Mass migration, on the sustained and massive scale that western Europe continues to experience, creates tensions not only within states but also between them. These tensions will sometimes erupt into open conflict; already a new age of “Migration Wars” has begun.
This represents a curious inversion. Across the centuries, war has been a major, and often the main, driving force behind mass migration. Most obviously, an indeterminable number of civilians was forced to flee the fighting that raged in Europe and elsewhere during the Second World War, while the ongoing civil war in Syria has created perhaps 5.3 million refugees, in addition to many others who are “internally displaced.” Today, however, not only does war continue to cause mass migration, but it can itself become a cause of war.
Parts of the world besides western Europe are also affected: since August 2017, for example, around half a million Rohingya people have fled violence and persecution in their native Myanmar for the relative sanctuary of neighboring states, notably Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Above all, in sub-Saharan Africa millions are fleeing poverty from the landlocked states of the Sahel and heading for the relative prosperity of West Africa: around one fifth of Côte d’Ivoire’s population, for example, comprises people who were born elsewhere.
The sheer vastness of this contemporary refugee crisis does not represent any increase in the number of wars and conflicts, although it is arguable that, because of the proliferation of small arms in recent decades, this is one cause: in a speech in 2000, for example, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan warned that the bloodshed created by small arms and light weapons meant that “they could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction.’” But more important is the proliferation of economic migration, as increasing numbers flee poverty at home. The causes of this may be varied—some blame overpopulation, or the destructive impact of climate change upon food sources—but one driving force is the heightened awareness that many refugees have. Because of images broadcast on satellite television, mobile phones and the internet, they are aware, in a way earlier generations were not, of the relative material comfort the developed world can offer. This is probably the reason why some relatively affluent African countries, such as Senegal, also have high outflows of migrants.
Another difference lies in the proliferation of criminal gangs that, in return for exploitative fees, organize and finance their journeys. Such trafficking gangs are prevalent in two major hubs of migrant movement: Thailand, which is a transit point for Rohingya refugees, and Libya.
Whatever the causes, this major movement of people has now acquired its own momentum. Because so many refugees have reached the shores and borders of, in particular, western Europe, and because so much media attention has focused on this new phenomenon, an idea has taken hold in the minds of many people who would never otherwise have contemplated undertaking the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea or overland journey through Central Asia or the Balkans: that it is possible to start a new life in distant but affluent countries. This has been accentuated by the decision of the German government, taken in 2015, to open its borders to around one million refugees. In other words, many of the millions who have fled to Europe in the past few years have climbed on a bandwagon, following what they have seen others do rather than what they have been forced, by adverse circumstance, to undertake. Despite the determined efforts of Western governments to stop them, there is no reason they will not continue trying to do so.
SUCH A vast migrant flow, or even its mere threat, will tempt Western governments to intervene in foreign lands—either countries of departure or transit countries, such as Libya—in a bid to curb those flows. This, of course, is nothing new. One country always has an interest and motive to intervene in the affairs of another if it is being affected by a flow of refugees from that country; this was true, to take one obvious example, of Western involvement in the Balkan Wars of the early- to mid-1990s. But the advent of sustained mass migration, from so many different venues and across so many different routes and borders, is a new phenomenon that is prompting changes of strategic direction in Western capitals.
Such “migration interventionism” could of course be entirely peaceful—such as the provision of foreign aid, for example, to specific programs and initiatives that are designed to reduce the level of migration. But it could also take more ambitious, militaristic forms, such as troop deployments to stabilize foreign countries, or regions within them, that are experiencing, or could potentially experience, a significant outflow of population. This would not only reduce or eliminate any incentive for putative migrants to leave, but also allow those foreign governments to deport and return existing migrants to a “safe country”: many international and domestic laws (Article 16a of German Basic Law is an example) prohibit the deportation of a refugee to a country that is not “safe.” However, the legal and practical difficulties of deporting migrants may mean that “migration interventionism” will, in the years ahead, be undertaken more as a preventive exercise—to prevent any possible outflow—than a reactive one.
The emergence of migration interventionism became clear at the Munich Security Conference in February 2017, when the UK defense secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, justified the ongoing, if limited, British presence in Afghanistan on the grounds that the collapse of the country would lead to a massive refugee crisis. “We here will feel the consequences, very directly,” he claimed. “There could be three to four million young Afghan men sent out by their villages to migrate westwards, and they are heading here.” This was a new justification for the allied presence in Afghanistan, which had previously been rationalized on a number of other grounds, varying from combating terrorists who presented a threat to the West to preventing the flow of narcotics and establishing democracy and human rights.
