Explore the motivation for the weaponisation of migrants and the macro-effects upon said migrants
Written by David Fallshaw- Daniels for the course 'F2118: Anthropological Perspectives on Borders, Migration and Mobility in the Mediterranean' taught by Dr Natalie Göltenboth.
It was with an ultimatum that he would turn Europe “black with a human flood from North Africa” that Muammar Qaddafi warned the European Union to halt support for rebels from the newly formed Libyan National Liberation Army. Sadly, this was just another confirmed instance in the troubling development of the use of migrants as weapons in the “arsenal of both state and non-state actors pursuing unconventional means to achieve objectives”. Whilst this is by no means a new phenomenon, the diffusion of worldwide power through globalisation has blurred global lines between war and peace-making, making human migration – and the motivations behind it – a legitimate tool of foreign policy. Within this essay I will explore the motivations behind the weaponisation of migrants and the macro-effects this then has upon the migrants themselves. However, first weaponised migration must be defined; I will define this as the exploitation of human migration by a state or non-state actor – whether voluntary or forced – in order to achieve a set objective. This can be either strategically engineered by the actor itself, or by “opportunistically exploiting migratory events already underway”. As previously stated, this is hardly an uncommon phenomenon, however, it is a trend that is overwhelmingly growing within our increasingly interconnected world; since 1950 there have been 56 determinate cases where groups of displaced people have been used as pawns to achieve foreign policy objectives. This essay will explore the motivations behind weaponised migration and the subsequent macro-effects upon the victimised migrants. The first pillar of my argument will explore the political motivations behind weaponised migration; this can be sub-divided into a number of individual motivations for example dispossessive migration or to increase political instability. This can be best exemplified in recent years by mass Iranian deportations to Afghanistan to destabilise the region at the expense of the United States. Weaponised migration is also an economically motivated phenomenon, the expulsion of Indian residents from Uganda in 1972 was a blatant attempt at appropriating their economic assets. The final pillar of my argument will centre upon the weaponisation of migrants for military purposes. Within the military sphere, such a tactic is often strategically engineered and is designed to disrupt military operations and to subsequently weaken the fighting ability of an opposing force as has been seen in Jordan where Russia and Syria have forced both Jordan and Turkey to deal with a migrant crisis, ergo limiting their fighting power against al-Assad.Such incidences have had a dramatic knock-on effect upon the displaced population as will also be shown in the essay. Ultimately, there are a broad spectrum of motivations for the weaponisation of migrants, both state and non-state actors will utilise this in an increasingly globalised world, much to the misfortune of the displaced people.
The first part of this essay will focus upon the political motivations for the weaponisation of migrants in the modern world and I will utilise a number of case studies analysing both the motivations and the macro-effects upon the migrants in question. The political nature of weaponised migration has long been a weapon in the arsenal of state actors with Teitelbaum, in particular, noting that its origins can be traced back to the British Colonisation of North America. Said political motivations are undoubtedly the most common stimulus for the weaponisation of migrants, however, in my opinion, there are clear subdivisions within the political sphere. Perhaps the most common type of weaponised migration is possessive migration in which forced migration is enacted to appropriate desired territory from a target group. Quite simply, by forcibly displacing a large group of people, their land (and subsequently the natural resources that reside within) become your own. This also further serves to legitimise your state. There are numerous examples of this; in the modern period the Jewish migration into the West Bank (and the subsequent Palestinian displacement this entails) serves to “appropriate disputed territory and to decrease the viability of a future Palestinian state”. In my opinion, the underlying aim within the political sphere is always increasing stability and legitimacy for the oppressing group and the West Bank example reinforces this perfectly. Israeli foreign policy only enforces the legitimacy of the Israeli state within the disputed area in question. The knock-on macro effect upon the migratory population has been devastating. One in three Palestinians worldwide is a refugee as a direct result of the conflict, with a UN estimate of 20 000 refugees displaced annually. 1.78 million of these refugees have fled to Jordan where they live in refugee camps with a daily struggle for basic living necessities as a result of Israeli foreign policy and a desire to legitimise Israeli hegemony over a contested area.
