Myths and Political Realities of the ‘Migration Wars’
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Immigration is often portrayed as a grassroots phenomenon driven mostly by the spontaneous human agency of individuals in the pursuit of better opportunities and higher living standards. It is believed that the involvement of states in the governance structure of international migration should be limited so that formal migratory restrictions are either abolished or substantially diminished. Based on this logic, the opinions of NGOs, activists and companies that need either cheap unskilled labor or a qualified workforce matter more than what governmental authorities have to say. In today’s interconnected world, widespread immigration is a benign hallmark of globalization, a solution for the issue of manpower shortages and a source of cultural syncretism.

The idea that migrations are somehow apolitical is historically illiterate. For centuries, the proliferation of migratory waves has been symbiotically interwoven with conquests, wars, the organic conformation of national states, the development of international mercantile networks, the management of imperial bureaucracies, the diffusion of religious beliefs at gunpoint, expansionist ideological projects, the rise of distinctive collective identities and the exchange of populations. Throughout recorded history, intrepid migrants have left their mark as settlers, merchants, soldiers, statesmen, invaders, pioneers, innovators and frontiersmen. And in this age, this demographic phenomenon is indeed —for better or worse— a key vector of complex interdependence as a result of its sheer volume and dynamism.

A deeper assessment of international migratory flows reveals a complex dual reality that entails not just some utilitarian benefits, but also potentially dangerous implications which transcend the orbit of crimes like human trafficking. Just like with other linchpins of complex interdependence —including energy, trade, finance, money, currencies, infrastructure, information, cyberspace and digital platforms— the control of migratory flows can be manipulated, contested, co-opted or even weaponized. In the post-Cold War era, migratory flows confer potential advantages worth harnessing to bolster national power, develop political influence, seek unconventional deterrence measures, demand concessions from a position of asymmetric strength and target rivals through acts of hybrid warfare. The contemporary understanding of migratory flows needs to be recalibrated through the lens of statecraft, security, intelligence, foreign policy, and strategic foresight.

Belarus mobilizes weaponized migration in the EU’s Eastern flank

As a retaliation against the EU’s support for regime change in Minsk and the implementation of economic sanctions by Brussels, Belarus smuggled thousands of undocumented Iraqi and Afghan migrants and dumped them in close proximity to the border with Poland and Lithuania (both EU and NATO members) back in 2021. Apparently, the migrants were promised that they would be eventually transferred to Germany. In turn, Belarusian border guards simultaneously prevented said migrants from remaining in Belarus so that they had no choice but to persist in their attempt to cross forcefully. With this unconventional strike, the Belarusian state intended to encourage mass illegal crossings as a potential spearhead to pierce the border of these neighbors, provoke Polish and Lithuanian law enforcement into skirmishes with the migrants that could lead to casualties and fuel political discord within the EU. The resulting fallout triggered the declaration of states of emergency, as well as reactive pushbacks. It must be noted that, as a consequence of geopolitical conditions, historical patterns and fear of militant jihadism, Eastern European states like Poland —in contrast to much of Western Europe— are not eager to accept a migratory overflood that could lead to unpredictable or counterproductive outcomes. Warsaw does not share the inclination of Paris, Berlin, Rome, or London to follow a policy of ‘open borders’ and welcome large numbers of illegal immigrants, regardless of their irregular status, unvetted backgrounds and unknown affiliations regarding ideological, political or religious preferences. This event demonstrated how a state can organize vast covert transnational corridors and logistical capabilities to manufacture an artificial migratory crisis as a nonmilitary instrument of aggression against adversaries. Although the attempted breach masterminded by Belarus ultimately failed, its impact highlighted meaningful diplomatic, political, strategic, tactical, and operational challenges. Despite incremental Polish countermeasures, Minsk seems undeterred in its continuous strategic weaponization of extra-regional migration against Warsaw.

