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Treating Refugees as a Threat to Security Is Counterproductive

Somalis in exile are often tainted by association with al-Shabaab – the very group from which they fled. Lucy Hovil of the International Refugee Rights Initiative explains research into securitized responses to refugees and the impact on Somalis in Kenya, Uganda and the U.S.

Written by Lucy Hovil Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Police officers in Nairobi’s Somali district of Eastleigh in 2014.TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past 25 years, drought, violence and human-rights abuses have pushed millions of Somalis from their homes; the population of the Somali diaspora has roughly doubled in that time.

Many Somalis are fleeing from the violence associated with the militant group, al-Shabaab. Yet they have often been tainted by association with that same organization. Their plight echoes a global tendency to label those who have fled “violent extremism” as extremists themselves, and therefore as an implicit danger.

The International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) interviewed 80 Somali refugees living in Kenya, Uganda and the United States for our new report: “Protection for refugees not from refugees: Somalis in exile and the securitisation of refugee policy,” with funding from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Our findings show some of the day-to-day realities that emerge when governments fashion a fundamentally flawed correlation between forced migration and insecurity. Whether rhetorical or expressed directly through policies, this correlation has serious implications for people’s lives.

The report suggests that existing security strategies targeting refugees – for instance, the discriminatory use of policing – are not only ineffective but, in some cases, act as a smokescreen for criminal activity. They neither provide security for the country nor protect refugees. Indeed, they possibly do the opposite: they are policies that foster fear and feelings of exclusion, rather than generating security.

The securitization of refugee policy was particularly evident in Kenya – the destination for the largest number of Somali refugees. The Kenyan government has increasingly viewed Somalis, in both cities and camps, through a security lens and acted accordingly. Securitized narratives have led to an over-emphasis on the use of threats and visible displays of force by authorities over other approaches.

In practice, this means that Somalis often have to pay bribes and/or hand money to smugglers to cross the border from Somalia. They are regularly stopped by the police as they go about their daily lives. Negative political rhetoric, and its policy consequences, has also left these refugees feeling marginalized and discriminated against.

There is a marked difference in neighboring Uganda, which has a much smaller Somali population. Somalis here, while coping with the same challenges that all refugees in the country face, spoke more positively about their welcome. Although a few raised concerns about police surveillance and public attitudes, Somali refugees for the most part did not feel singled-out on security grounds. Many talked about the challenges of integration, especially language difficulties, but there was less evidence of a securitized approach influencing their day-to-day lives in exile.

In the United States, many Somalis talked about the negative implications created by President Donald Trump’s travel ban – both the fear that individuals would be blocked from traveling or even deported, and the fear that the nature of the ban had legitimized the stigmatization of certain sections of the population. While economic and legal integration appear to be more readily accessible to refugees in the U.S., many Somalis described discrimination in employment, in policing and from some segments of the U.S. population.

The experiences of Somali refugees in these three countries demonstrate that policies restricting freedom of movement, or emphasizing repatriation as the only viable durable solution, leave people marginalized and isolated. Leaving large populations of displaced people in limbo, for example in Kenya, not only creates frustration and desperation, it can foster negative public perceptions of these populations among the host community.

The combined impact of a lack of access to livelihoods and inadequate educational opportunities, daily victimization by the police, a broader lack of belonging and the failure to find solutions to their exile has driven some Somalis to desperation. For many, this has led them to opt for tahrib (migration through illegal routes), despite the well-known dangers involved, particularly in situations where people had given up on the hope of resettlement.

Some Somalis expressed concern that marginalization made refugees more vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups. Others, however, argued the opposite: that such groups were more interested in recruiting people who could bring resources to the organization. Either way, the findings make it clear that those who might engage with extremists are a tiny minority of the refugee population.

Fear over security can be exploited by political opportunists, prioritizing symbolically tough actions that are largely ineffective, or even counterproductive, to appease populist tendencies. When it leads to rights violations, this can weaken the confidence of the community in authorities and traumatize them, undermining their willingness and capacity to support security and policing efforts.

It is clear, therefore, that the negative narrative around refugees – and migrants more broadly – needs to be changed. Specifically, the rhetorical correlation between terrorism and people on the move needs to be broken, as it is a link that is both inaccurate and detrimental to all. Instead, ensuring inclusivity, protection and long-term perspectives for refugees are better responses to security threats than the securitization of refugee policy.

With the space for refugee protection shrinking globally, including in the countries where this research was carried out, there is an urgent need to shift the narrative away from a growing emphasis on protection from refugees and back to an emphasis on protection for refugees. Refugees can be seen as part of the solution rather than treated as part of a collective problem in the struggle against extremism.

The views in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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