Aside from possessive (or indeed dispossessive) migration, weaponised migration within the political sphere can also have a destabilising effect upon a region, something that is deeply advantageous to a nation’s adversary. The most recent US excursion into Afghanistan in order to stabilise the area, has been damaged directly by Iranian foreign policy which weaponizes migration for its own ends. By orchestrating mass migrations of Afghani citizens from Iran to Afghanistan, this allows Iran to “maintain influence and political leverage within Afghanistan at the expense of the United States”, essentially destabilising the region. By conducting mass deportations to Afghanistan without warning, humanitarian crises subsequently occurred in the region with neither Afghan forces nor NATO forces being able to “adequately respond”. Whilst this had the effect of destabilising the United States actions in Afghanistan, it was also clearly advantageous for Iranian foreign policy being simultaneously utilised as a massive propaganda coup for Iran. This utilisation of weaponised migration by Tehran, effectively signalled to the international community – and indeed the government in Kabul – that “Iran remains key to long term stability in Afghanistan”. Dichotomously to this, American support “during the last decade and a half has provided anything but stability”. Whilst on a grand geo-political scale this has had a massive political impact, the macro-effects of said Iranian foreign policy have massively impacted the wellbeing of refugees in the region. The IOM estimates that during the last years of the American occupation of Afghanistan, over one million Afghans have been sent back across the border despite the awful conditions that await them. The conditions in the deporting nation, Iran, were perhaps just as bad. All migrants were held in detention camps whilst there are numerous anecdotal instances of torture and abuse as migrants were unable to pay for their own deportation. In Afghanistan, those refugees who fall into the hands of the Taliban face torture and imprisonment whilst the socio-economic conditions in Afghanistan itself means any refugees who return to the country face severe hardship. Afghanistan is currently facing economic collapse with 8.7 million people alone in the country nearing famine levels. To conclude, by weaponizing migration for their own ends Iran has created a mass destabilising effect in Afghanistan which increases their own regional influence as well as serving as a massive propaganda coup by embarrassing the United States and undermining its hold in the region.
Aside from dispossessive and destabilising motivations, the final political motivation for the weaponisation of migration is to threaten a target nation. The perfect example of this is the ongoing migrant crisis at the Poland-Belarussian border. Within this migrant crisis, Belarussian leader (Alexander Lukashenko) has weaponised migrants to directly threaten the border to Poland (and the rest of the European Union) in order to ease sanctions upon his own country. Lukashenko’s weaponisation of migrants occurred almost immediately after the EU imposed yet another round of sanctions on his regime, noting that this truly is an entirely artificially engineered migrant crisis. This can be further verified by the “huge increase in flights from the Middle East to Belarus” whilst “so-called tourist companies prepared special offers for sightseeing at the Western border”. The effects of this have been drastic with more than 30 000 migrants attempting to cross the border since August of 2021, something that Poland sees not as a humanitarian crisis but rather a distinct act of Belarussian aggression. The motivations are for this are quite simple; Lukashenko wants the European Union to start a dialogue with his government and therefore demonstrate that “European leader’s statements about his illegitimacy are nothing more than empty words”. Whilst there is undoubtedly an aggressive trialogue between Minsk, Warsaw and Brussels, this ongoing crisis has had a devastating knock-on macro effect upon refugees. The blame for the refugees’ suffering can perhaps be shared between both Poland and Belarus. From the 2nd of September 2021, the Polish government declared a state of emergency in the border area essentially preventing any medical aid or journalists from reaching the border areas. The effect of this has been punishing for the migrants with desperate refugees having been attacked by tear gas and water cannons. Subsequently, “at least ten migrants died of exposure, including a one-year-old Syrian child”. This is just another highly damaging impact of weaponised migration. To conclude with the political sphere, weaponised migration can occur for a variety of political motives. As a valuable weapon in the modern-day political arsenal of state and non-states alike, it can have a dispossessive, destabilising or threatening effect in order to achieve a group’s political aims. Iran, Israel, and Belarus have all made effective use of weaponised migration to achieve their political goals with Afghanistan (and America), Palestine and Poland suffering respectively. Weaponised migration for political motivation has become an incredibly effective foreign policy initiative, with exportive migration not only serving to “destabilise a target government” but also to legitimise and stabilise one’s own country in a contested geopolitical region, regardless of the impact upon thousands, if not millions, of refugees.
