How to use refugees as geopolitical weapons, brutal but effective

Summary: Today we have another in this series about migrations and their destabilizing effects, with excerpts from the insight works by Kelly M. Greenhill (Assoc Prof of political science, Tufts U). She describes the dynamics of past migrations, and how flows of people can become a powerful weapon.

“If we acknowledge that the new principles of war are no longer “using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,” but rather are “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.”

— From the preface to Unrestricted Warfare (1999) by Qiao Liang (乔良) and Wang Xiangsui (王湘穗), Colonels in the air force of the People’s Liberation Army.

Geese flying

The appearance of so many new forms of conflict (aka 4th generation war) since WWII has produced many surprises. Perhaps none as strange as the mass movements of people, deliberate and inadvertent, spreading the contagion of disorder — the hatreds, enthusiasms, and chaos from unstable regions to stable ones. The US has experienced relatively benign but still politically and economically contentious flows from Latin America. Europe is gripped by destabilizing flows with no end in sight.

Kelly M. Greenhill (bio below) has pioneered investigations of this phenomenon, with conclusions of urgent current interest. For an introduction to her work see “Using Refugees as Weapons“, NYT op-ed, 20 April 2011 — Opening…

In the early days of what grew into the Libyan uprising, Muammar el-Qaddafi summoned European Union ministers to Tripoli and issued an ultimatum: Stop supporting the protesters, or I’ll suspend cooperation on migration and Europe will be facing a human flood of from North Africa. Given Libya’s history as an attractive transit point for North Africans seeking entry to Europe, it was a credible threat.

For one thing, it has worked to varying degrees at least four times in the last decade alone. Indeed, it was only the European Union’s promise to lift the last remaining sanctions against Libya in the fall of 2004 that persuaded Qaddafi to staunch what was then viewed as an alarmingly large flow of North Africans onto the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and, from there, onto the Continent. To that point in 2004, about 9,000 people had landed on Lampedusa, 1,600 of whom arrived in the month prior to conclusion of the agreement between Brussels and Tripoli. Although these numbers were not trivial, they were nothing compared to the predicted 750,000 to one million North Africans anticipated by Western European leaders this time around.

… what happened in 2004 was not an isolated event. In 2006, and again in 2008, Qaddafi extracted from the E.U. additional financial aid and equipment (such as boats) that could be used for migration enforcement. In late 2010, the E.U. and Libya concluded a further £500 million accord, which succeeded in stopping, or at least demonstrably slowing, the flow of people across the Mediterranean — until the outbreak of unrest in Tunisia.

Tragic though it is for the victims of this kind of unconventional coercion, Qaddafi’s threatened use of demographic bombs is neither new nor unique. As I demonstrated in a study published last year, there were at least 56 attempts to employ the direct or indirect threat of mass migrations as a non-military instrument of influence between 1951 and 2006.

In about 73% of cases where it was attempted, would-be coercers got at least some of what they sought; in about 57% of cases, they achieved most, if not all, of their objectives. The majority of these coercive attempts were initiated by authoritarian dictators such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, East Germany’s Erich Honecker, the former Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Uganda’s Idi Amin. However, it is worth noting that the threat and actual manipulation of mass migrations has also been employed by democratic leaders like West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Dwight Eisenhower of the United States.

There is a new government in Libya, but their tactics remain the same, as in this November 2 article in The Telegraph: “Libya warns it could flood Europe with migrants if EU does not recognise new self-declared government.”

Science of war

A new form of war

In addition, failed or failing states may create instability, internal conflict, and humanitarian crises … some governments will lose their ability to maintain public order and provide for the needs of their people, creating the conditions for civil unrest, massive flows of migrants across international borders …. Uncontrolled flows of migrants will sporadically destabilize regions of the world …

Quadrennial Defense Review, May 1997.

Many of the new forms of war were visible to DoD’s strategists as the Cold War ended. Unfortunately foreknowledge of problems does not create solutions. Of course, nothing in war is really new (except WMDs). To see and learn from the history of migrations as a geopolitical tool see Greenhill’s paper: “Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement as an Instrument of Coercion” in Strategic Insights (published by the Navy Postgraduate School), Spring-Summer 2010. Who used it? Why? With what success?

