How migration became a weapon in a ‘hybrid war’

When Alexander Lukashenko visited a group of migrants stranded on Belarus’s border with Poland after their makes an attempt to cross illegally had been blocked by Polish forces, he urged them to maintain making an attempt.

“If you want to go west, we won’t choke you, grab and beat you. It is your choice. Go across!” Belarus’s autocratic chief advised the group, who had gathered exterior a warehouse close to Bruzgi — their momentary shelter as japanese Europe’s icy winter units in.

“Go! That’s the whole philosophy. I know that what I said will not please everyone, especially abroad, but it is true, they should know the truth,” Lukashenko said in a go to on November 26 that was filmed and televised.

Lukashenko’s very public orchestration of a humanitarian disaster — European officers have accused his regime of simplifying entry for Middle Eastern migrants into Belarus after which directing them in direction of the border — is maybe probably the most blatant current instance of coercive diplomacy utilizing displaced individuals as a weapon.


Increasingly, that weapon is being aimed on the EU as a approach of exploiting its deep political divisions and public fears over uncontrolled immigration. The phenomenon is driving a additional hardening of attitudes throughout the union in direction of migration and asylum seekers, as member states search new methods of strengthening their borders and deterring displaced individuals from heading to the EU. The purpose, in accordance with Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s deputy international minister, is “to check the resilience of our countries” by “shaking the emotions of public opinion”.

Weaponised migration: Crackdown in East Pakistan (1971)

© Bettmann Archive

Displaced: 10m

What occurred: A crackdown by the Pakistani navy over a burgeoning independence motion in what was then East Pakistan resulted in genocide. Ten million Bengali refugees fled to India, placing stress on New Delhi to intervene.


What occurred subsequent: On December 5, Indira Gandhi recognised Bangladesh’s independence and on December 16 Dhaka fell to the Indian forces. By spring the subsequent 12 months, 9m individuals had been repatriated.

Governments are grappling for methods to answer weaponised migration alongside different coercive instruments geared toward social and political destabilisation, akin to cyber assaults and disinformation, which have been refined into a subtle navy doctrine of “hybrid war” by Moscow and copied by others.

“The classic distinction between war and peace has been diminishing,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s international coverage chief, mentioned final month as he unveiled the EU’s new “strategic compass” or international coverage technique. “It is not black and while. The world is full of hybrid situations where we face intermediate dynamics of competition, intimidation and coercion. And what we are seeing today at the border of Poland and Belarus is a typical example of that.”

Europe is hardly the one area the place immigration is a delicate problem. But the EU has a distinctive set of options that its adversaries akin to Lukashenko can exploit.


National governments are primarily chargeable for exterior border management however there’s borderless journey inside a lot of the bloc, no system for managing inside flows and no functioning mechanism for sharing duty for asylum seekers.

Some member states are rather more uncovered than others, both as entry factors or as most popular locations. And there are divisions amongst international locations and, furthermore, inside them, that make the difficulty politically radioactive for leaders.

“Belarus picked on something it identified as our fragility,” says Natalie Tocci, director of the Institute for International Affairs in Rome and a visiting professor at Harvard. “It was absolutely right.”

A refugee who arrived by train carries a picture of German chancellor Angela Merkel at the central station in Munich in 2015A refugee who arrived by practice carries a image of German chancellor Angela Merkel on the central station in Munich in 2015 © Sven Hoppe/EPA

Margaritis Schinas, European Commission vice-president, argues the Belarus episode marked a shift in the political climate throughout the union by highlighting the extent to which your entire bloc is uncovered to migration points. This, he argues, might foster a better sense of solidarity.

There had been beforehand doubts in components of the union as as to whether migration was actually a widespread downside, he mentioned. “Now the attack by Belarus has galvanised European public opinion and contributed significantly to a convergence of views that we will never be able to cope externally unless we can cope internally.”

Stage-managed ‘invasions’

Use of migrant flows as a instrument of aggression or intimidation is neither new nor uncommon. Kelly Greenhill, a US educational and writer of the book Weapons of Mass Migration, has documented not less than 76 cases because the Fifties and concedes there are most likely many extra.

Some are huge in scale. A crackdown by the Pakistani navy in 1971 despatched 10m Bengali refugees into India in half to stress New Delhi into ceasing its help for the Bengali insurgent motion. Fidel Castro permitted after which inspired 125,000 Cubans to flee to the US in the Mariel boatlift of 1980, partly to extract political concessions from US president Jimmy Carter, who had initially welcomed the inflow earlier than it become a tide.

Some coercers have been specific about their motives. Attempting to play on racial tensions inside Europe, Libyan chief Muammer Gaddafi in 2010 demanded €5bn a 12 months to cease unlawful African migration. “Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in,” he said.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to flood the EU with a number of the 4m refugees dwelling in his nation. Last 12 months officers bussed hundreds of them to Turkey’s land border with Greece, resulting in tense clashes with Greek border guards.

