As migration is increasingly securitized globally, many destination countries are fearful of the entry, and presence of migrants within their territories. This is especially the case for immigrants from other regions and cultures of the world associated with extremism and violence. The rise of populist right-wing parties in some countries of the global North has also fueled a set of discriminatory practices against immigrants and foreigners that are often justified on the grounds of national security.

Some commentators have gone on to frame African migration as a threat using images of an invasion of Europe through its southern borders. Such views have been reinforced by global media reports showing images of migrants on flimsy or sinking boats either being rescued, or losing their lives in a desperate effort to enter Europe illegally.1Giuliana Ur and Anna H, “Regional Migration Governance in Africa: AU and RECs”, JRC Technical Reports, (2018): 46-47. Such perspectives to migration not only place barriers on the free movement of people, they also open the door to discrimination against immigrants. Migrants are framed as threats to the security of the ‘homeland,’ whose activities are capable of causing harm to destination countries, their economies, revered national values, cohesion, stability, culture, and way of life.

This article focuses on the migration-security nexus as a complex issue that seeks to connect human mobility across borders to threats to national and regional security, by drawing on the case of Kenya.  The “securitization” of immigration has also contributed to the profiling of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees as criminals and terrorists, and their being subjected to varying levels of surveillance, exclusion, and in extreme cases expulsion. Since the 9/11 attacks, the securitization of migration has been extensively presented as an existential threat to destination countries, and the link between migration and security issues has been incorporated into an active policy discourse. The issue of terrorism is now being used by many states to devise tougher strategies of managing international migration. This is evidenced by the more restrictive, hostile and generally repressive policies and laws that have been given spurious justification by the anti-terrorism agenda based on a carefully constructed environment of fear.

Both critical security,2Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver and Jaap de Wilde, A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 1998).; D. Bigo, “Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease,” Alternatives 27, Special Issue 63-92 (2002). and migration scholars3Jef Huysmans and Alessandra Buonfino, “Politics of Exception and Unease: Immigration, Asylum, and Terrorism in Parliamentary Debates in the UK,” Political Studies, 56 (2008): 766-788. note that one of the consequences intended (or not) of conceptualizing migration as a security threat in an age of significant global movements of people, is the creation of greater insecurity among migrant populations. As a process, migration is fraught with insecurity from the moment of the decision to migrate, through to departure from the country of origin, entry into the destination country, and settlement or refusal of entry or settlement. Such insecurity is intensified in the case of forced or irregular migration, and particularly in contexts where migrants are stigmatized as potential terrorists, criminals and troublemakers. This is particularly so in contexts where economic crises have led to severe cuts in public services, rising unemployment, and an attendant rise in racism and xenophobia.4Jef Huysmans, “The European Union and the Securitization of Migration,” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 38.5 (2000): 751-777.

The securitization of migration by decision makers has transformed regional and national borders into fortresses against unwanted “outsiders.” It has also reinforced notions of national identity and state sovereignty. This raises questions about citizenship as it relates to the exclusion or inclusion or certain individuals. This is what has culminated into ‘a dichotomy between those who are to be included, considered ‘desirable’, and those who are excluded as ‘undesirable,’ yet, in the case of asylum seekers, remain constitutive of the national community. Asylum seekers are in the “paradoxical situation of being included through their exclusion.”5Mitchell Dean, “Power at the heart of the present: Exception, risk and sovereignty,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 13, 4 (2010): 459-475. Certain states exploit limitations in the international refugee regime and the changed political landscape to shrink the asylum space. Tougher border controls, restrictive domestic refugee regimes that limit the rights of immigrants is the order of the day. The redefinition of borders through the creation of internal borders is the norm especially where encampment policy is practiced.

Kenya is a typical example of how the perception towards refugees and asylum seekers has changed over time. The country has been hosting refugees for several years especially those fleeing from conflicts and political instability in neighboring countries. Until the end of the 1980s, when the country began to experience a mass influx from the conflict-affected countries of the Horn of Africa, refugees and asylum seekers were able to reside in any place of their choice. Campbell notes that during those days, refugees were entitled to full status rights such as right to apply for work permits, settle in urban centers and move freely in the country, access educational opportunities, and apply for legal local integration.6Elizabeth H. Campbell, “Urban Refugees in Nairobi: Problems of Protection, Mechanisms of Survival, and Possibilities of Integration,” Journal of Refugee Studies Vol. 19, No. 3 (August 2006): 396-413.

