Migration diplomacy gets messy and tough: Is mixed mobility being ‘weaponised’ for geopolitical aims?
The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
The essay’s author Gerasimos Tsourapas is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Glasgow, and the author of Migration Diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa: Power, Mobility, and the State (2021, Manchester University Press).
Migrants and refugees are increasingly used in global diplomacy as instruments within both political conflagrations and interstate coercion. In recent years, mixed mobility has become weaponised for domestic and geopolitical aims with important consequences for refugees and migrants.
Migrants and refugees are increasingly being used as bargaining chips in global diplomacy. This centres around both the exploitation of existing migration situations for foreign policy purposes and the creation of novel migration dynamics that serve states’ (geo)political purposes. In fact, in the last two years, several mixed migration crises have been manufactured across the European periphery alone: in early 2021, Morocco allowed the cross-border movement of thousands of migrants seeking to enter Spain, as part of an ongoing bilateral diplomatic spat. A similarly manufactured migration crisis occurred on the Greek-Turkish border a year earlier, in late February 2020, with Türkiye aiming to accrue distinct domestic and foreign policy goals. By summer 2021, Brussels had to tackle another state’s attempt to use migrants and refugees against the European Union (EU) and its member states: Belarus encouraged thousands of people to cross into European territory, yet again turning migrants and would-be asylum seekers into bargaining chips.
In other words, there is a particularly pressing need to analyse how mixed migration features in geopolitical disputes and coercive foreign policymaking, given the tremendous increase of use of mixed mobility across both Western states and the global South. All too frequently, governments seek to instrumentalise mobility as they make it easier or harder for migrants and refugees to cross their borders into a neighbouring country, while linking the control of such mobility to other issues on which they seek concessions. Despite the increasing use of migrants and refugees in global diplomacy, it is only recently that policymakers and academics started to analyse the consequences of this complex phenomenon. In fact, for much of the twentieth century, migration was considered a “low-policy” issue that did not typically feature high on Western states’ agendas. One recent attempt in understanding the weaponisation of mixed mobility has been via the broader scholarly focus on the interplay between foreign and migration policymaking, or migration diplomacy, which is gradually becoming normalised across world politics.
This essay examines how migration diplomacy is employed in the use of mixed migration flows for geopolitical aims in two ways. First, the use of existing mixed migration situations for diplomatic goals by countries of both origin and destination. Here, while this phenomenon is not novel, states’ migration diplomacy is becoming more coercive, as it draws from strategies employed within aid and development financing “conditionality” agreements, along with “securitisation” policies, as well as the logic of “externalisation” currently espoused by a range of Western countries. Second, we are witnessing governments’ deliberate exacerbation of existing migration dynamics or, even, the creation of new mixed migration routes that did not previously exist. Here, again, the logic behind engineered crises is linked to migration diplomacy agendas, as states realise the leverage that their geographical position may offer them vis-à-vis target states.
Geopolitics and diplomacy across existing mixed migration dynamics
Traditionally, migration diplomacy features in a state’s foreign policy based upon its bargaining position vis-à-vis other states as countries of origin, transit, or destination. Frequently, host states across Europe and North America are increasingly relying on diplomatic agreements that outsource migration and refugee management to other countries to keep those migrants out of their own territory. The United Kingdom signed a widely-criticised agreement with Rwanda in April 2022 under which it will send people deemed have entered the UK illegally to seek asylum there and will invest some £120 million ($157 million) into the country’s economic development and growth, as well as contributing to the costs of transporting, accommodating, and integrating those deported. Denmark is seeking to sign a similar agreement with Rwanda. Both the EU as a bloc as well as individual EU member states have set up agreements with a range of countries across the global South that offer economic aid in exchange for stronger border controls against irregular migration. Direct attempts at interstate coercion are also not uncommon, as in the case of the United States under former President Trump: the US strategy of securitising the country’s southern border involved the threat of trade sanctions towards Mexico and other Central American countries.
The use of coercive migration diplomacy is also common in refugee-hosting states across the global South, oftentimes as part of a strategy aimed at extracting additional resources from the international community. A key country that has repeatedly sought to engage in coercive migration diplomacy is Kenya. In mid-2016, Kenyan officials revived a threat to close the Dadaab refugee camp complex in Garissa County, accusing the West of abusing Kenya’s hospitality to avoid any kind of burden-sharing. The Kenyan Ministry of Interior announced that “having taken into consideration its national security interests, the [Government of Kenya] has decided that hosting of refugees has to come to an end […] the international community must collectively take responsibility on humanitarian needs.” Karanja Kibicho, the principal secretary in Kenya’s interior ministry at the time, argued that the West was underfunding the Somali refugee crisis and getting away with it “on the cheap”. The threat of camp closures has been repeated many times before and since and, although Kenya has yet to act on this, the prospect of deploying over half a million refugees residing there continues to carry leverage: in fact, Kenya’s hosting of hundreds of thousands of refugees since the fall of Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator, in 1991, has featured in the deteriorating Kenya-Somalia relations. Most recently, it has been linked to the maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya over a 100,000 km2 triangle in the Indian Ocean, which is thought to be rich in oil, gas, and fish. In March 2021, Kenya again ordered the closure of the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, only a week after a breakdown in bilateral negotiations over the maritime quarrel, although Kenyan officials deny any attempt to link the two issues.
Beyond host states, countries of transit have sought to instrumentalise mixed migration for geopolitical gains. In the context of the Mediterranean refugee crisis, Egypt saw its status as a key European ally enhanced. In May 2015, EU Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos visited Cairo in order to strengthen cooperation on irregular migration, while a number of EU officials—including former EP President Martin Schulz—argued for a quid pro quo agreement between Brussels and Cairo similar to the 2016 EU-Türkiye Statement. Egypt, for its part, has been keen to emphasise its role in helping to “help ease the burden several countries bear to accommodate the growing number of migrants.” Arguably, as the 2017-2020 EU-Egypt Priorities Agreement suggests, discussions on human rights, rule of law, and democratisation are being pushed aside by the need for enhanced dialogue and cooperation on a range of security, migration, and “crisis-management” issues.
In the ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis, Poland has also been able to flex its migration diplomacy muscles. Most Ukrainian refugees fled to Poland, from where they are likely to travel elsewhere within Europe as a result of the dispersed Ukrainian diaspora across the continent, visa-free travel arrangements, and the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive. Not surprisingly, these latest developments have led Brussels to rethink the longstanding dispute with Warsaw over the independence of Polish judiciary and media. As the country turned “from zero to hero,” EU accusations of democratic backsliding have been replaced by praise, although Brussels has yet to unlock some €36 billion in grants and loans to Poland. With European elites prioritising cooperation with Poland—as in the case of Egypt—there is little doubt that they will prove more careful in raising stinging critiques, although Brussels has not formally changed its position vis-à-vis Polish violations of the bloc’s rule-of-law principles.
Although it is traditionally more common for countries of transit and destination to attempt to leverage their position for geopolitical gains, sending states are also involved in migration diplomacy. In their case, these policies are often part and parcel of diaspora policymaking, given the considerable socio-economic and political potential of diasporic actors. Many states seek to diplomatically engage with countries of destination to strengthen their citizens’ rights abroad: Indian migration diplomacy has centred on ensuring better working conditions for citizens across a range of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, for instance. Other times, migration diplomacy functions as “the long arm” of the state: Turkish migration diplomacy, for instance, has involved close cooperation with European countries in order to monitor the activities of the Kurdish diaspora and to combat the operations of the Hunerkom branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party abroad.
Although rare, coercive migration diplomacy forms part of sending states’ repertoire of policymaking. One example doing this is the Philippines—one of the major migrant-sending states of the global South, albeit in a sharply different manner than cases examined before— using its bargaining position to enhance protection for Filipino workers abroad. Between 2014 and 2022, the Philippines employed its migration diplomacy toward two more powerful migrant-host states, namely Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, as it aimed to secure more rights for its migrant communities. Faced with instances of abuse against Filipino domestic workers in both countries, including numerous deaths, the Manila government did not hesitate to use its migrant population as an instrument of leverage, both by restricting the number of Filipino domestic workers that could be dispatched to the two countries and by, in the case of Kuwait, forcibly repatriating Filipino domestic workers. Taking advantage of the two host countries’ heavy reliance on Filipino domestic workers and their inability to shift recruitment to domestic workers from other countries—or, put differently, the two countries’ migration interdependence—the Philippines was able to ensure a range of new rights for Filipino workers, including not having to hand over their passport and mobile phone to Kuwaiti employers (as was the norm) and the ability to open Emirati bank accounts under their own name.
