Magazine Article - Foreign Affairs

When Migrants Become Weapons: The Long History and Worrying Future of a Coercive Tactic

| March/April 2022

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 Belarusian 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. ...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Greenhill, Kelly M. “When Migrants Become Weapons: The Long History and Worrying Future of a Coercive Tactic.” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2022.

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