Migration Will Drive the Next Wave of World Wars

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Today, not only does war continue to cause mass migration, but migration can itself become a cause of war.

January-February 2018

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.

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