Instead of committing their own troops overseas in order to prevent or reduce migration into their territory, governments can also sponsor foreign armies to act on their behalf. An example is the G5 Sahel Joint Force, which the French government, supported by other Western countries, began to establish in the Sahel in the course of 2017. Comprising five thousand soldiers drawn from the armies of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, the force is funded by the EU, whose leaders regard it partly as an anti-insurgent force, but also as a means of reducing the flow of migrants. “Our support will be an important contribution to the efforts to counter terrorism in the Sahel region, as well as irregular migration from West Africa to Europe,” the Danish minister for foreign affairs, Anders Samuelsen, has said. The force is also sanctioned by UN Security Council Resolution 2359, which points to the “serious challenges posed by . . . the smuggling of migrants [and] trafficking in persons” from the Sahel. In the future, such a force could also guard any Western nationals who are posted on foreign soil in order to process asylum claims. (It was just such a proposal that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, appeared to make in the summer of 2017 when he said France could establish processing “hotspots” in Libya—which, since the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, has been a major departure point for millions of refugees.)
Countries that are seeking to stem the migrant flow into their own territory are also increasingly diverting their existing military resources, not just within departure states, but also outside their borders. In the summer of 2015, for example, the EU began EUNAVFOR MED, a naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea that was intended to end human smuggling from Libya by seizing or destroying some of the boats that the gangs were using. Under its mandate, this €12 million operation involved “boarding, searching, seizing and diverting” smugglers’ boats, and wherever possible, efforts to “dispose” of those vessels. “This important transition,” as an EU official argued, “will enable the EU naval operation against human smugglers and traffickers in the Mediterranean to conduct boarding, search, seizure and diversion on the high seas of vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling or trafficking, within international law.” Vessels, drones and aircraft drawn from at least ten member states formed part of what the EU’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called a “holistic” approach to the migrant crisis.
Such operations raise the prospect of confrontation and military clashes between recipient states and countries of departure and transit. When the Italian government sent two patrol ships close to the Libyan coast in August 2017, for example, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the ruler of a large swath of Libya, threatened to attack them if they entered Libyan waters to search and destroy refugee boats: “Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, issues orders to the Libyan naval bases in Tobruk, Benghazi, Ras Lanuf and Tripoli to confront any marine unit that enters the Libyan waters without the permission of the army,” a statement from the Libyan National Army proclaimed. His warning reflected a growing popular anger among Libyans against Italian interference in their domestic affairs.
Such clashes may be more likely if a foreign government threatens to exploit or manipulate a refugee crisis in a bid to extort concessions from other countries toward which those migrants are likely to head. This appears to have been true of the Libyan government under the rule of Qaddafi. Addressing a gathering in Rome in August 2010, Qaddafi had claimed that unless he was given large sums of money, Europe would experience the “advance of millions of immigrants” that would transform it into “another Africa.” He had added that “tomorrow Europe might no longer be European and even black as there are millions who want to come in,” and alleged that “we don’t know if Europe will remain an advanced and united continent or if it will be destroyed, as happened with the barbarian invasions.” Demanding a payment of €5 billion to prevent this from happening, his comments were condemned as “unacceptable blackmail” by Italian parliamentarians. In the context of these remarks, it is possible that the Anglo-French attack on Libya in 2011 was the first migration war of the contemporary age: this may explain why, from the onset of the crisis, in March 2011, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British leader, David Cameron, sought to oust Qaddafi from power and ignored his offers of peace talks.
Turkey, which is the host of over three million refugees, has made similar sallies at political blackmail in recent years against the European Union: in March 2017, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to tear up a key migrant deal with the EU, in apparent retaliation for a ban placed by the German and Dutch governments on political rallies by his followers living in those countries. Istanbul had already struck a hard bargain when negotiating the deal, which came into effect in March 2016, having demanded in return a $3.3 billion aid package and new negotiations on its membership in the European Union. Should other states use similar tactics against more powerful ones in the future, they may risk provoking armed attack.
