Migration Will Drive the Next Wave of World Wars

Scanner chatter: Caller says neighbor is armed with a gun and threatening to shoot her. He's already shot her cats.

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

January-February 2018

MASS MIGRATION, on the sustained and massive scale that western Europe continues to experience, creates tensions not only within states but also between them. These tensions will sometimes erupt into open conflict; already a new age of “Migration Wars” has begun.

This represents a curious inversion. Across the centuries, war has been a major, and often the main, driving force behind mass migration. Most obviously, an indeterminable number of civilians was forced to flee the fighting that raged in Europe and elsewhere during the Second World War, while the ongoing civil war in Syria has created perhaps 5.3 million refugees, in addition to many others who are “internally displaced.” Today, however, not only does war continue to cause mass migration, but it can itself become a cause of war.

This is the case because of the sheer scale of the current migrant crisis. The UNHCR estimates that there are around 65.6 million “forcibly displaced” people in the world. Most of these are internally displaced within their own countries, but around 22.5 million are refugees from their native lands. Huge numbers of people have fled from countries (“of departure”), notably Syria, to start new lives in the West, risking their lives by undertaking often extremely hazardous journeys across the Mediterranean or overland through countries (“of transit”) such as Turkey and Greece: in the first seven months of 2017 alone, 115,109 migrants succeeded in crossing the Mediterranean. And the total number of asylum applications to western Europe jumped considerably in 2014–15, from 0.6 million to 1.4 million, falling slightly to 1.3 million in 2016, while many other migrants, unquantifiable in number, have illicitly reached Western territory without formally requesting asylum.

Parts of the world besides western Europe are also affected: since August 2017, for example, around half a million Rohingya people have fled violence and persecution in their native Myanmar for the relative sanctuary of neighboring states, notably Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Above all, in sub-Saharan Africa millions are fleeing poverty from the landlocked states of the Sahel and heading for the relative prosperity of West Africa: around one fifth of Côte d’Ivoire’s population, for example, comprises people who were born elsewhere.

The sheer vastness of this contemporary refugee crisis does not represent any increase in the number of wars and conflicts, although it is arguable that, because of the proliferation of small arms in recent decades, this is one cause: in a speech in 2000, for example, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan warned that the bloodshed created by small arms and light weapons meant that “they could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction.’” But more important is the proliferation of economic migration, as increasing numbers flee poverty at home. The causes of this may be varied—some blame overpopulation, or the destructive impact of climate change upon food sources—but one driving force is the heightened awareness that many refugees have. Because of images broadcast on satellite television, mobile phones and the internet, they are aware, in a way earlier generations were not, of the relative material comfort the developed world can offer. This is probably the reason why some relatively affluent African countries, such as Senegal, also have high outflows of migrants.

Another difference lies in the proliferation of criminal gangs that, in return for exploitative fees, organize and finance their journeys. Such trafficking gangs are prevalent in two major hubs of migrant movement: Thailand, which is a transit point for Rohingya refugees, and Libya.

Whatever the causes, this major movement of people has now acquired its own momentum. Because so many refugees have reached the shores and borders of, in particular, western Europe, and because so much media attention has focused on this new phenomenon, an idea has taken hold in the minds of many people who would never otherwise have contemplated undertaking the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea or overland journey through Central Asia or the Balkans: that it is possible to start a new life in distant but affluent countries. This has been accentuated by the decision of the German government, taken in 2015, to open its borders to around one million refugees. In other words, many of the millions who have fled to Europe in the past few years have climbed on a bandwagon, following what they have seen others do rather than what they have been forced, by adverse circumstance, to undertake. Despite the determined efforts of Western governments to stop them, there is no reason they will not continue trying to do so.

SUCH A vast migrant flow, or even its mere threat, will tempt Western governments to intervene in foreign lands—either countries of departure or transit countries, such as Libya—in a bid to curb those flows. This, of course, is nothing new. One country always has an interest and motive to intervene in the affairs of another if it is being affected by a flow of refugees from that country; this was true, to take one obvious example, of Western involvement in the Balkan Wars of the early- to mid-1990s. But the advent of sustained mass migration, from so many different venues and across so many different routes and borders, is a new phenomenon that is prompting changes of strategic direction in Western capitals.