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Refugee Crisis: National and Human Security Implications

A GCSP Public Discussion



GCSP – Maison de la paix

European governments are struggling to find a common response to the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. And the crisis has security implications beyond the political conflicts that provoked it. Both national and human security interests are at stake. What should be the response of the international community? How can Europe demonstrate leadership? What are the political and humanitarian policy options?

On Monday 2 November, the GCSP, in association with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), hosted an expert panel on the current European refugee crisis with Ambassador William Lacy Swing, Director General of IOM; Ms Ingrid Macdonald, Director of Humanitarian Policy, Norwegian Refugee Council; Mr Volker Türk, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR); and Professor Alessandro Monsutti, Associate Professor of Development of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute.

The following is a summary of the key issues raised during the discussion.


Most speakers agreed that there is a need for a historically balanced narrative of the current refugee crisis. Europe seems to be experiencing a moment of “refugee amnesia”. It seems to have forgotten the movement of people after WWII when millions of Europeans migrated to find better conditions outside their countries. Most importantly, Europe needs to be reminded that it is the developing world that is bearing the most important burden of the current refugee crisis especially Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.


Mr Volker Türk of UNHCR discussed the interface between refugee movements and human security in the context of international humanitarian law and human rights. Three-quarters of new arrivals in Europe were from Syria and Afghanistan – unsurprisingly, both countries were at the lowest rank on the 2014 Global Peace Index.

"We need long-term migration policies that balance national security and human security"

Ambassador William Lacy Swing, Director General of IOM

For Mr Türk, the “protection versus security” dichotomy creates an artificial distinction between national and human security, which may, in turn, feed inadequate policy responses. Indeed, if protection and human rights are excluded from security concerns, national security will be undermined. Inadequate policies towards refugees and migrants may lead to an increase of criminality, especially in people smuggling. Mr Türk suggested that it was unlikely that terrorists from the Islamic State group would enter the European asylum system.


Most speakers analysed that the language we use to describe the current refugee crisis is crucial as it will define policy options. Ms Ingrid McDonald told the meeting that: “We are facing a protection crisis and framing it in security terms brings more restrictive policies. We should talk about solidarity and hospitality instead of protecting and safeguarding.” Indeed, Europe should focus more on effective management of borders and processing of new arrivals. The labelling of people of the move needs to be more nuanced – the “economic migrant” definition is not appropriate as it tends to disregard multi-layered migration motives.

"Migrants from North Africa do not deserve any less protection than refugees from Syria"

Ms Ingrid Macdonald, Director of Humanitarian Policy, Norwegian Refugee Council

It is important to recall that while refugees are protected by the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, migrants also have protection mechanisms guaranteed by the human rights system. Professor Alessandro Monsutti pointed out that a pragmatic approach is needed with a clear message about the advantages of hosting refugees in receiving countries. For some analysts, framing the crisis in national security terms gives politicians an excuse to abuse the fear of their constituencies. To counter this, it is imperative to put humanity at the centre of the discussion. Interestingly, and to the surprise of many leaders, there is an active solidarity movement among citizens across Europe.


This bottom-up action of citizens points to another important aspect of the current refugee crisis – the European leadership crisis. To cite Ambassador Swing: “leadership is doing the right thing and the governments are not doing the right thing”. Leaders need to be courageous and talk about the refugee crisis with facts and explain why this crisis happened.

There is also a need to help the public to understand the positive side of migration. Indeed, in order to be a successful society we need a migrant-friendly population which is multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious. Leaders need to understand this and effectively communicate it to their constituencies. Accepting and managing diversity will be one of the traits of successful societies of the future.

Ms Ingrid McDonald said that a leadership crisis at the global level does not take away responsibility from leaders on regional and national levels. A more tangible leadership on the ground level is needed (e.g. managing of registration points). On the regional level, there is an opportunity for Europe to create a common migration and asylum policy, improve relations with Turkey and for the 28 EU members to become formal resettlement countries. How Europe reacts will define our “moral compass”. Other regions that face refugee and migrant movement also have an opportunity to address the movement of people more efficiently. As underlined by Mr Volker Türk, when addressing the current refugee crisis we need to move from tools to actions and this can only be done with the member states of various organisations addressing this challenge. 

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