The economic motivations behind weaponised migration should similarly be discussed. Whilst undoubtedly a less common occurrence than politically motivated migration, weaponised migration for economic incentives is still a recognised geopolitical phenomenon. There are two primary facets behind economically motivated weaponised migration; firstly, when a country threatens to send migrants to another state unless economic demands are met and, secondly, when migrants are forced to move to appropriate their resources. The first part of this section of my argument will explore the occurrence of forced migration from a country or region in order to appropriate their resources. Whilst this may not seem like direct weaponisation as they are not targeted against a distinct threat, migrants are still weaponised and targeted for a host country’s gain; ergo, this is still weaponised migration. In the 20th century, this was a veritably common occurrence with migrants weaponised in order to ascertain their resources. Whilst one could argue this may overlap considerably with the aforementioned Israeli example, the examples of weaponisation I have chosen are primarily economically motivated whereas Israel’s actions in the West Bank are almost exclusively politically motivated. The economic motivation for the weaponisation of migrants can be compellingly seen in Idi Amin’s actions in Uganda in 1972. Within the space of a year the Ugandan dictator “expelled most Asians from Uganda in what has been commonly interpreted as a naked attempt at economic asset expropriation”. The motivations for this weaponisation of migrants was simple; by orchestrating the removal of Indian Ugandans from the country, their land, natural resources, and property become the possession of the state. The reallocation of the Ugandan Indian’s property was under total dominion of the Amin-led leadership who brutally appropriated belongings for both his own personal gain as well as the gain of those closest to him. Although there were undeniably political incentives to this weaponisation as well with Amin’s claimed desire to “give Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans”, this was just a veiled excuse for the motivation of economic gain. The macro-effects of this are apparent, within the space of a year the Ugandan government seized and redistributed 5,655 companies, farms, and agricultural estates alongside an even greater number of homes and cars. The direct beneficiaries of this were individuals in the Ugandan government or army. Although there was certainly a political motivations for this, by and large the Ugandan expulsion of the Asian community was primarily driven by economic incentives.
The second economic motivation behind weaponised motivation that I will explore is the occurrence when a state or non-state actor threatens to send migrants to another state unless economic demands are met. Although this is essentially blackmail, it is a veritably common occurrence in the international community, particularly in states surrounding the European Union which, as I will demonstrate here, has a reputation for caving to said blackmail. The first example that highlights blackmail as an economic motivation, is the 2008 agreement between Libya and Italy. Within this agreement, the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi threatened to open his northern borders to Italy (ergo weaponizing a migrant crisis) unless the Italian government agreed to pay $5 billion in reparations to Libya. This is one of the first incidences within this essay where a state actor has not deliberately orchestrated a migrant crisis to their own objectives but rather, they have taken advantage of a pre-existing migrant route. In 201,1 with the eruption of the Arab Spring revolts, Qaddafi attempted to deter the EU from providing both military and economic support to the rebel factions by warning them they were “bombing a wall which stood in the way of African migration to Europe”. The macro-effects of this to the refugees have been clear as there has been an enormous increase in migrants travelling from North Africa to Europe, especially via the Italian islands (Lampedusa amongst them). Before 2011, the number of migrants crossing from Libya to Italy was consistently less than 10 000 per year, however, in the summer of 2011, 48 000 migrants travelled to Lampedusa alone. By 2014, this number had risen to 170 000, proving that Qaddafi may have had a point. By blackmailing the European Union this served to strengthen the Libyan position within the region as it led directly to economic benefits but indirectly to greater geopolitical power within the region as Libya increased its bargaining power over the EU.
