When migrants become weapons

When migrants become weapons

The long history and worrying future of a coercive tactic

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March/April 2022 | Foreign Affairs
Migrants seeking to enter Greece from Turkey, March 2020 Dimitris Tosidis / Xinhua / Eyevine / Redux
Kelly M Greenhill
February 23, 2022
Foreign Affairs

In the fall of 2021, the leaders of several European countries announced that they were being confronted by an entirely new security threat: weaponized migration. Over the course of a few months, Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, enticed thousands of migrants and would-be asylum seekers, primarily Kurds from Iraq and Syria, as well as some Afghans, to his country with promises of easy access to the European Union. Flown into the capital, Minsk, on special visas, they were bused to Belarus’s western border, where they were left in large, unprotected encampments as winter approached and temperatures plunged. Despite EU legislation and UN treaties guaranteeing humanitarian protections for asylum seekers, border guards from Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland pushed those attempting to enter their countries back into Belarus, employing tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. In orchestrating a televised humanitarian crisis on the EU’s doorstep, Lukashenko produced a major headache for European policymakers. Although the Belarusian leader’s motivations remain opaque, a key objective appears to have been to discomfit, humiliate, and sow division within the EU for failing to recognize him as the legitimate winner of the flawed 2020 Belarus-ian presidential election and for imposing sanctions on his country after he brutally suppressed the pro-democracy protests that followed.

To many observers, the manufactured crisis marked the beginning of a dangerous new era in international power politics. Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs, suggested that Lukashenko’s strategy was a novel way of “using human beings in an act of aggression,” and commentators warned that what Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, called “a hybrid weapon” could soon be adopted by other leaders: since conventional wars have become too costly, the argument went, more and more governments may seek to turn migrants and asylum seekers “into bullets,” as the political scientist Mark Leonard warned—especially to target the EU, a coveted destination that is surrounded by impoverished, repressive, and unstable states.

For European governments, trumpeting the novelty of Belarus’s actions has been politically useful. At a time when an unprecedented number of people are on the move and anti-immigration sentiment is at an all-time high, irregular migration flows pose far-reaching challenges. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are now more than 82 million forcibly displaced people worldwide—or one out of every 95 people on earth. And that number is unlikely to shrink anytime soon. As some politicians have declared, only by defending the EU’s external borders with fences, walls, and robust policing can the bloc protect itself from future acts of predation.

But all the handwringing in European capitals has missed the point. For one thing, there was nothing remotely original about Lukashenko’s actions. Fifty years ago, in language strikingly similar to Johansson’s, India’s ambassador to the UN, Samar Sen, accused Pakistan of a “new crime of refugee aggression” after an estimated ten million refugees were induced to cross into India from what was then East Pakistan. Even the techniques that Lukashenko employed were old-school: in using travel agents to lure migrants to Minsk, the Belarusian leader stole a page from the playbook of East Germany, which in the mid-1980s placed advertisements throughout the Middle East and South Asia promising “comfortable flights” to East Berlin and “quick and smooth transit” into the West as part of a successful scheme to extract economic and political concessions from West Germany.

Nor has weaponized migration been confined to Europe. The United States has been an especially frequent target, with the tactic used against nearly every U.S. administration from Dwight Eisenhower’s in the 1950s through George W Bush’s in the first decade of this century. And Nicaragua’s recent decision to eliminate visa requirements for Cubans entering Nicaragua has not only created a valuable pressure relief valve for Cuba but also offered Nicaragua an additional potent source of leverage against the United States, should it feel the need for another bargaining chip.

While hardly new, Lukashenko’s gambit did serve to bring this oft-deployed weapon into full view. In doing so, the Belarusian leader showed how little Western governments, even now, understand the tactic and the ways it plays on the inherently contradictory and hypocritical politics surrounding migration in many advanced democracies. By exploiting political divisions that exist within the targeted states, the threatened or actual deployment of engineered flows of migrants has long been a distressingly effective policy instrument, and it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Unless policymakers begin to confront the forces that enable weaponized migration, the favored policy responses seem destined to increase, rather than curtail, its use.


Although it has multiple uses, weaponized migration is often employed as an instrument of state-level coercion, undertaken to achieve a wide range of geopolitical and other foreign policy goals that have been frustrated by other means. States and nonstate actors have resorted to this tactic at least 81 times—and possibly many more—since the advent of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which granted those fleeing political persecution the right to seek asylum in states that are signatories to the agreement. Governments that weaponize migration to achieve foreign policy objectives are often, but not always, autocratic; their targets have disproportionately, but not exclusively, been advanced liberal democracies.