Ankara intervenes in foreign states through the Turkish diaspora

Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan strongly urged members of the Turkish diaspora in Germany who hold German citizenship to vote in the 2017 German elections in accordance with the interests and necessities of the Turkish state. Said blatant act of intervention by a foreign state in the sovereign domestic political affairs of another state took place in a context shaped by deteriorating bilateral diplomatic ties between Berlin and Ankara. The impact of Erdoğan’s message was limited, but the resonance of its echo must not be overlooked. From a long-range perspective, this episode must be understood in the backdrop of Turkey’s reassertion as a neo-Ottoman power whose sphere of influence can reach the very heartland of continental Western Europe. After all, the Turkish community in Germany has become a stronghold of popular political support for President Erdoğan. In this case, Turkey must have studied the paradoxical condition of Germany’s strategic cluelessness despite its position as a major —but dormant— European heavyweight. Berlin’s lack of a worldly navigational compass was reflected in the empty rhetorical complaints of the German political elite. Finally, the Turkish government is sharply aware of the full potential offered by the threat to unleash the weaponization of unrestricted migratory flows. In exchange for containing the transit of immigrants from the MENA region to EU states, Ankara has repeatedly received diplomatic and economic bribes from Brussels.

Mexico and the U.S. are headed towards a conflict sparked by mass migration

With the rise of intensive bilateral interconnectedness in the last few decades —trade deals, industrial nearshoring, economic linkages, security co-operation, business connections, investment projects, cultural bridges, binational families, remittances— it was believed that conflict between the U.S. and Mexico would be unthinkable, despite existing asymmetries. The transition from a ‘marriage of convenience’ towards deeper integration was even championed by power brokers in both sides of the border until not long ago. Nevertheless, interdependence increases the potential eruption of tensions. In this regard, the unresolved issue of migratory flows originating in Mexico or in transit through its territory towards American soil has become one of various contentious matters in relations between both countries.

Until now, Mexico —out of fear under American pressure— has reluctantly collaborated with Washington through the dispatch of its security forces to suppress the quantity of Central and South American immigrants who want to cross into the U.S.. In exchange for such concessions, Washington has relatively restrained its discontent towards Mexico, despite the widening cracks in their declining partnership. Yet, this increasingly uneasy ‘cold peace’ is not likely to endure forever. The changing demographic balance in the U.S. as a result of the growing presence of Mexican immigrants there is likely to foster a heightened rivalry in the long run.


For statecraft and national security, the pivotal phenomenon of mass migratory flows requires a pragmatic approach based on the prism of high politics. From a defensive perspective, states that receive large inflows of people cannot afford to remain passive vis-à-vis the potential risks which could be harnessed by their state and nonstate enemies. Embracing capitulation, neglect, acquiescence or laissez-faire policies would facilitate the weaponization of migration against them. The deployment of law enforcement, riot police, border guards or nonlethal weapons will not suffice. They will need enhanced border protection capabilities, smart technological solutions, the introduction of buffer zones, the comprehensive reassessment of migratory standards, intensive intelligence work focused on these threats, the investment of resources in the discouragement of immigration through the incentive of economic carrots and the coercive ability to disrupt the operations of those who might wield the movement of people for hostile purposes. Another possibility is to control or interdict —militarily or otherwise— the chokepoints of migratory gateways.

States in a position to orchestrate, commandeer, harness or even hijack large outflows of people will formulate innovative strategies once they learn how to wage migratory warfare. This category includes middle powers and small countries from the so-called ‘Global South’ close to prosperous nations with porous borders. For these states, the emerging tradecraft of weapons of mass migration offers instrumental assets to further their interests, seek strategic benefits and attack neighboring rivals that are unprepared to respond to the proliferation of this unconventional expression of low-intensity conflict. In turn, great powers can even rely on military interventions or covert destabilizations launched purposefully in order to instigate a massive exodus of refugees as a strategy to profit from the ensuing chaos. Finally, it is theoretically conceivable that even transnational or subnational nonstate actors —such as criminal organizations, terrorist groups, insurgent forces, private paramilitary units or even ideologically charged NGOs— could engage in migratory warfare through threats and blackmail or as a way to corner states that refuse to comply with their demands.

Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco is an international relations professional who holds a Master’s Degree in Strategic Intelligence and National Security. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, New Zealand.