The occurrence of blackmailing a country with weaponised migrants into yielding to economic demands can be similarly seen in the far Eastern borders of the European Union. Turkish President Recep Erdogan has repeatedly blackmailed the European Union with a variety of economic demands in order to keep migration under control in his own country, therefore, both weaponizing both the migrants themselves and Turkey’s fortuitous position at the gates of the European continent. The most recent occurrence of blackmail was when the European Union began to criticise Turkish operations in Syria. Erdogan threatened to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way” if they did not stop criticising Turkey in Northern Syria and also limit a “planned embargo on arms sales” to Ankara. This is a perfect example of coercive tactic where migration is weaponised unless the EU does not provide economic aid to Turkey. Furthermore, this only stabilises Turkey’s own geopolitical standing within Europe as it strengthens and legitimises Turkish political power on both a regional and continental basis. Ultimately this threatening tactic is highly successful with a state blackmailing another power with the threat of a migrant crisis yielding to its economic ends. To conclude within the economic sphere, there are two major economic motivations for the weaponisation of migrants; firstly, the expulsion of migrants in order to appropriate their possessions. Whilst this may not seem like migrants are being directly weaponised, a movement of people is orchestrated in order to achieve an objective hence they are weaponised hence there is a clear motivation. Secondly the use of blackmail in order to achieve an economic objective. This is more clearly linked with deliberately orchestrated migrant emergency where a blackmailed group (the European Union in the examples I have chosen) will bow to pressure ergo resulting in economic gain from the weaponisation of migrants.
The final argument I will address in this essay is the weaponisation of migrants for primarily military benefits. Within this sphere migrants are weaponised by a state or non-state actor in order to achieve a military objective directly or indirectly. Although there may be considerable overlap within the political sphere (as in the case of Iran’s weaponisation of migrants to Afghanistan), the precise examples I will explore are primarily militarily motivated. Firstly, one must define militarised weaponised migration; in my opinion this involves the movement of migrants, frequently across international borders “to disrupt enemy operations or to lessen support for opposing military forces”. This frequently involves the forceful movement of migrants into a target nation’s territory and indeed is by far the most common form of weaponised migration over the past 10 years. Within this paragraph I will focus upon two examples; firstly, the exportation of refugees from Iran to Afghanistan, whilst I have focused on this case study within the political sphere, I will now address it from an exclusively military perspective. The second example will focus upon the creation of a refugee crisis by Russia and Syria in order to limit the military capabilities of Jordan and Turkey in fighting in Northern Syria. What should be noted within the military sphere is that no examples of weaponised migration have occurred where an actor takes advantage of a pre-existing migrant crisis, rather the weaponisation of migrants is exclusively artificially orchestrated by the state. The first example I will focus on however is the militarised weaponisation of migrants from Iran to Afghanistan. Whilst I have already focused on the destabilising effects upon the Afghan Government and US coalition troops in the region, there are exclusively military motivations to doing so. The Iranian government have been able to facilitate the infiltration of foreign fighters in Afghanistan alongside refugees, therefore there has been a direct military benefit to the weaponisation of migrants ergo directly increasing Iran’s military power within the region. Iran has also deliberately chosen deportation locations to maximise instability to the Afghan government. When deporting migrants Iran chooses deportation locations that maximise instability, for example Afghan provinces “with no NATO presence” or “without Provincial Reconstruction Teams”. Ultimately this disrupts militarily the ability to conduct operations and whether directly or indirectly damages the capabilities of the military in the region. As previously stated, this only further serves to legitimise Iranian geopolitical power in the region and to further strengthen the Iranian state in direct contrast to the Afghan (and indirectly American) states. What should be noted is that there is very little risk in this plan for the Iranian government. The weaponised use of migrants provides challengers with a method of attacking a state indirectly, something that is far less likely to be responded to in a retaliatory matter. Ultimately by “targeting specific populations in key terrains” this highly intelligent military manoeuvre severely limits the military capabilities of an opposition element.
