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Jun 18, 2013 | Events

This past week, the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Forum convened in Amman to consider the challenges posed by the “uprooted”, a term which the Forum adopted to refer to the situation of internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants. The WANA Forum, a regional dialogue body convened regularly under the auspices of Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, addressed the role of civil society, international organizations, international financial institutions, bilateral donors and national governments in addressing the needs of the uprooted. Such institutions strive to meet the needs of those uprooted by conflict, natural disasters, climate change and other calamities, and a wise few have increasingly sought to use displacement and migration, in particular, as an opportunity for generating both human capacities and financial remittances.

Yet the security sector remained fundamentally absent from the WANA Forum’s discussions, a fact which more broadly reflects the dearth of attention which academics and policy analysts pay to the role played by military, police and border forces in managing displacement and migration. Yet, especially in West Asia and North Africa, the security services are powerful forces in the lives of the uprooted. Migrants face police registration requirements, which are rarely met, in many countries. The rising phenomenon of urban displacement in locations such as Amman, Beirut and elsewhere had put police forces (along with municipal officials) in contact with Syrian and Iraqi refugees with increasing frequency. Those local officials and police officers often play a role in influencing urban refugees’ and internally displaced persons’ (IDPs’) shelter and employment options far more than the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In Turkey, the role of the military in securing the border and refugee communities is pervasive. Where they are compassionate, permissive and allowed a degree of institutional flexibility, the security services can allow the “uprooted” to creatively pursue survival strategies rather than implementing the letter of the law. In other cases, they may be part of the problem or even abusive (e.g., prominent videos of Iranian police attacking Afghan migrants for sport).

Yet, despite the importance of the security services in helping or impeding IDPs, refugees and other stateless persons, they remain far too under-represented in international dialogue concerning these issues. Where they are incorporated, as by IOM, the emphasis tends to be on border and customs management rather than on humanitarian needs, human rights or displacement management. As a result, they continue to fall back on existing trends — treating displaced persons and refugees as security threats to be contained. In doing so they lose the opportunity to contribute to a form of integrated displacement management which can be beneficial both for the host community and the ‘uprooted’ themselves.

One great example of this dynamics is coming up in Afghanistan and its region. Many suspect that migration and displacement may occur before and after 2014, when anxiety about the withdrawal of international forces from the country reaches a crescendo. In the past, Pakistan, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Central Asian states have generously hosted Afghans. Yet their security services have often, generally in contradiction of formal policies, harassed and abused Afghan refugees. They have implemented a vague interpretation of their countries’ refugee law which is often based more on word-of-mouth than rule-of-law. Hence, rather than focusing on well-worn terrain regarding UNHCR and the legal implications of refugee status, institutions such as the WANA Forum and others should overtly consider how the security services should fit into these debates. Even better, than should consider how we can turn the security services from an impediment to an ally when it comes to displacement and human security in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood.


Steven Zyck, an Asssociate at the Security Governance Group, has been an active member of the WANA Forum since 2009. He is a Research Fellow with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London.