BESIDES FOREIGN intervention in countries of departure, or armed clashes with governments that seek to manipulate migration, the world will witness other types of migration wars. In particular, foreign powers may deliberately create, or exacerbate, a refugee crisis in another country in order to divert the resources of the countries where those refugees are likely to go. Of course, innocent civilians have always been deliberately targeted in times of war: during World War Two, the Allied bombing campaign was designed to undermine German civilians’ morale and shorten the war. However, deliberate attempts to drive civilians out of a country, in a bid to weaken a third party, have historically been much less common. Such a scenario is more likely to happen today for the simple reason that a sustained mass migration of people is already under way. This means that a government or militia has more opportunities to manipulate the phenomenon, because it is easier to accentuate any such movement than to create one; it is also less likely to risk international condemnation by observers who cannot so easily blame foreign intervention.
An example is the post-2011 Syrian refugee crisis. In March 2016, several months after Russia had openly intervened in the conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, Gen. Philip Breedlove—the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of U.S. European Command—claimed that Vladimir Putin and Assad had “weaponized” migration through a campaign of bombardment against civilian centers. Their agenda, he continued, was to undermine NATO and western Europe: “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve,” General Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee. In particular, Russia’s indiscriminate use of weapons, such as barrel bombs, seemed to have “no other purpose” other than to get civilians “on the road.”
It is also likely that the Islamic State (ISIS) has deliberately created or accentuated the flow of refugees from Iraq and Syria. Its shocking acts of cruelty, such as the beheading of captives, and the careful propagation of such images on the Internet, had a clear rationale: to strike fear into the hearts of civilians and force them to flee. Its advances during 2014–16 led to the displacement of three million in Iraq, with far more internally displaced—more than 1.5 million in the Kurdish region alone.
ISIS calculated that this would not only clear a path for its own foot soldiers, but also overwhelm the resources of neighboring and perhaps pro-Western regimes, such as Lebanon and Jordan, while adding to the flow of refugees into western Europe. In the long term, this would probably be seen as a way of “Islamizing” the West—increasing the numerical presence of Muslims—but most obviously, in the short and medium terms, it was a means of infiltrating Europe with sympathizers: there have been numerous attacks across Europe, including Paris, Nice, Manchester, London and Berlin, by ISIS-linked insurgents. And in December 2016, Europol published a report that pointed out another danger: “A real and imminent danger is the possibility of elements of the [Sunni Muslim] Syrian refugee diaspora becoming vulnerable to radicalization once in Europe and being specifically targeted by Islamic extremist recruiters,” argued the authors of “Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State Revisited.”
However, it is also possible that Islamic State had another motive. Instead of deliberately creating a flow of refugees in order to carry out attacks or overwhelm its enemies’ resources, it may have been trying to provoke them to undertake a “migration intervention.” Its motive for doing this would have been either to spark a confrontation with other regional actors or to tie down foreign troops in a protracted insurgency and steadily drain its resources. For example, if NATO had undertaken a large-scale deployment into parts of Syria to fight ISIS, then its presence would have sparked a conflict not just with President Assad but also with his chief supporter, Russia. Alternatively, NATO troops would have faced sustained casualties from a protracted insurgency, comparable to the conflict that they (and the Russians) fought in Afghanistan as well as the experiences of the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s, and Israel in Lebanon in the 1990s.
THE ADVENT of sustained mass migration could also trigger conflict if a country tried to forcibly return or expel some or all of its new arrivals. This scenario is, of course, also a recipe for civil unrest. The migrants themselves may resist: such violence broke out at Calais in northern France in the fall of 2016, for example, when the French riot police forcibly removed thousands of refugees from a camp known as “The Jungle.” However, violence could also break out between neighboring states, for instance if one tried to drive refugees away from its own territory onto the soil of the other; or if it closed its own border to stop a column of refugees crossing its own borders, thereby forcing them to move into, or remain within, another country.
This scenario is already causing political conflict within the EU, as the Polish and Hungarian governments continue to resist demands for a quota of refugees that other member states, notably Italy, Germany and France, are already hosting. However, it could in some circumstances spark military confrontation—for example, between countries that already have unstable and tense relations, or even when countries of destination are severely overstretched by the strains of coping with a large influx of people. This nearly happened in Southeast Asia in the late 1980s, when a huge exodus of civilians from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia threatened to overwhelm neighboring countries—Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia—which, in return, used naval and police boats and helicopters to push back refugees away from their coasts. The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, admitted, “All we are doing is preventing foreign vessels from entering our waters.”