She discusses the bottom line about mass migrations as a tool…

This proposed theory and analysis offered in this article have clear policy implications in today’s immigration anxiety-ridden environment. Long before September 11 galvanized a new preoccupation with border security, issues surrounding refugees and illegal migrants had transmuted in many countries from a matter of low politics to high politics, involving a shift in the definition of national security threats and in the practice of security policy. And while the potential significance of this kind of coercion has been underappreciated by many migration scholars, the same cannot necessarily be said for potential target states. For example, …

  • U.S. National Intelligence Estimates have included warnings of U.S. vulnerability to this kind of coercion and have recommended taking steps to guard against future predation/
  • in 2007 Australia shut down the Pacific Solution in no small part to guard itself against future coercive attempts by the tiny island of Nauru.
  • in 2003 alone the European Union committed to spending 400 million euros to increase border security, at least in part to deter future migration-driven coercion; and
  • in 2006, China constructed a fence along part of its border with North Korea to impede cross-border movements.

Some states have even conducted military exercises designed to leave them better prepared to respond to potential massive influxes across their borders. Moreover, the related political and national security implications extend far beyond the politically charged realms of immigration, asylum, and border security policy. Indeed, it has been suggested that the non-spontaneous

“flood of refugees from East to West Germany in 1989 . . . helped to bring down the Berlin Wall, expedited the unification of the two German states, and generated the most significant transformation in international relations since World War II.”

Weapons of Mass Migration
Available at Amazon.

Migration and refugee flows have likewise been identified as one of the most significant causes of armed conflict in the post-Cold War period. Since 2004 alone, we have witnessed the consequences of coercive engineered migration in arenas as significant and diverse as …

  •  economic sanctions and arms embargoes (the EU lifted the last remaining sanctions against Libya in exchange for assistance in staunching the flow of North Africans into western Europe);
  • ethnic conflict, military intervention, and interstate war (between Sudan and Chad, over refugees from Darfur);
  • and nuclear proliferation and regime change (in that China’s fears of a mass influx of North Koreans have tempered its posture toward, and dealings with, both North Korea and the United States over the North Korean nuclear program)

For her full analysis see her book: Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy (2010).

“Even in the so-called post-modern, post-industrial age, warfare will not be totally dismantled. It has only re-invaded human society in a more complex, more extensive, more concealed, and more subtle manner”
— From the preface to Unrestricted Warfare.

Other posts in this series

  1. Stratfor: Why Germany Cannot Stop the Flow of Migrants.
  2. Is Europe sliding towards civil war?
  3. Using refugees as geopolitical weapons.
  4. Martin van Creveld asks: Has a new Thirty Years’ War begun in Europe?
Kelly Greenhill. Photo: Kelvin Ma
Kelly Greenhill. Photo: Kelvin Ma.

About the author

Kelly M. Greenhill is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and Chair of the Conflict, Security and Public Policy Working Group at Harvard’s Belfer Center (BCSIA). Shel also serves as Associate Editor of the journal Security Studies. Much of her research focuses on the use of military force and what are frequently called ‘new security challenges’, including civil wars; the use of forced migration as a weapon; military intervention and (counter-) insurgency; foreign and defence policy; and international crime as a challenge to domestic governance.

She is author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, co-author and co-editor of Sex, Drugs, and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict. Her research has also appeared in a variety of other venues, including professional journals, the major news media, in briefs prepared for the U.S. Supreme Court, and reports for the U.S. government. She is currently completing a new monograph, a cross-national study that explores why, when and under what conditions contested sources of political information–such as rumours, conspiracy theories and myths–materially influence the development and conduct of states’ foreign and defence policy.

Outside of academia, Professor Greenhill has served as a consultant to the US government as well as to the Ford Foundation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Bank.

{This bio is from the Oxford website.}

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about immigration, and especially these…

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: