Migration is an issue that has very much been dominating news channels in recent months and years, especially in light of the ongoing influx of desperate refugees to Europe from countries across the Middle East and North Africa. While much of the policy and media focus has been on the situations forcing people to flee in the first place (especially in delineating the contentious boundary between who classifies as a “refugee” and who can be dismissed as an “economic migrant”) – and on the types of responses receiving states should be expected to give to the hundreds of thousands of people on their borders – the underlying strategic and realpolitik elements of these mass movements of people have often been overlooked. Or, at least, this is the argument of American academic Kelly Greenhill, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University.
Speaking in London last week, and drawing on her own research for her most recent book, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, Greenhill makes the compelling case that although migration is often seen as an unwanted by-product of political and social turmoil, in many cases she believes that states often actively encourage population flows as a way to put pressure on other states to concede to political and/or economic demands. This tactic is something she calls “coercive engineered migration”: the forced expulsion of people as a means by which to destabilise rival states and to achieve significant concessions that are unobtainable through conventional military or diplomatic means.
What is interesting about Greenhill’s argument is how it draws attention away from the tragedy of refugees and migrants themselves (which, although no less deserving, are often the sole focus of the international media and policy spotlight) and towards the potential strategic goals and manoeuvres being employed by sending states that create outflows in the first place. In the recent case of the refugee crisis in Europe, therefore, it is enlightening to turn our gaze away from the “swarms” and “hoards” of people at our borders (and other such incendiary language used by right-wing and populist parties to stoke fear and xenophobia) and look, instead, at the possible motivations of the state actors themselves.
In her thesis, Greenhill argues that not only do states regularly make use of this “soft weapon”, but that it is also a surprisingly effective tool in achieving results – with a success rate of 57 per cent (compared to that of a mere 40 per cent for diplomatic measures alone). Moreover, she identifies three types of state coercers that make use of this strategy: generators, agents provocateurs, and opportunists.
“Generators directly create or threaten to create cross-border population movements unless targets concede to their demands. Agents provocateurs… do not create crises directly, but rather deliberately act in ways designed to incite others to generate outflows… Finally, opportunists play no direct role in the creation of migration crises, but simply exploit for their own gain the existence of outflows generated or catalysed by others.”
All of this is useful when considering our current predicament. Although the current refugee crisis has arguably been the unintended consequence of civil war, ethnic conflict and economic hardship in the Middle East and North Africa (especially Syria), rather than deliberate state action, it is also worth bearing in mind the political decisions that have allowed the current situation to develop. In Libya, for example, one of the key routes for migrants and refugees seeking safe passage to Europe, the schizophrenic political system and collapse of the rule of law precipitated by the NATO-led campaign to remove Gaddafi in 2011 has left a power vacuum that has all too readily been filled by opportunists and militias and created a situation in which the mass movement of people is inevitable. Similarly, in Syria – against which the UK government voted to begin airstrikes only two weeks ago – the meddling of external players such as Iran and the Gulf states, along with the inconsistent and damaging foreign policy of Western nations, has led to the complete disintegration of the country and fuelled a brutal civil war in which civilians are the only losers. Is it possible that, beyond the rhetoric and blustering, there is a concerted and coordinated effort taking place behind the scenes?
While it seems unlikely that Western states deliberately created situations in countries such as Libya and Syria in order to provoke mass emigration (whatever the conspiracy theories say), there is certainly a distinct possibility that the Al-Assad regime in Syria has been intentionally targeting civilians as a way to generate refugee flows that are likely to destabilise both its neighbouring countries and Europe further afield. Considering the foreign policy U-turn of Western governments, who back in 2011 avowed that there would be no solution to the crisis in Syria until Al-Assad was removed from power but recently have committed to negotiating with the Syrian regime, it is difficult to believe that the domestic political pressure faced by European governments on the refugee issue has not at least in some part contributed to their renewed willingness to negotiate with a man they previously considered a pariah. Similarly, Daesh have also recently threatened to send 500,000 refugees to Europe as a “psychological weapon” to destabilise the continent – language that is eerily similar to Greenhill’s concept of “weapons of mass migration”.
Could this mean that both Syria and Daesh could be characterised as “generators”, using human bodies as a form of soft power to coerce other states into giving them what they want? It certainly seems possible. While the case of Turkey, on the other hand, seems to perfectly fit that of “opportunist” – conceding financial and political deals from the EU in exchange for keeping migrants outside of the Schengen area.
Indeed, Greenhill’s framework allows us to see beyond the specifics of the refugee/migrant crisis and look at the realpolitik playing out behind the scenes. Realpolitik, however, isn’t everything, and these are still real people’s lives that are being played with – real people with real hopes, dreams, aspirations and minds of their own. AS Greenhill herself point out: “once migrants and refugees find themselves outside their states of origin, they are often capable of autonomous actions – they might move in different directions and do so in smaller or larger numbers than challengers desire. When this happens, outflows can become more like unguided missiles than smart bombs, making coercing particular targets more difficult.”
Something, perhaps, that actors such as the Syrian regime and Daesh should bear in mind as more and more Syrian refugees find their way to Europe – the consequences of the current crisis currently lie beyond our grasp, and we would do well to heed such words of advice and warning before treating individual human lives as if they are inanimate weapons susceptible to the bidding of state and non-state actors and not individuals with their own capacity for action.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.