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Erdogan complained that Turkey was overburdened and that the EU was not doing its half. Turkey struck a cope with the EU in 2016 to staunch the stream of principally Syrian refugees into Europe in return for €6bn in assist and an EU promise, up to now largely unfulfilled, to confess extra recognised asylum-seekers.

“After we opened the doors, there were multiple calls saying ‘close the doors’,” Erdogan mentioned on the time. “I told them, ‘it’s done. It’s finished. The doors are now open. Now, you [Europe] will have to take your share of the burden’.”

Other states have used the identical intimidatory strategies with far narrower aims. In May, Moroccan authorities inspired hundreds of migrants, together with lots of its personal residents, to swim spherical a border fence and enter the Spanish North African territory of Ceuta. Some had been duped into considering that the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo was enjoying a match in the enclave.

The stage-managed invasion was an act of protest and of stress. Rabat was livid that Spain had allowed in Brahim Ghali for emergency medical therapy. Ghali is a chief of the independence motion for Western Sahara, over which Morocco claims sovereignty.

For months Rabat had been pushing Madrid to observe the Trump administration’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty declare. It had allowed the variety of migrants arriving from its waters to Spain’s Canary Islands to rocket, says a Spanish official: “They couldn’t force Spain to change its mind, so they used this very hybrid form of war to pressure the country.”

Madrid refused to bow to Moroccan stress though Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez subsequently changed his international minister.

Weaponised migration: Mariel boatlift (1980)

© Tim Chapman/Miami Herald/Getty Images

Displaced: 125,000

What occurred: In April 1980, Fidel Castro introduced that each one Cubans wishing to to migrate to the US might board boats on the port of Mariel. Some 125,000 Cubans in 1,700 boats fled to US shores, overwhelming the coast guard and placing political stress on then president Jimmy Carter.

What occurred subsequent: More than 1,700 “Marielitos” had been imprisoned and deported, whereas lots of extra had been detained till they may discover sponsors. An settlement between the US and Cuban governments in October 1980 ended the exodus.

To the north, the brief 13km span of the Strait of Gibraltar between Africa and Spain stands as a image of Europe’s vulnerability to weaponised migration. Geography leaves Europe uncovered to turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, in addition to to the results of giant discrepancies of wealth and alternative between comparatively brief distances.

“What makes Europe susceptible is that we are surrounded by neighbours who are in trouble,” says the Spanish official. “And the neighbours of our neighbours are in even greater trouble.”

European disunion

Geography is just one purpose for the EU’s susceptibility. Its adversaries are utilizing the EU’s political foundations in opposition to it, says Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and writer of The Age of Unpeace, a e-book about how interdependence between international locations creates battle.

The EU was constructed on multilateralism and free and open markets after which it tried to increase the mannequin to the remainder of the world by world establishments and commerce agreements.

“For Europeans this was a kind of ideology as well as an opportunity,” Leonard says. “We found ourselves much more bound into the world so we are much more vulnerable.”

Those who search to weaponise migration in the meantime perceive that the EU remains to be grappling with the destabilising results of the 2015-16 disaster, when round 1.5m asylum seekers and refugees poured into Europe.

Weaponised migration: Libya and the EU (2010)

© Taha Jawashi/AFP through Getty Images

Displaced: unknown

What occurred: In 2008 greater than 32,000 individuals had been caught making an attempt to enter Italy illegally. The EU was eager to strike a pact with Libyan chief Muammer Gaddafi to assist stem the stream.

What occurred subsequent: Following the signing of the Rome-Tripoli accord, the variety of individuals getting into Italy illegally dropped to 7,300 in 2009. In 2010 Gaddafi demanded €5bn a 12 months for Libya’s efforts, warning that Europe “could turn into Africa” as “there are millions of Africans who want to come in”.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s choice to welcome Syrian refugees to Germany can be remembered by many as a noble humanitarian gesture. But different leaders had been horrified by a unilateral choice that sowed divisions amongst EU member states, exacerbated east-west tensions and fuelled anti-establishment Eurosceptic forces.

It might have tipped the stability in favour of Brexit. It additionally created a civil struggle inside Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union from which it’s nonetheless struggling to recuperate.

“This cannot happen again. This is on the mind of everybody,” says Camino Mortera-Martinez of the Centre for European Reform in Brussels.

The episode has left Europeans deeply divided about how a lot immigration is required and the way a lot is tolerable with out harming social cohesion or nationwide identification.

One legacy of the 2015-16 disaster has been the EU’s lack of ability to place in place a important lacking part of its putative migration “pact”: a relocation scheme permitting member states to apportion asylum seekers and/or the monetary burden. Similarly absent is a extra level-headed debate about integrating refugees and utilizing them to plug labour market shortages.

