe. The logic behind this deal was that if asylum-seekers know that in case they will cross the borders illegally, they will be returned to Turkey, they will prefer to stay in Turkey so that they can be benefited from the resettlement scheme. This means that the asylum-seekers due to the fear of being ‘punished’ for crossing the borders, they will stay in Turkey to be ‘awarded’ for their good behaviour. These policies that perceive immigrants and asylum-seekers as objects of the migration policies, forget to look into the real motives of forced migration where the human agency has a central role, and people are perceived as active subjects.
This deal presents another trial of the EU to disrupt the irregular migration flows to Europe and protect its external borders (Ustubici, 2017). Upon issuance, serious human rights concerns were raised in the audience, especially with what regards the ‘safe-third-country’ concept that legitimised the returns of asylum-seekers from Greece to Turkey (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Thus, there is a controversy with what regards the ‘success’ of this agreement, and there is no wider audience acceptance. On the one hand, the EU institutions, and specifically the EU Commission report on the implementation of the EU-turkey deal measures policy success in terms of numbers and figures (EU Commission, 2018). Specifically, it considers the deal to be a success as the numbers of arrivals in the Greek islands dropped dramatically: out of 172.885 arrivals in 2016, only 20.638 were reported after the 20th of March. On the other hand, academics and civil society actors in Europe condemn this statement because of its implications in the human rights of migrants and refugees, the violation of refugee law, and the principle of non – refoulement.
It worths to mention also, that the returns from Greece to Turkey remained quite low due to obstacles in its implementation. Moreover, although the numbers of arrivals were quite low after the conclusion of the agreements, in early September 2017 the new arrivals in Greece exceeded 1000 people per week. These unstable figures indicate the uncertainty of the effectiveness of these kinds of agreements that aim in securing the borders and disregard human agency.
This article assessed the extent to which the transformation of Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone was a result of securitisation policies adopted by the EU and its member states. The approach of securitisation of migration, according to the Copenhagen school of security studies is based on the perspective that the security of western states is being threatened by an existential threat such as the migration and refugee flows. The securitisation process entails three steps. Thus this essay specifically studied 1) the existence of speech act in the policy documents of the securitisation actors to assess whether the influx of refugees was presented as an ‘existential threat’; 2) it further investigated the emergency action/policy that was adopted and 3) in the end it critically discussed the potential response of the target audience having in mind the implications of these policies in human security.
The transformation of Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone is a very good example of a possible securitisation. The views of the EU institutions, the heads of the states, but also the Greek government regarding the flows were based on the fact that there is a refugee and migration ‘crisis’. While at the beginning of 2015 the focus was on protecting people on the move and increasing the national reception and protection capacities of the transit states, after the summer of 2015 the direction changed, and priority was given to border management. It is true that in 2015 more than 300.000 people crossed from Turkey to Greece and then to central Europe. The EU perceived this as a danger. However, the EU was hesitating to present it as an existential threat in words. The practice though demonstrated that extraordinary measures needed to be adopted to disrupt these flows.
The measures that were adopted at the beginning of 2016 were the following: the closure of the Balkan route, the deployment of NATO operation in the Aegean Sea, and the conclusion of the EU-Turkey deal. The Eastern Mediterranean route has been the primary route for ‘illegal’ migration, especially from Turkey to Greece through the Aegean Sea. Thus, the EU aimed in reducing the flows crossing the borders through sea and land to Greece and then to central Europe. However, it completely disregarded the people’s agency and despite the restrictive measures that were adopted, thinking that the crisis is over is far from the truth. The only difference was that asylum-seekers would be unable after 2016 to move to central Europe and they would be forced to be trapped in Greece. Moreover, the smuggling networks were increased, as there was no legal channel to cross the borders.
These securitising measures transformed Greece from a transit country to a buffer zone, disregarding the freedom of movement, human security, and violating basic human rights as the protection and reception capacities of Greece were quite insufficient. For this reason, the securitisation theory can well be used to explain the EU and states’ policies to better manage their borders, but it disregards the importance of human security which is essential to realise that the human rights and the dignity of refugees and immigrants should be in the center of the EU agendas on migration.
Conflict of interest statement: None declared