Another variety of migration wars will break out when migrants from one country will be pursued and persecuted by militias—or perhaps by government forces—based in their countries of origin. This may be because, for example, those soldiers seek to take revenge, or to destroy a political cause that the refugees are seen to represent. Such cross-border attacks would then trigger conflict with the host country in which those migrants have taken refuge. Such a scenario took place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the mid-1990s, as Rwandan troops crossed the border, killing thousands of Hutu refugees who had fled there. This provoked resistance from the Zairean army, whose leader was broadly sympathetic to the Hutu cause. More recently, in September 2017, there were also reports that Myanmar helicopters had crossed into Bangladeshi airspace in hot pursuit of Rohingya refugees.
But because of the vociferous international condemnation it inevitably provokes, this type of conflict is only likely to occur in relatively obscure parts of the world, and at moments when events elsewhere distract international attention. Otherwise, a more likely outcome is an intelligence-led war against elements within a refugee population, comparable to Soviet spies assassinating émigrés during the Cold War.
Tension might also arise if one country demands the repatriation of any number of its civilians who have fled for the sanctuary of another. Such tensions are nothing new, and have previously arisen not only between countries of origin and destination but, on occasion, with third parties too. After the 1848 revolutions in Europe, for example, the fate of Hungarian and Polish exiles, whom the Russian government wanted to extradite from Turkey, became a cause célèbre in Britain. However, such international tensions are likely to become more frequent in the years ahead and may conceivably erupt into confrontation. The most obvious single example was the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, after the Taliban regime refused to hand over its “guest,” Osama bin Laden.
There may also be occasional circumstances in which mass migration will prompt states not to fight against each other, but to join forces and wage a collective war against innocent refugees. During the Rohingya migrant crisis of August and September 2017, for example, Sheikh Hasina’s secular Awami League government in Bangladesh proposed joint military operations with Myanmar against Rohingya insurgents. But such a campaign—where innocents are extremely difficult to distinguish from militants—could easily spiral into a wider war against all Rohingya refugees.
Finally, the phenomenon of mass migration may spark armed clashes between states and activists that act—or claim to act—either on behalf of migrants or, in some cases, to defend their own homeland from migrants. In the summer of 2017, for example, a far-right German group, “Defend Europe,” sent a vessel into the Mediterranean to confront refugee boats and send them “back to Africa.” Such clashes, which could also erupt between activists, are of course not likely to be sustained or large-scale, but could be brief and bloody. The violence at Calais in 2016 was orchestrated by activists who confronted the police, while in August 2017 the Libyan authorities expressly warned ngos that had been helping some refugee boats in crossing the Mediterranean to steer clear of its territorial waters. The low-level clashes that could erupt between states and activists are exemplified by the tension between the French government and Greenpeace in the 1970s and 1980s over the issue of nuclear testing in the South Pacific. French warships harassed Greenpeace vessels, and on occasion used violence: French commandos stormed aboard Vega in 1973, for example, to seize its equipment and, in a notorious case in July 1985, used explosives to sink the Rainbow Warrior.
However, such low-level clashes could also spark a more serious type of confrontation if, in the process, one government is deemed responsible for injuring or killing foreign nationals. This would certainly create very serious political tension, just as the Rainbow Warrior incident provoked a loud chorus of excoriation from across the world, particularly from the two governments that represented the Dutch-Portuguese activist who was killed in the bombing. Another example was the tension between Tel Aviv and Ankara that followed Israel’s attack on the “Gaza Peace Flotilla” in May 2010, which led to the deaths of ten activists. However, it could in some circumstances also trigger war, just as in August 1998, the death of eleven Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan came perilously close to sparking a full-scale conflict between Iran and the Taliban.
The new migration phenomenon, in other words, is not just a humanitarian tragedy, but it also threatens to destabilize whole regions of the world in far-reaching ways. This means that it is imperative for every country—in the developing as well as the developed world—not just to manage the flow of people, but to tackle the causes of the migration problem at their source. More attention must focus on the phenomenon’s root causes, whether it is attributed to war, corruption or population growth. The ongoing situation in Myanmar, where discrimination against Rohingya remains institutionalized, also illustrates the dangers of injustice. More radical, drastic solutions will need to be considered. The consequences of inaction will be profound for all; the new age of migration wars has already begun.