The final case study within the military sphere revolves around similar motivations. Migrants are weaponised in key locations along a border area which ergo limits the fighting capabilities of a target state. A compelling example of this in recent years is the Russian and Syrian weaponisation of migrants against Jordan and Turkey – both states opposed to the Assad regime – that have been forced to deal with a migration crisis. Ergo this has dramatically limited their fighting ability in the region cementing Syria and Russia as regional powers in their wake. Quite simply this means that both Jordan and Turkey find themselves “expending a substantial amount of military resources on refugees” rather than there actual enemy – Assad. In the case of Syria therefore the Assad regime weaponises migrants by using militarised migration. The macro-effects upon the migrants have been enormous as of March 2021 official figures state that 672 000 Syrians have migrated directly through border regions to Jordan whereas experts put the real figure to be around 1.3 million people. Such a huge number of people moving into Jordan has undoubtedly disrupted military operations in the region, especially with the border being only 362 km in length with limited crossing points. This movement has made both mobilising Jordanian troops on the border as well as entering into Syria itself almost impossible due to the vast number of refugees moving to Jordan. Subsequently, the weaponisation of refugees in the Jordanian-Syrian conflict has severely disrupted the military capabilities of both Jordan and Turkey, therefore increasing the comparative geopolitical might of both Russia and Syria in the region. This is once more an effective use of weaponised migration in a contested regional area. By taking advantage of a pre-existing migrant emergency and weaponizing migration to their own ends, the Syrian state has disrupted the capabilities of their rivals and increased the stability of the Syrian state. In conclusion, militarised weaponised migration is one of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of both state and non-state actors in the 4th generation of warfare where the lines between combatants and non-combatants are blurred. As migrants are either forcibly moved, or an actor takes advantage of a pre-existing situation, migrants move into a target territory disrupting the enemy’s military capabilities ergo comparatively strengthening your own states regional power. This is perfectly shown in the two case studies where refugees are moved from Iran to Afghanistan and from Syria to Jordan, this disrupts both nations militaries capabilities massively and the macro-effects on refugees is substantial.
To conclude, the weaponisation of migration is an increasingly common development in the 4th generation of warfare where the lines between state and non-state actors become increasingly blurred. The globalised world in which we now live in aids human migration, and, in contested regions, this has led to the weaponisation of these migrants. Throughout this essay, I have explored three distinct facets surrounding the motivation for the weaponisation of migrants, as state or non-state actors takes advantage of a pre-existing situation or orchestrate a migrant crisis, in order to achieve a set objective ergo aiding the stability of their region or state. My first argument detailed the political motivations for the weaponisation of migrants and highlighted several sub-divided motivations including dispossessive migration or a destabilising effect as can be shown with my case studies of the West Bank and Afghanistan respectively. The threat of mass migration is a similarly political motivation for weaponised migration as can be seen in the ongoing migrant crisis at the Polish-Belarussian border where President Lukashenko has held the European Union to ransom with a threat of mass migration regardless of the human cost. Similar use of threatening behaviour can be seen in the economic sphere – although this time for exclusively economic gain – as can be shown by Libya’s threat to “turn Europe black” if they did not receive $5 billion proving that migrants can be weaponised for financial gain. Within the economic sphere I also discussed the appropriation of assets where migrants are forcibly removed for the financial benefit of a state or non-state actor. The final pillar of my argument centred around the militarised weaponisation of migrants. This is undeniably the most common form in the 21st century and is an ever-increasing phenomenon within a globalised world where 4th generation warfare is dramatically blurring the lines between combatants and non-combatants in contested areas. This tactic is often strategically engineered and is designed to disrupt military operations, ergo weakening the fighting ability of an opposing force, once again regardless of the impact upon the displaced population. Ultimately there are a broad spectrum of motivations for the weaponisation of migrants in the increasingly globalised world in which we live with both state and non-state actors utilising migrants for their own motivations, much to their misfortune.
Written by David Fallshaw- Daniels (December 2021)
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