The foreign policy objectives sought have been as diverse as the coercers themselves. Often, weak, relatively impoverished countries have used weaponized migration to extract financial and other forms of in-kind aid from wealthier and more powerful targets. In at least four separate episodes in the 1990s, for example, the Albanian government obtained food aid, economic assistance, and even military assistance from Italian special forces in exchange for stanching flows of Albanian migrants into Italy. On other occasions, the tool has been deployed to achieve political and military aims. In 1994, the exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide persuaded a reluctant United States to reinstall him in office in part by threatening to mobilize large numbers of Haitians to “take to the sea” and head for the United States if the Americans failed to do so. And in the early 1980s, the Pakistani leader Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq agreed to continue to host three million Afghan refugees then residing in Pakistan—many of whom were allied with the United States in its fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—in exchange for a variety of concessions from Washington, including the cessation of US opposition to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

When weaponized migration is used, it is often successful. In nearly three-quarters of the 81 cases I have identified, the tactic achieved at least some of the desired objectives; in well over half, it obtained most or all of what was sought. By comparison, traditional forms of coercive diplomacy—including sanctions and military operations short of all-out war—tend to succeed, at best, only about 40 percent of the time. Although governments usually resort to weaponized migration quite selectively, when there is a high probability of a favorable outcome, the record shows how attractive the tool can be. But migrants seeking a better life and refugees fleeing wars and devastation do not in themselves constitute a weapon. Crucially, the effectiveness of migration flows as a method of coercive statecraft depends on the attitude and politics of the targeted country.


For many countries, the specter of an influx of migrants has reliably triggered a fraught political response. On multiple occasions in the first decade of this century, for example, the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi promised to “turn Europe Black” and “Muslim” if the EU failed to meet his various demands for financial and other forms of assistance. Such threats played into long-standing European concerns about being overrun by African migrants, and for many years, the EU complied. (In the years since the 2011 uprising, the militias that now control Libya have found new ways to continue the practice.) Similarly, over the past decade, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “flood” the EU with migrants from the Middle East and farther afield unless Brussels provided certain concessions. In 2016, this resulted in an infamous deal in which he received promises of six billion euros in financial assistance, a revival of EU accession talks, and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens seeking to enter the EU in exchange for continued assistance from Ankara in stanching migration flows into the European Union.

For Libya and Turkey, the mere issuance of such threats has often been sufficient to obtain desired concessions. It helps that both countries understand that the Europeans are caught between a rock and a hard place: they do not want to take refugees, but they cannot easily refuse to do so, either. In a meeting with EU officials in late 2015, Erdogan reportedly quipped, “So how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees?”

As these and many other cases show, manufacturing an influx of people—or simply threatening to do so—can be an effective way of leveling the playing field with more powerful adversaries. Direct testimony from officials in countries that have used weaponized migration—including Cuba, Haiti, and Turkey—indicates that a migration emergency often opens up bargaining space that did not previously exist through conventional diplomatic channels. And even when coercers do not obtain their preferred outcomes, such engineered migration flows often force their countries’ interests into view. Indeed, in a significant number of cases, including perhaps Belarus in 2021, a key objective may simply be to create a crisis that forces the engagement of the targeted countries; migration happens to be a particularly useful instrument for doing so.


Historically, the policy responses to weaponized migration have fallen into several distinct categories. As the high success rate of the tactic shows, governments have frequently chosen to concede to the coercers’ demands. In addition to potential reputational and other political costs, however, a drawback to conceding is that it encourages the weaponizers, like successful hostage takers, to return to the strategy time and again. Cuba, for instance, used weaponized migration against the United States on three different occasions between the 1960s and the 1990s—most notoriously permitting the departure to the coast of Florida of more than 125,000 Cubans during the 1980 Mariel boatlift—in order to obtain a variety of concessions. Haiti did the same in the 1970s and 1980s under the Duvaliers. This continued in the 1990s and into the early years of this century under Aristide, at which point Aristide made one migration threat too many and found himself being flown into exile in central Africa by a fed-up Washington. More recently, the EU’s concessions to Libya and Turkey have encouraged those countries to come back for more. The fact that the Europeans have paid these countries over sustained periods to host ever-larger numbers of displaced people—Turkey is host to more refugees than any other country—also means that their threats should be treated as credible.

