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Policing the pandemic: “security” for whom?

  • April 2, 2020

Borders & Beyond

The human tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic must not be permitted to become a pretext for the expansion of state powers that brutalize vulnerable communities.

Saturday, March 14, was another busy day for Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) in Calais. A group of us working as short-term volunteers chopped masses of vegetables for salad for over 1800 people. Later we set out to distribute food in Calais while another group headed for Dunkirk.

Coronavirus had been at the center of most discussions during the day, and we were implementing new procedures to try to minimize the chance of infection among the refugees queuing up for daily servings of rice, curry and salad. After we explained why there was no longer a self-service condiments table, and therefore no salt or chili sauce, most of the guys found it funny — a virus felt like the least of their problems.

The following day, refugees were tear-gassed at one of the Calais sites. This is a regular occurrence due to the constant evictions of refugee encampments by police, but that Sunday was also the first day of a nationwide lockdown in France. While, shops and restaurants closed their doors, state services for refugees also ceased. La Vie Active, the French state organization that provides food to refugees in Calais, stopped operating.

For a time, grassroots initiatives like RCK were the only ones left supporting the many displaced people living in the area, but by March 24, the majority of these too had to close operations, following the introduction of further lockdown measures.

Already without access to shelter, sanitation, running water, or adequate health care services, most of the people who currently live in refugee camps are unable to protect themselves from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Today in France, anyone leaving the house is required to carry certain documents, including a form stating one’s address — an impossibility for homeless asylum-seekers. Failure to produce these documents results in a significant fine, denying refugees access to supermarkets and other shops where they could obtain necessary food and hygiene items. Meanwhile, medical support to informal refugee settlements in Dunkirk has been withdrawn, while injured or sick refugees are turned away from hospitals.

As if this were not enough, brutal police evictions of the camps continue.

Locked out

The World Health Organization has helped cement the framing of the pandemic as a threat to global and national security. In a key February announcement, they referred to COVID-19 as “public enemy number one” and described it as “more powerful in creating political, social and economic upheaval than any terrorist attack.” Since then, this framing has moved from rhetoric to action. A range of security measures — lockdowns, imposed isolation and heightened surveillance — have been and continue to be put in place.

In countries such as France, Italy, Spain and, now, the UK, the lockdowns have been met with mixed reactions from the public and from campaigning groups. While there seems to be a general consensus that the imposition of extreme security measures, including police-enforced lockdowns and curfews, is a drastic but necessary response, human rights groups and police watchdogs have voiced concerns over expansions of state power. Indeed, at the heart of the “lockdown” lie gravely serious questions about the treatment of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our societies.

Who will survive this pandemic? Whose lives do security measures aim to protect? And what will the world look like when we come out of this crisis — what authoritarian security measures will linger in place long after the most dangerous weeks of the pandemic have passed? While those who can afford it hunker down in their safe bunkers and second homes, the virus is left to run rampant through refugee camps, detention centers and prisons.

States of emergency

The current state of pandemic emergency is a continuation of a norm firmly established by the 20th century: the emergency never ends, but merely becomes a natural context of everyday life. Indeed, states of emergency relating to war, military conflict, natural disasters and terrorism have arguably set the tone of 21st century politics.

Emergency security measures are purposefully malleable. They can be interpreted and reinterpreted to bring huge numbers of people under suspicion and surveillance, especially people and communities who are already experiencing discrimination. For several decades, “War on Terror” policymaking has targeted and profiled people of color, Muslims and migrant communities as potential terrorists. During just the last few years, we have witnessed an enormous growth of border security infrastructure, as seen in Calais. In effect, these measures position people of color as a danger to society and justify legislative changes that allow for widespread, in-depth surveillance and criminalization.

The security infrastructure being brought in at the current moment is unlikely to disappear once the pandemic peaks. Hu Yong, an academic whose research examines cybersecurity and privacy, recently pointed out that history has never shown governments to be cautious in using surveillance powers once they have been granted. Our everyday lives are now likely to involve increased identification of who is at risk of infection, as well as new legislation to discriminate against those who are.

Whose lives matter?

The security infrastructure that is now being put in place has far-reaching consequences for privacy and freedom of movement over the coming months and years. While lockdowns are currently the most widespread measure for containing the virus, it is likely that states will follow in the footsteps of South Korea and Singapore and turn toward surveillance as a means of imposing more targeted quarantines.

This program entails widespread testing and tracing of possible carriers of the virus, as well as strictly imposed isolation and quarantine rules. It avoids mass lockdowns, allowing for some semblance of normal life to continue, and, crucially, is far less disruptive to the economy. But it also involves the use of mobile data, CCTV and a growing database of information about people’s movements and daily lives.

This surveillance response is increasingly being recommended by research teams and health organizations across the world. China’s government monitoring is already being ramped up using facial recognition technology and apps tracking the user’s health and movements. Mobile apps to trace infected individuals are in development across the world, backed by governmental funding.

Some of these security measures might be appropriate for dealing with a pandemic — after all, limiting the spread of the virus by staying home is a reasonable course of action. But the way in which these measures are imposed exposes the state’s underlying aim: protection of the status quo. Ultimately, the beneficiaries of securitization are people whose circumstances make it possible to lead lives as compliant citizens. Everyone else faces destitution and imprisonment for attempting to cross borders or feed their families.

