Security studies

The World Has No Answer for Migration

The migrant crisis in Belarus is a window into the failure of today’s global order to solve a growing problem.

By Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

We didn’t need a confrontation between Belarus and the European Union over the fate of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa to remind us that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko was a brutal dictator with scant regard for human suffering—we knew that already. Instead, the real lesson of the crisis is what it says about the ability and willingness of states to address the complex problems created by large-scale movements of people.

Writing in Foreign Policy last week, Humza Jilani provided a good summary of some of the issues involved and underscored the limitations of current policies on migration. Here I want to step back and focus on some of the broader questions that this troubling episode has revealed.

Let’s start by recognizing that what Lukashenko has been doing is not new. Not only did he play a similar game back in 2002 and 2004—threatening to send a flood of refugees into Europe if it didn’t meet his demands—plenty of other states have exploited displaced peoples and refugees in order to extract concessions from others. In her pathbreaking 2010 book, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, the political scientist Kelly Greenhill identifies at least 56 cases of what she calls “coercive engineered migrations” since 1951 (plus another eight borderline episodes). Unfortunately, this tactic seems to work most of the time it is used: Greenhill found that the coercing state achieved at least some of its objectives in 73 percent of these cases and virtually all of its goals in over half (57 percent).

When does this form of coercion work? Greenhill argues that coercing states often succeed by exploiting political divisions within the target states—typically between groups that are sympathetic to the refugees’ plight and those that are opposed to permitting them to enter. Internal divisions such as these—and the potential loss of political support that they can cause—give leaders in the target state an incentive to make the problem go away by accommodating the coercing state’s demands. For weak states that lack other means of exerting pressure, either deliberately or opportunistically exploiting refugees can be a tempting ploy.

Lukashenko had good reason to think this cruel stratagem targeting Poland might work. Poland’s prior clashes with the EU authorities in Brussels had left it somewhat isolated within the broader European community, and he may have believed that most European countries would have little sympathy for the Poles’ plight. He may also have been counting on steadfast support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is always happy to sow additional divisions within Europe. Given that his earlier efforts to use innocent people as pawns were at least partially successful, why wouldn’t he assume it would work this time around?

What Lukashenko seems to have missed is a shift in European attitudes about migration in recent years and especially a hardening view toward asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa. As the New York Times recently reported, political refugees from Belarus are being allowed to remain in destination countries such as Lithuania, while migrants transiting Belarus from Iraq or Syria are being stopped, detained, or deported. The reason for the difference? The former are seen as culturally similar, and the latter are not.

If coercive engineered migration works by exploiting conflicts within destination states, in this case there aren’t enough politically powerful voices clamoring to accept the migrants—however disturbing their plight—and politicians around the EU know it. They also know that there are plenty more potential refugees where these came from and that giving into Lukashenko’s demand that the EU lift the sanctions it imposed following his violent crackdown against opponents challenging his stolen election in 2020 would only invite repetition. Similarly, pressing Poland to open the border would give a green light to many potential immigrants whom the EU now prefers to exclude. Instead of caving, therefore, EU officials have framed the conflict not as a “migration crisis” but as an “attempt of an authoritarian regime to try to destabilize its democratic neighbors.”

As I noted a few months ago, events such as these have exposed the tension—some might say the hypocrisy—between the liberal ideals on which the EU was founded and the self-interested behavior of individual European nations. Liberalism rests on the belief that all human beings enjoy basic rights that should not be infringed on. From this perspective, where someone was born should be irrelevant—especially when they are fleeing violence and political repression. It was this conviction that helped inspire the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which explicitly forbids states from repatriating refugees with a “well-founded” fear of persecution.

When push comes to shove, however, the nations of Europe turn out to be less committed to these universal principles and more interested in protecting their particular identities and ways of life. To be clear: Americans are no position to criticize them, insofar as the United States has also been far less welcoming to refugees in recent years. Although Europe’s aging and declining populations would benefit economically from greater immigration, the 2014 refugee crisis helped trigger a wave of right-wing populism and shifted European attitudes in a sharply anti-migrant direction.

At the most fundamental level, this episode (and many others) highlights the inability of the present global order to cope with large-scale movements of people. The current international system is based first and foremost on sovereign states exercising exclusive control over a certain specified territory. Over time, the norm of territorial sovereignty has become increasingly tied to the idea of nationalism—the belief that groups sharing a common language, history, culture, etc., are entitled to govern themselves and preserve their own cultural identity, typically within a geographic area to which they have an historical attachment.

Given the desire to preserve one’s homeland and national character (whatever that may be), it is not surprising that states want full authority to determine who may enter, transit, or remain within their territory. This objective does not mean that national borders are impermeable, of course. Because states realize that they will be better off if they can engage in voluntary exchanges with foreigners, they have created a variety of arrangements to facilitate other types of cross-border movement. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and a host of multilateral and bilateral arrangements manage the movement of goods across national borders, and an equally elaborate series of regimes, rules, technological instruments, and institutions manage the movement of foreign investment, currency exchanges, and other cross-border financial transactions.

By contrast, arrangements for managing the movement of people are less well developed or universally accepted. There are reasonably effective regimes and associated organizations responsible for managing ordinary tourism—such as the current passport regime—but there is no global consensus on the conditions under which people may move to other countries for extended periods (or permanently). A “World Migration Organization” akin to the WTO does not exist.

Instead, states have jealously guarded the right to determine who may enter or remain within their territory, as well as the criteria and processes by which migrants eventually gain citizenship wherever they may be located. As Harvard University’s Jacqueline Bhabha observes, “the boundaries of [human] mobility are defined, primarily and variously, by states themselves. … States amend their laws to adjust the balance between facilitating mobility and protecting domestic assets as they see fit.”

Instead of a unified mobility regime, writes Alexander Betts, a migration expert at the University of Oxford, “there is no formal or coherent multinational institutional framework regulating states’ responses to international migration.” Instead, the order that exists today is a “fragmented tapestry of institutions—spread across policy fields and levels of governance” and leaving important issues uncovered or unresolved, Betts and co-author Lena Kainz write. The International Organization for Migration is not a formal U.N. agency, and it has no normative mandate or enforcement capacity. Movements of temporary foreign workers are typically handled through bilateral agreements between states rather than through an authoritative global accord, and recurring efforts to produce a global agreement on migration—including U.N.-sponsored high-level dialogues in 2006 and 2013, the Nansen Initiative on disaster-induced cross-border displacement in 2012, and the U.N.-sponsored Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants in 2016—have yielded modest results at best. The 2018 Global Compact for Migration sets out some broad desiderata but no strong norms and is in any case not legally binding. To date, efforts to deal with large-scale refugee or migrant flows are typically ad hoc, limited to specific regions, and unmoored from larger normative principles.

According to Betts and Kainz, “the main constraint on the development of global governance of migration has been states’ perception that an increase in global governance on this issue entails a decrease in sovereignty.” When dealing with movements of people, in short, it remains a self-help world. And at the most basic level, that is why a crisis like the current standoff on Belarus’s borders can occur.

I wish I knew how to solve this problem, but it’s a safe bet that it will get worse in the years ahead. Demographics, continued economic inequality, political violence, and climate change are going to encourage even more people to seek richer or safer locations, and destination countries are not likely to put out the welcome mat to the extent necessary to accommodate the numbers involved. If recent trends are any indication, the reverse is more likely. Lukashenko’s gambit may fail this time around, but it won’t be the last time that “weapons of mass migration” get used.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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