Alternatively, targeted governments can respond to a threatened migration inflow by abrogating their humanitarian commitments, closing their borders, and locking their doors. In some cases, countries have reacted to engineered migration crises—as they have to ordinary migration flows—by partially or completely outsourcing the handling of the influx. The United States used this tool with varying degrees of success in the latter part of the twentieth century, seeking assistance from Panama and other Latin American countries to house Haitian migrants in exchange for financial aid and other assistance.

Migrants trying to reach Europe near the island of Lampedusa, August 2021.
Migrants near the island of Lampedusa, Italy, August 2021
Juan Medina / Reuters


Similarly, since the early years of this century, Australia has paid the tiny island nation of Nauru and other remote islands in its vicinity to detain would-be asylum seekers and keep them away from Australian shores. These “warehouse” countries, however, can become weaponizers themselves—as Nauru has demonstrated on multiple occasions, demanding, according to some reports, ever-larger payments from the Australian government for doing its bidding.

For advanced liberal democracies, buying off others to keep migrants at bay may also come at a high political and moral cost. Contravening their humanitarian and legal obligations can reinforce anti-immigration sentiment domestically and further undermine the values that liberal states claim to hold dear. And when one country does it, that may encourage others to follow suit, triggering a cascade of illiberal anti-migration measures, a process that has been well underway in many countries for decades. Indeed, considering the EU’s Faustian bargain with the militias now controlling Libya—which have set up EU-funded detention centers for thousands migrants trying to reach Europe—one might reasonably conclude that the EU has adopted and vigorously embraced the Australian model of offshore warehousing. Unfortunately for European leaders, apart from facing the moral cost of such arrangements, they, too, are now experiencing the knock-on effects, including the militias’ brandishing of those same detainee populations for the purposes of serial weaponization and coercion.

Yet another possible policy response, if one used less frequently, is to take military action to change conditions on the ground in the coercing country. But wars can be costly, and their outcomes uncertain. Although foreign-imposed or foreign-assisted regime change has sometimes achieved its primary objective—Qaddafi was removed from power in 2011—no such venture in the last three decades has gone wholly according to plan. Moreover, in almost every case, the military incursion cost more, and generated more refugees and internally displaced people, than was expected at the outset. In Libya in 2011, the NATO-led intervention helped destabilize not only the country itself but also the broader region, generating an even larger pool of displaced people on Europe’s periphery—and making the EU even more vulnerable to weaponized migration.


Paradoxically, part of the recurring effectiveness of weaponized migration seems to stem precisely from the fact that policymakers are often woefully unaware of its long history and the lessons that can be drawn from its past use. Time and time again, governments confronted with such a situation erroneously believe that what they are seeing is a brand-new form of blackmail or aggression. Victor Palmieri, who was the US coordinator for refugee affairs at the time of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, would later describe his bafflement that this tool had long been in use, including by Castro himself—in the Camarioca boatlift 15 years earlier. “We spent a week in the Situation Room worrying about what to do . . . before I heard the word ‘Camarioca,’” Palmieri recalled. He continued: “I remember saying, ‘You mean this has happened before?’” Officials in both Havana and Washington would later acknowledge that the Mariel boatlift might have been avoided altogether had key policymakers recognized it as a tactic that had been used before. Even amid the 1999 Kosovo crisis, during which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic carried out his threat to uproot some 800,000 Kosovar Albanians from their homes, Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, admitted that he regretted not having taken Milosevic seriously when the Serbian leader said he could empty Kosovo “within a week.” Although what happened in Kosovo is often remembered purely as an episode of ethnic cleansing, Milosevic’s actions were aimed squarely at NATO. He was betting that the manufactured refugee crisis—which he had previously threatened—would make the alliance reconsider its bombing campaign.

With a better understanding of how weaponized migration has been used in the past—and when it has worked and when it has not—the range of policy responses becomes broader. One option is to negotiate with would-be weaponizers in the very early stages of a potential confrontation, despite strong predispositions not to do so. History shows that weaponized migration is rarely a strategy of first resort, and in a number of cases, such as the Cuban boatlifts, earlier and more proactive diplomacy would most certainly have staved off unnecessary crises. Preemptive engagement would require careful monitoring of the prevailing conditions in the potential weaponizing state, coupled with efforts to respond quickly when a government begins to make threatening noises. Evidence from past cases strongly suggests that a bit less hubris, less public name-calling, and more private negotiations could result in fewer future confrontations, especially when a coercer has sent signals that it is turning to migrant flows only because its more powerful counterparts have refused to take its concerns seriously. Although there are few indications that leading Western governments are prepared to adopt such a proactive approach, better familiarity with how migration has been instrumentalized in the past—and of the missed opportunities along the way—could result in new thinking on the issue.