However, since the 1990s, Kenya’s refugee and asylum policies underwent a dramatic shift. A more restrictive approach centered on the containment and isolation of refugees was adopted. This was perhaps due to two issues; the global shift in resettlement of refugees after the Cold war and the several terrorists attacks the country experienced. To begin with, the end of the Cold war saw western countries losing interest in resettling refugees as an ideological incentive. Thus, the burden was placed squarely on countries of first asylum.7Idil Lambo, “In the shelter of each other: notions of home and belonging amongst Somali refugees in Nairobi,” New Issues in Refugee Research. Policy Development and Evaluation Service: UNHCR, 2012. The escalation of intra-state conflicts in the East Africa and Great Lakes Region, also contributed to a drastic increase in migrants who sought refuge in countries such as Kenya.

The large refugee influx overwhelmed the county’s management capacity. At this point the government of Kenya handed over the responsibility for the registration of refugees to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).8Jennifer Hyndman and Bo Nyland, “UNHCR and the Status of Prima Facie Refugees in Kenya,” International Journal of Refugee Law 10, 1-2 (January 1998): 21-48. From then on, the Kenyan government withdrew from all refugee affairs.9Cindy Horst, “Refugee livelihoods: Continuity and Transformations,” Refugee Survey Quarterly Volume 25, Issue 2 (2006): 6-22. Given the large number of refugees, local resettlement became impossible and so the government adopted the encampment policy. The espousal of the encampment policy by the Kenyan government was a security measure targeted at preventing the spread of small arms and light weapons, and the spilling over of fighters, and conflicts from neighboring countries into its national territory. Equally importantly, it was designed to protect Kenya from those refugees deemed to pose a threat to state security. Since then, refugees found outside designated camps are harassed, arrested and taken back to the camps, or deported to their countries of origin.

The securitization of migration has led to the adoption of strategies to counteract, prevent, and combat illegal immigration. However, most of these strategies are implemented at the expense of international refugee instruments principles. For instance, on certain occasions, the government of Kenya initiates forced evictions of refugees from urban areas. One such example is Usalama Watch, which was launched in 2014 in response to the terrorist attacks that occurred in Nairobi and Mombasa. Somalis, Kenyans of Somali ethnic origin, and Somali refugees, were specifically targeted in the 2014 Operation Usalama Watch. Furthermore, Somalis in Kenya have been and continue to be scapegoated for the acts of terror carried out by Al Shabaab. This conflation between refugees and terrorists is discriminatory and violates the founding human rights obligations of non-discrimination, equality before the law and equal protection of the laws as provided for under Articles 2 and 3 of the African Charter, and Article 27 of the Constitution of Kenya.10Anneli Botha, “Political Socialization and Terrorist Radicalization Among Individuals Who Joined al-Shabaab in Kenya,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37 (October 2014): 895-919.

Migration is also construed as a security matter by destination or host-countries in two ways. On the one hand, as an international security matter, affecting international border-crossing and border control policies. Regarding border-crossing, trafficking networks and irregular flows are seen as threats to be controlled. On the other hand, as an internal security matter, migrants are often seen as a threat to locals/citizens, either by competing for the few available jobs, or adding pressure to overstretched or fragile national social services and infrastructure, thereby undermining public order.

In the Kenyan context, migrants, and specifically Somali refugees, have always been framed as a threat to national security. The government maintains that their presence in the country provides a breeding ground for sleeper cells and networks linked to the Al Shabaab terrorist group to organize and execute their attacks. This is in contrast with the South African case where migrants, specifically, black people from other African counties, are deemed a threat to economic livelihoods hence the recurring xenophobic attacks. Even so, there is no evidence that connects migrants to insecurity as is often alleged. Securitization continues to adversely impact the lives of migrants, especially where the migration-security nexus is dramatized by some politicians and security actors in order allow for exceptional measures against perceived enemies of the nation-state. As a top-down process it alienates migrants from the state, and places them within spaces of exceptionalism, devoid of state and international protection. This in turn, places the burden of providing their own personal security on the migrants themselves.

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