Schinas says one of the simplest ways of addressing Europe’s publicity to hybrid assaults is by transferring in direction of settlement on the pact. He provides that the EU must create a better-connected “circuit” of measures, together with relocations of asylum seekers, monetary help and using its Frontex border power.

“In the EU there is not a shred of doubt that migration is a common European problem and member states are pooling sovereignty, resources and more and more political will to get it sorted out as a European problem together. This will happen,” he says.

Some EU diplomats are much less satisfied. Member states stay deadlocked over methods of bolstering solidarity and discovering methods of distributing asylum seekers getting into the EU through its frontier states. Some central and japanese European international locations, together with Poland and Hungary, have been notably immune to the plan. Mortera-Martinez says forcing individuals on to sure EU international locations “is not going to happen”.

Amid the controversy about managing migration internally, the EU has invested in beefing up its exterior controls, in what critics decry as a “Fortress Europe” coverage.

Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader, at the launch of an anti-immigration poster campaign in 2016

Nigel Farage, then Ukip chief, on the launch of an anti-immigration poster marketing campaign in 2016 © Philip Toscano/PA

It has outsourced the policing of migrant flows to regimes far much less involved about human rights requirements, controversially offering monetary help for the militia-backed Libyan coast guard because it seeks to scale back Mediterranean crossings. EU abroad assist is increasingly tied to frame safety.

The stand-off with Belarus is in the meantime hardening approaches in direction of asylum in the EU, analysts say. Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have all used legal guidelines or momentary decrees to curb the fitting to asylum as hundreds of people sought to enter the international locations from Belarus. The EU Commission on Wednesday accepted guidelines allowing temporary suspensions of some asylum protections.

Countries together with Greece have additionally been accused of pushing again asylum seekers, which is in opposition to worldwide regulation. In early October, member states together with Greece, Cyprus, Poland and Austria known as in a letter to the fee for a toughening in the Schengen code, demanding that EU exterior borders be protected with a “maximum level of security”, together with using EU-funded bodily infrastructure. Ursula von der Leyen, fee president, has dominated out deploying EU cash to pay for fences and partitions.

Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe think-tank, says the rethink on migration was “part of a wider effort by the EU to make itself less vulnerable to actions by third countries and to strike a tougher posture in broader geopolitical struggles”.

“Reviewing the Schengen border code and building fences tackles a symptom, but fails to address the underlying pull and push factors that bring migrants to Europe in the first place,” she says.

The Kremlin’s hand

Whether a extra full European migration regime would have helped defuse the Poland-Belarus stand-off is moot. EU governments have closed ranks behind Poland, regardless of strained relations over its rule of regulation breaches.

But not like Latvia and Lithuania, whose crises on the Belarus border rapidly dissipated, the nationalist Law and Justice authorities in Warsaw rejected assist from the EU and solid itself as a sole bulwark in opposition to unlawful immigration. It was a political present. “This has the potential to win them another election,” says Mortera-Martinez.

Weaponised migration: Morocco punishes Spain (2021)

© Fadel Senna/AFP through Getty Images

Displaced: 10,000

What occurred: In May 2021 Moroccan authorities inspired hundreds of migrants to enter Ceuta, a Spanish territory in North Africa. Rabat was livid Spain had given emergency medical assist to Brahim Ghali, a pro-independence chief from Western Sahara, over which Morocco claims sovereignty.

What occurred subsequent: The disaster was ultimately defused with Morocco taking again lots of the migrants. Its calls for for Ghali’s arrest and for recognition of its sovereignty had been rebuffed.

Greenhill, the US educational, has concluded from her analysis that utilizing migration as a weapon is extra profitable than different kinds of intervention, coercion or aggression.

For Lukashenko, the episode helped to distract a number of the consideration from the deteriorating human rights scenario in Belarus after he stole final 12 months’s presidential election, says Michal Baranowski, senior fellow on the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw.

The autocrat has spoken on to Merkel twice in the final month, having been ostracised by western leaders since his crackdown — suggesting his efforts to get extra consideration from the west have met with some success.

Lukashenko has been far much less profitable on different fronts, together with his need to set off a political disaster in Poland, or isolate it throughout the EU, or power a reversal in EU sanctions in opposition to Belarus.

Przydacz, like many others in Europe, sees President Vladimir Putin’s hand behind Lukashenko’s provocation, given the Belarusian dictator’s dependence on Kremlin help, though Russia’s direct involvement is unclear.

“One of Lukashenko’s objectives was to present Poland . . . as an inhumane country that does not observe basic principles, while Putin is giving us lessons on humanity as the president of Russia. I think every European or American reader can see the difference,” says Przydacz.

Nevertheless, lots of the Middle Eastern individuals who amassed in Belarus stay trapped on the border, even after some have returned dwelling. With the winter setting in it’s a human distress that leaves many Europeans each deeply uncomfortable and polarised over the fitting response.

Through his Belarusian puppet, says Tocci, Putin “shames us in the eyes of the world”.

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