Finally, there is another way to deal with weaponized migration that may be the most effective, although it is often the least talked about: accommodation. Theoretically, targeted governments could greatly diminish the potency of the tool simply by absorbing and assimilating the migrants. In effect, faced with the threat of an engineered migrant influx, a targeted country or block of countries could refuse to make any concessions and instead, without fanfare, receive and process the displaced people, thus removing the strategic leverage of the government sending them. After all, although it was portrayed as a large-scale threat, the Belarusian crisis involved at most several thousand people and would have represented little more than a blip in overall EU asylum figures.

Of course, a successful accommodation strategy would require astute and proactive political management and, more broadly, efforts to change negative perceptions of migrants among less welcoming constituents. Essential would be the rapid provision of financial assistance and other forms of support to the communities, regions, and states expected to take in the newcomers. This holds true inside individual countries as well as within multinational entities, such as the European Union. Although not associated with an episode of weaponized migration, the warm reception granted to Afghan refugees in many countries and communities following the August 2021 withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan demonstrates that accommodation is still possible under the right circumstances, even in today’s fraught and polarized political climate.

For now, however, the prospect of a larger change of course by targeted states seems unlikely. If anything, governments are moving in the opposite direction, by continuing to tighten their immigration laws and asylum policies and by further limiting their legal commitments to the protection of the most vulnerable populations of the world. These trends only accelerated with the rise of populist nationalism and Trumpism and are not easily divisible along political party lines on either side of the Atlantic. It is also worth noting that cultural hostility toward migrants often has little to do with the size of an influx or the ability of the destination country to accommodate them. It is revealing that weaponized migration has succeeded in cases featuring only tens of people and failed in others involving millions.


If what Lukashenko sought to do on the Belarusian border wasn’t novel, it did accomplish something that many other recent episodes of weaponized migration have failed to do: it laid bare in a visible and dramatic way a paradoxical reality of the current global order. Although the world is highly interconnected and the movements of goods, services, and money are now treated as global issues, most governments continue to think in national terms about the movement of people. And the extensive history of responses to weaponized migration suggests that the tool has long been a particularly effective way for governments to exploit that understanding of migrants and other people on the move to get their demands met.

But the Belarusian crisis—and the European reaction to it—also showed the extent to which the tactic itself has come far more into the open. As the number of governments willing to use the tactic publicly—as opposed to privately, by issuing threats directly to government officials—has risen, so has the number of targeted countries that are prepared to publicly acknowledge that they are being blackmailed. This marks a substantive and important change from decades past. And it makes the use of this kind of coercion far more difficult to miss, which might help explain why some observers mistakenly believe that it is new and that its use is suddenly proliferating.

This growing transparency, however, may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes coercers’ demands more credible and more likely to be taken seriously, which could in turn push targeted governments to pursue early, pre-crisis negotiations. On the other hand, it can also serve as political cover for targeted states’ own harsh and illiberal immigration policies: as long as irregular migration is seen as posing a security threat, the current trend toward ever-tighter immigration restrictions, despite declining birthrates in many advanced democracies, is likely to continue. These moves will further weaken the framework that undergirds the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which strengthened the original convention, and the universal humanitarian standards for refugees they set out to establish. And although the fledgling Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration—a nonbinding agreement endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2018—includes a host of admirable aspirations, it has no actionable methods to sanction noncompliance and other bad behaviors.

None of this bodes well for the future of liberal democracy or for the protection of the world’s most vulnerable. If the current dynamic prevails, not only will weaponized migration continue to be an ever more pervasive symptom of a collapsing global migration regime, with the destabilizing, self-reinforcing effects that come with it. In addition, Western governments may begin to undermine the human rights and freedoms they purport to stand for. If the advanced liberal democracies are to survive as advanced and liberal and democratic, they will need to find a way to keep their borders secure without losing their identity, their values, and the liberal state itself.


KELLY M GREENHILL is Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor at SOAS University of London, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University, and a Senior Research Scholar at MIT. She is the author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy.