The myth of the sick immigrant: How the health of Syrian refugees has been securitised in Europe and North America

Date: 20/12/2017

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Sam Shorto is an SCDTP-funded student on the MSc Social Research Methods at the University of Southampton, and part of the Citizenship, Governance, and Security Thematic Cluster Pathway. His PhD in Politics will explore the role of place and context in shaping social attitudes and how this has contributed to the emergence of new political divides in Britain in recent years. Other research interests include international health policy and securitisation theory, particularly in the context of refugees and asylum seekers.Sam holds a BSc with First Class Honours in Politics and International Relations from the University of Southampton (2010-13) and an MA with Distinction in International Security from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands (2015-16). He has also worked in research roles at Ordnance Survey, Manchester United Football Club, and the Family and Childcare Trust.


Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, more than five million refugees have fled the country, and almost a million have sought asylum in the countries of Europe and North America.

From the moment they began to arrive, many national governments and media outlets have portrayed them as a threat to national security. These kinds of arguments are nothing new, and have been well-documented by scholars of securitisation theory such as Jef Huysmans.

Securitisation theory is the idea that people do not view particular issues as security threats because of objective analysis, but because of how they are portrayed as threats by powerful actors such as national leaders. By convincing their audience of the threat posed by a certain issue, these actors are able to enact emergency measures and suspend ‘normal’ politics in order to deal this threat.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the Syrian refugee crisis will have heard arguments that perfectly illustrate this theory. Politicians and media outlets have claimed that refugees strain public services, drastically increase the risk of domestic terrorism, and threaten the cultural fabric both of individual nations and Europe as a whole.

Much of this effort to paint Syrian refugees as a security threat has focused on the perceived risk they pose to public health. Refugees have been blamed for reviving previously eradicated diseases, spreading ‘flesh-eating viruses’, and straining public health systems. To take just a small and by no means comprehensive selection of examples:

  • The co-founder of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said “There are already signs of the emergence of diseases that are highly dangerous and have not been seen in Europe for a long time: cholera on the Greek islands, dysentery in Vienna. There is also talk about other, even more severe diseases.”
  • Matteo Silvini, leader of Italy’s Northern League party, tweeted ‘Have a good Saturday. Watch out for scabies, malaria and machetes’ in the context of refugee boats landing in Italy.
  • The UK’s Daily Express ran a headline asking ‘UK next? Doc’s warn AIDS TB and diseases eradicated generations ago bought in by migrants’, and warned of ‘the horrifying chaos which could face the NHS if thousands of migrants from the Middle East manage to reach Britain’.
  • In the USA, Breitbart published an article entitled ‘Exclusive – Syrian refugees bringing flesh-eating disease into U.S.?’ about the disease leishmaniasis, leading to increasingly hysterical headlines from smaller right-wing news sources such as the Conservative Tribune’s  ‘ALERT: Syrian Refugees Caught Carrying New Disease, And It’s Far More Terrifying Than Ebola Or AIDS’ and ‘URGENT: Obama’s Refugees Carrying New FLESH EATING Disease, More Deadly Than The PLAGUE’, from America’s Freedom Fighters.

On the face of it, it might seem that these reactions, while exaggerated, are based on a reasonable expectation that any mass movement of people from one part of the world to another would bring with it an increased risk of infectious disease. Indeed, the national governments of the U.S.A., Australia, and Canada, for example, all introduced health screening designed specifically to deal with incoming refugees from Syria.

The problem with this is that these arguments are not based on any evidence. While it is true that forced migration increases exposure to food- and water-related diseases such as dysentery and cholera, this is because of the difficulties involved in food preparation and accessing clean water as a refugee. If these conditions are improved when refugees reach a host country, these diseases cease to be an issue, and there is actually more risk of catching infectious disease from tourists.

In the case of leishmaniasis, the discrepancy between the facts and the reporting is astonishing. Firstly, the disease is carried by sandflies, not people, and cannot be passed between people except by blood transfusion or shared needles. Secondly, the disease, like so many others, is only a problem in areas of poor nutrition and poor healthcare. What was ignored in the coverage is that the disease is already endemic to the U.S.A. and some parts of Southern Europe, but has little impact on the health of people living there because of good healthcare. Finally, there are readily available drugs and treatments that are able to completely cure the disease.

Given this, it becomes obvious that these arguments only persist because, as Sara Davies puts it, ‘it is a politically convenient argument for governments to justify tight restrictions on their asylum and visa schemes’. By focusing on issues of health and the threat of infectious diseases, governments and media outlets can maintain the illusion that they are only concerned with the safety of their citizens, and that denying asylum to refugees is nothing to do with their religion or culture, but only a sensible and necessary measure to maintain public health.

If the people making these arguments were genuinely concerned about refugee health, they would focus on providing clean drinking water, adequate food and shelter, and healthcare to refugees. The voices trying to make this clear are swimming against a tide of negative and false information, and the loudest voices have been the most misinformed and damaging. This needs to change, and change quickly.


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