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February 9, 2016

Responding To: The Global Future of Security

Rethinking Human Security and Forced Displacement

Mirjam Kalle

In its “Global Trends Report: World at War,” released on June 18, 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, claimed that forced displacement throughout the world was at the highest level ever recorded. The number of forcibly displaced people at the end of 2014 had risen to “59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.” One in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum,” according to the report. Amongst them, 4,597,436 Syrian refugees are currently registered by the UNHCR in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Meanwhile, increasing resentments against refugees in the U.S. and Europe, controversial policy measures, and violent outbreaks in recipient countries including those like Denmark and Sweden, which once served as role models in terms of accessibility and integration, endanger the physical safety and overall security of refugees and their families.

Forced displacement is increasingly framed as security problem, ranging from a recurring emphasis on state security, particularly after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, to a focus on human security of the host communities or the protection of refugees. Rethinking security and forced displacement will be a major challenge in the 21st century.

Resorting to traditional perspectives of state security, some politicians and considerable parts of their constituencies in the U.S. and Europe consider forced displacement as “adding to an environment of insecurity” and threatening the stability of potential host countries. Restrictions of legal access for refugees and asylum-seekers, measures to prevent human smuggling, and tightened border controls illustrate the political consequences of framing forced displacement as a threat to state security.

At the same time, governments, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations continue to emphasize human security as a “universal set of very basic security needs” of host communities and refugees. Although this notion of human security has broadened the traditional, state-centered conceptualization of security and shifted the focus to individuals as its main subjects, its responses to forced displacement have in fact been narrowed to providing basic (physical) security, primarily through top-down, state-based approaches.

In 1999, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, pointed out that the majority of the world's population is deprived of human security: “If to be secure means to be free from fear of being killed, persecuted or abused; free from the abject poverty that brings indignity and self-contempt; free to make choices – then a majority of people in today's world do not live in security.” In order to live up to its reputation as a people-centered concept, based on human rights and needs, human security must be radically re-conceptualized. Re-shifting the focus on its original intentions of  “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want,” as outlined in the UNDP’s Human Development Report in 1994, implies broadening the notion of human security to encompass economic, food, environmental, health, personal, community and political security.

Understanding human security as universally applicable, but responsive to local particularities, ultimately requires the empowerment of individuals to imagine and negotiate a form of security that fits their own needs. As the return of Syrian refugees in the near future seems highly unlikely, host countries should prioritize their long-term integration and provide adequate access to livelihoods and income generation as well as possibilities to participate in decision-making that affects their lives. This emancipatory understanding of human security offers significant opportunities to tackle human security concerns of host communities as well as potential threats to state stability. Refugees’ pursuit of livelihoods, economic activities, and integration into political and social life in their host communities could reduce dependencies on aid and help to overcome sources of local grievances and tensions. Extending legal access to work, education, and health care allows for more sustainable integration of refugees and reduces the need for illicit ways of income generation, which harm both the refugees and their host communities.

Re-thinking human security as a way of emancipation and empowerment of refugees thus allows for crucial improvements of overall political, economic, and social security needs in host countries – or as Ogata put it: “none of us shall be secure while any of these men, women and children continue to live in fear.”

Mirjam Kalle is a M.A. candidate in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. 

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