Coercive migration diplomacy in novel mixed migration dynamics
Beyond existing mixed migration flows, coercive migration diplomacy has also involved the creation—or at least the threatened creation—of novel mixed migration dynamics for geopolitical purposes. Among the most notorious examples of this strategy came in 2010 with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s warning that Europe would “turn black” unless the EU paid him €5 billion to stem the flow of sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers. A decade later, in mid-2021, thousands tried to cross the border from Belarus into Lithuania, encouraged by Belarusian President Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. While approximately 70 people a year typically attempt entry into the EU via Belarus, Lithuanian authorities had apprehended over 4,000 persons by March 2021. Belarussian involvement in creating this situation was clear: most asylum seekers and irregular migrants were Iraqis who flew into Minsk via regular Iraqi Airways flights (suspended by summer 2021 following EU pressure on Iraq), although some others include people from Syria, Congo, and Cameroon. Stories abound of young Iraqis booking flights to Belarus and then paying human smugglers thousands of euros to move them into the EU. Lukashenko started to allow asylum seekers—mainly Iraqis, but also Syrian and Afghan citizens—to fly to Belarus, while he had also been negotiating a visa-free agreement with Pakistan.
In engineering this migrant crisis, Lukashenko sought to assert his position vis-à-vis Brussels. The Belarussian regime had a long list of grievances against the European Union, most recently vis-à-vis the sanctions levied against Belarus after the government forced a commercial airliner to land so that it could arrest a prominent critic of the regime; the EU had previously imposed sanctions after Lukashenko’s government declared him the winner of the disputed presidential election in August 2020. Lukashenko was probably also unhappy with Lithuania’s decision to issue more than 500 humanitarian visas to Belarusians since August 2020, including to numerous critics of the regime. Belarus is far less powerful than the EU and, as a result, the use of migration diplomacy appeared as an attractive option in political conflagrations. By late June 2021, Lukashenko declared to Brussels that Belarus would no longer prevent asylum seekers from crossing into Europe. As he put it, “You are waging a hybrid war against us and demand that we help you as we did before?” In this instance, the use of migration diplomacy involved the weaponisation of mobility for clear geopolitical aims, but that does not imply it may not also have an important internal politics dimension, with Lukashenko adopting a “strong” position against the West seen as politically profitable inside Belarus.
Such a comparative weakness explains when the weaponisation of migration becomes a key to achieve economic, military, or political objectives against stronger states. Also in 2021, Morocco encouraged the movement of as many as 12,000 people into Spain’s enclave of Ceuta in response to Madrid’s decision to offer medical treatment to Brahim Ghali, who leads the Polisario Front that claims independence for Western Sahara, which is partly under Moroccan control. Again, the use of migrants became a regime’s tool of retaliation against a stronger neighbouring state, in a case of migration diplomacy in which the bilateral disagreement itself does not revolve around the management of mobility, but where mobility is used to exert pressure.
A clearer demonstration of the importance of domestic politics in states’ migration diplomacy strategies is found in Türkiye. As of March 2022 Türkiye was hosting over 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees. On 27 February 2021, Turkish authorities announced they were opening the country’s borders to refugees bound for Europe, triggering the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since 2015–16. Over a period of two weeks, authorities granted free passage on the country’s buses and trains to anyone travelling to the Greek border. Greek authorities stated they resisted more than 42,000 attempted entries at the land border and an unspecified number at sea. The clash quickly escalated, with refugees and migrants using Molotov cocktails and using tools to breach the border fence, while Greece stopped accepting asylum applications and ordered the use of water cannons and tear gas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to create a situation of panic in order to penalise European authorities for not holding their end of the bargain in the context of the 2016 EU-Türkiye Statement that, inter alia, promised to facilitate Turkish citizens’ visa-free access into the EU.
In terms of foreign policymaking, the manufactured 2020 crisis was a clear attempt by Erdoğan to demonstrate that Türkiye felt short-changed by the West and, potentially, to secure additional concessions: it sought to make clear how Türkiye was a poor country that opened its doors to millions of forcibly displaced persons while richer countries shut their borders and refused to help. At the same time, however, Turkish migration diplomacy also aimed for distinct domestic political gains. For one, the Turkish government sought to divert public attention from its destructive military operations in Idlib, in the context of the Syrian civil war: only a few days prior, at least 33 Turkish soldiers had been killed, an act that reverberated across Turkish society and added to growing anti-Syrian refugee sentiments. By enabling refugees to leave Türkiye, Erdoğan sought to shift the dominant discourse, while also maintaining his political strongholds in Urfa and Gaziantep, which face significant difficulties with refugee integration. Like Belarus, Türkiye sought to use the brutal treatment of refugees on the Greek-Turkish border as evidence of Greek and European “duplicity” vis-à-vis the Syrian refugee crisis. Finally, there was a pressing need for Erdoğan to present himself as a strong, resolute leader in the aftermath of the disastrous electoral results of 2019, in which the Justice and Development Party, which he had founded and is currently in power, had lost the mayorship of Istanbul to regime opponent Ekrem İmamoğlu.
