MMC interviews Khalid Koser
“Mind out for mission creep”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The perception of migration as a threat is expanding beyond those who cross borders irregularly to include students, refugees and asylum seekers, and is gradually becoming normalised, according to Khalid Koser, who worries that this growing emphasis on securitisation perpetuates polarised debate and hampers necessary outside-the-box thinking.

Would you agree that the securitisation of migration only occurs when large numbers in mixed flows enter countries without correct procedures, and not in relation to tourism, student visa applications, regular labour migration, or everyday immigration work, including refugee processing?

The ill-placed focus on security has been around irregular migration, and we can discuss the question of proportionality and responses to that. But I see a tendency now to securitise even other aspects of migration that normally would have been fairly immune to securitisation. You mentioned students: certainly there’s some coverage in the press at the moment about student visas being abused and people using the student visa entry route to perhaps move illicit people into countries. We see some discussion on investment migration, which has normally been criticised, but not normally been securitised. We now see some suggestions that investment migration may be a security threat to countries, and even with refugees and certainly asylum seekers. I’m now seeing some links made between asylum flows, even refugee flows, and the risk of national security concerns, including terrorism at some point. I fear that securitisation is trending beyond just regular migration. It’s one of the main discourses around migration at the moment, whatever the category is. These traditional categories around migration are breaking down. Securitisation is certainly contributing to breaking them down.

You’ve spoken a lot about the securitisation of migration, especially around 2015-16, but what would you say in 2019? Has it increased or decreased? Has it become normalised to some extent?

It’s hard to measure. My hunch, without having done specific research, is that yes, it’s become normalised. Whenever I hear discussions of migration of asylum seekers and refugees, certainly in political circles, certainly in media circles, probably in policy circles and I fear even sometimes in academic circles, there’s just simply an acceptance that this is now a securitised debate. And, as with all of these issues, there is an initial outrage, and advocates correctly trying to hold us to account say that you shouldn’t be doing this and look at the evidence and be objective, but eventually these issues become normalised and we’re moving toward a normalisation of securitisation of movement.

Given the numbers involved in irregular migration and the national laws they inevitably transgress, isn’t securitisation an obvious response, even one expected by citizens?

It’s certainly expected by citizens; I’m not sure it’s an obvious response. One has to look at proportionality. If there’s one potential terrorist in a boat of a thousand asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean, is that reason enough to turn back the boat? I don’t think it is. I think it’s reason to screen people thoroughly to make sure that we’re processing appropriately to reject and turn back asylum seekers as appropriate, and I don’t think it’s a reason to sacrifice people who are moving for valid and often humanitarian reasons. And I think it’s about proportionality: building walls to stop everybody when in fact what you want to do is stop a few people seems to me to be inappropriate. But I think, basically, I’m losing the battle of that argument.

Whether you’re fleeing for humanitarian reasons or other reasons, you should obey the laws of the countries where you’re trying to settle, or even where you’re transiting. If you break the law by trying to pull down fences or provoke public outrage, then there should be sanctions against you. I have no problem with that. Certainly, I’m not naïve about this. Some migrants, some asylum seekers, some refugees may be trouble-makers and may be criminals and may even be terrorists, but I would argue the majority are not.

Is there a kind of naivety or simplicity in the humanitarian response, which is opposed to securitization and prefers to open borders to both migrants and refugees, irregular or otherwise?

I’ve often said that we need an objective debate, and we need to be clear and honest about this. [We now have a] polarised perspective where one either considers all asylum seekers and migrants to be troublemakers or potential criminals, or sees them all as heroes and victims and people who should be protected. Both stands are wrong, I think. A sensible, objective debate about where the challenges are and how to exploit them makes sense to me.

For the anti-securitisation lobby is the aim to have open borders full stop and roll back government control and restrictions? Has this position been fully thought through?

Yes and I wouldn’t position myself as an antisecuritisation person. I would position myself as somebody who is trying to promote an objective debate around these issues. The line I’ve always taken on this is that if sensible, like-minded people don’t have this conversation, then less sensible people will have the conversation and that’s what’s taking place at the moment. I sometimes despair over some of the humanitarian anti-securitisation lobby as much as I do over people at the other end of the spectrum because I find it equally unthinking.

How do you think the securitisation of migration will look in the coming decades as we face big societal and environmental challenges?

The question is whether these big future changes are going to generate more irregular migration, and my hunch is they will. Most countries are not, for example, yet set up to provide legal cover for people moving primarily because of the effects of climate change. I don’t think there’s going to be the political will to admit large numbers of people from swelling populations in the Maghreb and so on. I would predict an increase in irregular migration in the coming years; I think that’s a fairly safe bet. If the focus on securitisation has normally been around irregular migration, which I think it has, I can’t see anything reversing that. And certainly I don’t think that anything I’ve seen in terms of policy or political will suggests that will be reversed. So one answer is that irregular migration is likely to increase, which means we’ll continue to securitise our approach and understanding of it.

Technology is likely to enhance securitisation, hopefully to make it more effective and less intrusive, but we can’t be sure of that. When we start moving into really advanced technologies in terms of biometrics and those sort of things, there is some hope that they will make managed migration more effective.

If the aim of policy makers has been to reduce irregular flows through securitization and externalising immigration policy, given the fall in new irregular arrivals in some countries do you think they could argue that their policies are at least working?