The possible consequences of securitization are not limited to questions of surveillance and freedom of movement. Security responses create conditions in which nationalism and xenophobia thrive — from WWII analogies to racist tropes about “dirty” foreigners. The COVID-19 pandemic has already become a pretext for racist attacks and harassment of East Asian people across the world.

But perceptions of health and cleanliness do not just rely on racist stereotypes. They also stigmatize homeless people and working-class communities, painting a picture of “good” and “bad” citizens judged on one’s ability to comply with new health and security measures. This creates an opening not only for deeper social inequality but also for far-right narratives about who deserves safety and liberty — and, ultimately, who deserves to live.

It would be naive to expect widened police powers to be exercised equally. In the UK, the former head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan police identified the pandemic as the “biggest challenge to UK police since the Second World War” and specifically predicted an increase in “gang violence” in the coming months. Let us not forget the Metropolitan police force’s gang policing procedure has already been found to be fundamentally racist. The lives lost to police violence or destroyed through criminalization and surveillance are supposedly the price we pay for “security” — a price that is normalized and justified by persistently devaluing the lives of migrants, prisoners and homeless people.

Policing, not protecting

For many at Calais, Dunkirk and other refugee camps and detainment centers, the pandemic will be a death sentence. The lockdowns in their current form have shut down organizations that offer a lifeline to people surviving in already unbearable circumstances, while detention centers and prisons house their inmates in conditions that will allow the virus to spread “like wildfire.” Some governments have taken actions such as granting some citizenship rights to migrants, or freeing numbers of prisoners, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Already, the remaining volunteers and organizations in Calais report severe water and food shortages leaving refugees hungry, dehydrated and desperate. Police surround the settlements and confine those inside in highly unsanitary conditions. There is no soap and only one working tap for over 1000 people.

One Ethiopian asylum seeker named Abi described his situation:

I haven’t received any information from the government. What I see today is that we’re surrounded by CRS [French riot police], who are all wearing masks. So, I understand that coronavirus is a danger. If there is a danger, it goes both ways. So why don’t we wear a mask? Because we are seen as people carrying diseases.

The French government recently announced that refugees in the Calais area would be moved to containment centers without offering clear indications of what this would entail. As a result, hundreds of refugees are attempting the life-threatening journey to cross the Channel to reach the UK. If they make it — and many do not — they face a hostile environment, including the choice between squalid accommodation or homelessness as well as a health service that also acts as immigration control.

Creating real security

The human tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic must not be permitted to become a pretext for the expansion of powers that entrench inequality and brutalize the communities made vulnerable by securitization in the first place. We must urgently demand that people in migrant and refugee camps, as well as those in prisons, secure mental health units, and those sleeping rough, are given safe shelter and adequate healthcare. The message to governments is simple: enable border crossings, extend visas, release prisoners — and provide housing, healthcare and necessities for all, regardless of nationality, immigration status or criminal conviction.

Yet these necessary steps do not change the state’s imposition of law and order at the expense of human life. While making immediate demands of the state, we must also build an entirely different conception of security: one defined by the ability to protect ourselves and others around us from viral infection while also shielding them from the consequences of societal and economic shutdown. Real security means challenging the logic of the state and capitalism, which continues to create and enforce unequal access to resources in the middle of a global public health crisis.

The task of creating real, bottom-up security should be taken on by the countless mutual aid networks that have sprung up across the world. In addition to conducting shopping trips and everyday care for the vulnerable, mutual aid must involve supporting rent strikes, resisting evictions and starting community food co-ops.

In developing these forms of resistance, we should look to communities that self-organize in some of the most dangerous and difficult circumstances around the world. For example, autonomous Kurdish refugee camps, such as Maxmur in Iraqi Kurdistan and Lavrio in Greece, follow a direct democratic model of self-organization that is led by women and designed to create shared economic and ecological practices.

We can also look to mutual aid collective Common Ground, which provided aid to tens of thousands of people in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the Deep South of the US., the emerging cooperative network Cooperation Jackson are now putting their Community Production capacity — including 3D printers — to work manufacturing and distributing urgently-needed safety masks. Still, even to these collectives, COVID-19 presents an enormous threat. At Maxmur, an embargo imposed in 2019 under the guise of national security remains in place, preventing deliveries of medicine and other essentials.

In the face of war, natural disaster and systemic oppression, these diverse forms of self-organized mutual aid share a commitment to building long-term organization within communities. They create security not for states and those who can obey them, but for humans and our communities.

The state would gladly turn our mutual aid efforts into a form of temporary charity: patching up the gaping holes left by austerity and neoliberalism and vanishing once the immediate crisis is over. If our mutual aid is to survive, we have to follow in the footsteps of those who have spent decades building alternative forms of security. We must act against and beyond the state, rejecting the imposition of “security” that ultimately protects not the people, but rather nothing but the state itself.

What we are offered through surveillance and exclusionary protective measures is a further entrenchment of an unjust status quo. But our mutual aid efforts and our solidarity with the people around us — and especially with people whose lives are seen by the state as disposable — are a chance to build a world worth living in. This would be real and enduring security — for each and every one of us.

Iida Käyhkö

Iida Käyhkö is an archaeologist and anthropologist whose PhD research looks at the role objects and digital worlds play in homemaking processes for Kurdish refugees. She has a particular interest in how communities use shared heritage to create a sense of security. She is based at the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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Laura Schack

Laura Schack is a PhD student in Politics and Information Security. Her research focuses on the criminalization of pro-migrant civil society in the European refugee crisis. She is based at the Information Security Group at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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