European states have also sought to use coercive migration diplomacy via novel mixed migration dynamics, as in the case of Greece. In 2015–16, as the Greek government was negotiating its Third Economic Adjustment Programme with international creditors, the country found its geopolitical position strategically enhanced. Greece served as the initial point of the Balkan corridor for mixed migration populations aiming to reach Western Europe, while transfers of asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation had been suspended, which further strengthened the country’s position as a “transit” rather than a “host” state. The Greek government did not hesitate to adopt an issue-linkage strategy that tied the management of mixed migration to securing increased economic aid. Greek attempts at coercive migration diplomacy were, ultimately, unsuccessful: the EU took steps to seal off the Balkan corridor while the EU-Türkiye Statement and the country’s return to the Dublin Regulation system in mid-2016 effectively stripped the Greek government of its leverage.
Looking ahead: The normalisation of coercive migration diplomacy?
The rise of migration diplomacy practices that involve direct interstate negotiations regarding states’ management of mixed migration stock and flows can be linked to Western states’ “externalisation” practices that seek to hold refugees away from their territories. In this sense, the use of migrants and refugees as bargaining chips in interstate diplomacy is an old tale linked to the rise of developmental conditionality mechanisms and issue-linkage strategies embedded in Western economic and foreign policies that approach migration from a security lens. In November 2020, the European Parliament voted to make development aid conditional on cooperation with the EU on migration management, a move applauded by the European People’s Party Group, the assembly’s largest political grouping. In this sense, destination states are keen to employ migration diplomacy as part of their foreign policy strategies vis-à-vis third states. As the EU “institutionalises conditionality” in managing cross-border mobility, the “weaponisation” of mixed migration can be seen as a result of the growing interconnectedness between aid, security, and migration.
At the same time, a more global view would seek to shift focus to the rationale of host states of first asylum, mostly located across the global South. It would stress those countries’ desperate need for economic aid to tackle the rising number of migrant and refugee crises, which disproportionately affect non-Western, weaker states that already face significant socio-economic and political challenges. It would also shed light on the structural inequalities between the West and the non-West, while identifying the limited options that refugee-hosting countries like Kenya, Jordan, Afghanistan, and others have in pressing for Western economic aid. In the context of international negotiations on the Global Compact for Migration in 2018, for instance, Objective 23—“Strengthen international cooperation and global partnerships for safe, orderly and regular migration”— was added following an initiative by African states. It explicitly seeks to underscore “the specific challenges faced in particular by African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, small island developing States, and middle-income countries” and stresses the importance of international cooperation and assistance. In this sense, if we approach the use of threats or coercion as a potent tool in the hands of the global South, coercive migration diplomacy becomes an attempt at correcting asymmetrical power distributions between richer and poorer states.
Regardless of how we choose to approach this phenomenon, the fact that migration diplomacy fits into the strategies of both stronger countries of the global North and weaker countries of the global South suggests that it is being normalised within repertoires of states’ foreign policy agendas. In this sense, it should come as no surprise that, only a decade after the Arab uprisings, North–South cooperation on refugee protection, in particular, has shifted away from questions of burden-sharing and human rights protection as, gradually, an economistic lexicon of “bargains,” “deals,” and “compacts” have come to dominate the workings of the global refugee regime. This ongoing commodification of migrant and refugee populations embeds an element of political cynicism and zero-sum mentalities into the management of mixed migration that further dehumanises vulnerable groups.
While migration diplomacy appears to have become part and parcel of the international system, there are still a number of ways to prevent the human suffering of affected migrant and refugee groups. For one, in 2021, the EU broadened the scope for sanctions against Belarus to include, for the first time, the regime’s instrumentalisation of migrants. European recognition that the creation of migrant and refugee crises deliberately put people’s lives and wellbeing in danger is an important first step towards tackling such “weaponisation”. Yet, this appears to address the symptom, rather than the cause, of coercion in migration diplomacy: as long as Western governments view migrants or refugees as inherent “threats”, the potential to use them as leverage against such governments will persist. The rise of populism and anti-migrant politics globally, the continuing effects of climate change, as well as the stubborn appeal of a “fortress Europe” mentality across the EU suggest that the normalisation of coercive migration diplomacy will become more likely. It is only via concerted efforts towards the normalisation of mixed migration and by challenging dominant migration narratives that consider cross-border mobility to be an existential threat to Western liberal democratic states that we might begin to question the use of migrants and refugees as bargaining chips in migration diplomacy.