Politics of Exception and Unease: Immigration, Asylum and Terrorism in Parliamentary Debates in the UK

Date01 December 2008
AuthorAlessandra Buonfino,Jef Huysmans
Publication Date01 December 2008
Politics of Exception and Unease:
Immigration, Asylum and Terrorism in
Parliamentary Debates in the UK
Jef Huysmans Alessandra Buonfino
The Open University Demos
This article analyses how the British political elite has securitised migration and asylum since 9/11 by
looking at when and how parliamentary debates linked counter-terrorism to immigration and/or asylum.
The findings suggest that there is considerable reluctance within the political elite to introduce or
especially sustain the connection between migration and terrorism too intensely in public debate. The
parliamentary debates also show that for understanding the securitising of migration and asylum one
cannot focus exclusively on the main security framing that is found in counter-terrorism debates, which
we name ‘the politics of exception’. There is at least one other format, which we call ‘the politics of
unease’, that is central to how the British political elite securitises migration and asylum, and contests it,
in the public realm.
Since 11 September 2001 terrorism has become a prior ity for governments
around the world. More often than not, this priority has involved rhetoric of
exclusion and fear of foreigners combined with a political demand for intensi-
fying control of the cross-border movement of people. Analyses of migration and
asylum policy largely affirm this intensified securitisation of mig ration, especially
of asylum seekers, since the autumn of 2001 (e.g. Blake, 2003; den Boer and
Monar, 2002; Brouwer et al., 2003; Buonfino, 2004; Guild, 2003; Newland et al.,
2002; Pickering, 2004; Rudolph, 2006; Welch and Schuster, 2005; Zard, 2002).
Less clear, however, is how the connection between terrorism and migration or
asylum has been politically sustained since 2001 and what this tells us about how
the political elite renders insecurities in relation to migration and asylum.
This article researches how and in what instances British professional politicians
drew on references to migration or asylum and (counter-)terrorism in their
strategies of defending and challenging various policy measures. It does so by
specifically analysing parliamentary debates in which politicians related migration
or asylum to (counter-)terrorism. We are aware of the limitations of using
parliamentary debates as the key entry point into the political framing of policy
questions in an age of mass media, blogs, focus groups, campaigning and opinion
polling. However, parliamentary debates continue to provide a strong institutional
locus for researching political positioning among the political elite over time.We
are also aware of the limitations of focusing on the political elite in order to grasp
fully the institutional and wider societal renditions of a relation between
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2008.00721.x
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2008 VOL 56, 766–788
© 2008The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Political StudiesAssociation
migration, asylum and terrorism. The judiciary has played an increasingly impor-
tant role in the political contestation of migration policy in the UK. Adminis-
trative rules are central to the practical regulation of this executive-oriented
policy area. The competition and relations between various secur ity professionals
are equally important for the securitisation of migration and asylum. But we think
it remains important to look in detail at how professional politicians render and
contest nexuses between migration and terrorism. They are indeed important
actors in aggregating various visions into political positions and thereby partly
structuring and partly sanctioning the ter ms within which this connection can
legitimately be discussed in public.
The parliamentary debates indicate that the constitution of a nexus between
migration and asylum has fluctuated quite significantly within the political field.
In autumn 2001 migration and asylum were very visible in the justification and
contestation of counter-terrorism. But from 2002 onwards they have been much
less prominently raised in relation to counter-terrorism; in addition, references
to terrorism are rarely deployed as a central issue in parliamentary debates on
migration and asylum policy. These findings suggest that many within the
political elite are wary about situating and especially about sustaining the con-
nection between terrorism and migration too intensely in the public realm.1This
does not mean that migration and asylum are not securitised; but the way they are
embedded within security framings, at least among the political elite, is more
multifaceted than simply suggesting that terrorism plays a major role in structur-
ing these framings. The article makes a contribution to unpacking this complex-
ity. We argue that there are at least two formats through which migration and
asylum, as well as other policy issues, are politically embedded within security
debates. The first we refer to as ‘the politics of exception’, which focuses on the
state of threat to the life of the nation, the legitimacy of exceptional policies
justified by this threat and the ensuing trade-off between security and liberty that
it produces. The second is labelled ‘the politics of unease’, which addresses
insecurities in a less pronounced way. It does not focus on existential threats to the
territor ial and functional integrity of the state but connects a variety of different
policy areas such as welfare provisions, counter-terrorism and illegal immigration
through the discussion of policing technologies. It consists of the introduction in
political debate (and its contestation) of a political discourse of safety and unease
that links various forms of deviant and illegal practice to support the introduction
of governmental technologies, such as identity cards. Focusing on counter-
terrorism debates, to which the politics of exception is central, distorts the
understanding of the securitising of migration and asylum. It tends to underplay
the importance of the politics of unease, which performs a significant role in the
securitising of migration and asylum and does not depend on references to
In the first part of this article, the analysis chronologically unpacks the parlia-
mentary debates. It starts with the intensive linking of asylum, migration and
© 2008The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Political StudiesAssociation

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