No. Measuring irregular migration is incredibly difficult. I’m not sure that I’ve seen any data that could convince me that irregular migration has reduced in Europe. I’ve certainly seen data that shows that refugee flows from Syria have decreased and perhaps that arrivals by boat in Australia have decreased. Australia might be a really good example of how securitisation effectively works. Security responses, including externalisation, are parts of the comprehensive response, but they’ve got to be undertaken in a proportionate and a reasonable way that respects human rights. If you look at the Australia case, I would argue that the boats have stopped, but what’s the price that has been paid? Certainly there’s been criticisms about human rights records, certainly Australia’s reputation has taken a hit. So what’s the price worth paying to turn back a few thousand irregular migrants? That’s a question I think needs to asked.

If restrictive policies are successful, is it possible that in future we’re going to see a large section of predominantly young populations who will be involuntarily immobile, basically prevented from moving irregularly?

Yes. I suppose migration theorists would say that ultimately it’s very difficult to stop migration and people always find a way through smuggling, through trafficking, through social networks, through communications, through transportations and so on. But yes, I can see a situation where you have more and more refugees finding, hopefully, protection and assistance in poorer countries, not richer countries, which is a bit of an outlet. I can see, yes, through some of the externalisation, especially around Europe’s neighbourhood, an increasing concentration of migrants, transit migrants, would-be migrants, becoming effectively trapped. Whether it’s North Africa, the Middle East, perhaps Europe’s periphery, that would be a trend to expect.

If this is the case, is there a future risk in terms of violent extremism and a larger, more frustrated, less aspirational, more desperate youth cohort?

I always preface any of this with a health warning: we have to be really, really careful. Migrants and asylum seekers and refugees are undergoing enough of an assault at the moment without also suggesting they’re potential violent extremists. But it seems to be intuitive that if you have large numbers of young people who are frustrated and marginalised, and feel they have no particular future prospects, that we shouldn’t be surprised if some proportion of them become violent and become extremists. I think that would be an outcome that would be easy to predict.

But the risk is surely greater among those prevented from becoming migrants or asylum seekers?

Certainly if people feel they lack some alternative to their lives, then they may be tempted to join extremist groups, and for some people, migration is one of those alternatives, and if you take the alternative away and don’t replace it with employment, education, empowerment, then yes, there’s an issue. Securitisation and externalisation are fine as long as they are accompanied by something else, which is to provide some form of livelihood and future in countries where the people are living. But to extend it, it’s not just people who can’t find a way to leave their countries. There’s real risks around transit camps and possibly even refugee camps.

If violent extremism is one of the outcomes of more restrictive immigration policies, could this create a vicious cycle where securitisation is increasingly legitimised?

Yes, and that’s the risk, that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, on the surface, if you find migrants causing trouble and perhaps becoming extremists, that is simply another reason to stop them coming. I can understand that logic.

Is the combination of demographic decline in countries with an increasingly automated economy going to spell a dramatic decline in regular labour migration in the future?

I don’t think demography will reduce immigration. It’s true, of course, that largely in the northern hemisphere populations are declining and aging, but certainly in the southern hemisphere the opposite is true. The indications are that in most countries in the world development and livelihoods are rising, then eventually that may be a reason that fewer people want to migrate, but I fear it’s a long way away. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next 20 or 30 years. It’s more the development than demography, but I think it’s beyond our lifetimes.

What about automation? What if there just isn’t a need for labour as there was, because machines and AI-type technology are going to replace so many areas of work, including areas that migrants are very active in.

Yes, it’s interesting. People have discussed this for a while. The answer has always been that there are certain sectors of the labour market that, where you will have labour-saving devices, you can computerise lots of stuff. But ultimately, you can’t computerize certain activities easily. Ironically, the demography in Europe, where there’s more aging and dependent people, probably means there will always be a demand for certain people to do certain work.

Against the reality of increased securitization of migration and asylum do you think provisions such as those in the Sustainable Development Goals and the migrant and refugee compacts are sufficiently aspirational or implementable?

First on the SDGs, a lot of work was done at least to get migration recognised as an important component of many development goals. I think that was positive. I’ve always been a little bit sceptical of the Global Compact for Migration. It’s a non-binding document and it makes some generally sensible principles. Most countries, although there are some very important exceptions, have signed up to it. I welcome the fact that that most countries in the world coalesced around some general principles, but I’m not sure that I see those principles necessarily being played out in reality.

But ultimately, we do need a new approach to this. Some really important questions need to be asked concerning refugees. We are to an extent spinning wheels: we insist on the three durable solutions – repatriation, integration, resettlement – none of which seem to be working. We insist on maintaining this red-lined humanitarianism and economic purpose. Some out-of-the-box thinking is needed and I don’t think either of the compacts did that. Some people say, and maybe I agree, that the private sector may become a game changer if we can engage them, not just their money but their thoughts and their ideas and their disruptive influence, and that might be a way to go about this, but I’m a little frustrated. UNHCR I think is, in my opinion, too dogmatic. As the guardians of the 1951 Convention, I think it does as good a job as far as it can with its funding challenges and so on, so maybe it’s not UNHCR’s role, but somebody somewhere needs to think beyond and ask some difficult questions.

What’s your view of the future? Are you pessimistic, optimistic? Dystopian or utopian?

I think actually I’ll choose both. I think it will become messier and messier, but I’m still optimistic. Despite the criticism I’ve just given about some of the SDGs and compacts, at least this stuff, sometimes I think for the wrong reason, but at least these issues are on the agenda. At least we’re paying attention to immigration and refugees.