Migrants on a boat cheer as they approach the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, early on Mar. 7, 2011. Over 1,000 migrants from North Africa arrived in Italy overnight, some in rickety boats that had to be escorted ashore by the Italian coast guard.
"Using Refugees as Weapons"
Op-Ed, International Herald Tribune
April 21, 2011
Author: Kelly M. Greenhill, Research Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
In the early days of what grew into the Libyan uprising, Muammar el-Qaddafi summoned European Union ministers to Tripoli and issued an ultimatum: Stop supporting the protesters, or I'll suspend cooperation on migration and Europe will be facing a human flood of from North Africa.
Given Libya's history as an attractive transit point for North Africans seeking entry to Europe, it was a credible threat.
For one thing, it has worked to varying degrees at least four times in the last decade alone. Indeed, it was only the European Union's promise to lift the last remaining sanctions against Libya in the fall of 2004 that persuaded Qaddafi to staunch what was then viewed as an alarmingly large flow of North Africans onto the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa and, from there, onto the Continent. To that point in 2004, about 9,000 people had landed on Lampedusa, 1,600 of whom arrived in the month prior to conclusion of the agreement between Brussels and Tripoli.
Although these numbers were not trivial, they were nothing compared to the predicted 750,000 to one million North Africans anticipated by Western European leaders this time around. Little wonder then that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy tried to maintain good relations with Libya for as long as he found it diplomatically possible.
Moreover, what happened in 2004 was not an isolated event. In 2006, and again in 2008, Qaddafi extracted from the E.U. additional financial aid and equipment (such as boats) that could be used for migration enforcement. In late 2010, the E.U. and Libya concluded a further £500 million accord, which succeeded in stopping, or at least demonstrably slowing, the flow of people across the Mediterranean — until the outbreak of unrest in Tunisia.
Tragic though it is for the victims of this kind of unconventional coercion, Qaddafi's threatened use of demographic bombs is neither new nor unique. As I demonstrated in a study published last year, there were at least 56 attempts to employ the direct or indirect threat of mass migrations as a non-military instrument of influence between 1951 and 2006.
In about 73 percent of cases where it was attempted, would-be coercers got at least some of what they sought; in about 57 percent of cases, they achieved most, if not all, of their objectives. The majority of these coercive attempts were initiated by authoritarian dictators such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, East Germany's Erich Honecker, the former Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Uganda's Idi Amin.
However, it is worth noting that the threat and actual manipulation of mass migrations has also been employed by democratic leaders like West Germany's Konrad Adenauer and Dwight Eisenhower of the United States.
The exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide used this same weapon to persuade a reluctant Clinton administration to restore him to power — by force, if necessary — in the autumn of 1994. Aristide was markedly less successful a decade later when, in February 2004, he again employed this tool to try and enlist U.S. and international assistance in helping him stave off a rebel assault on the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince.
Contrary to the position adopted by the sitting French government, the Bush administration had long maintained that, despite his many shortcomings, Aristide should be allowed to remain in power until his term ran out in 2006. However, less than 24 hours after Aristide declared that, if international peacekeepers were not inserted to help protect his "democratic" regime, another mass outflow might find its way to Florida, the Bush administration abruptly shifted tack and summarily airlifted the Haitian leader out of the country.
North Korea's Kim Jong-il has likewise repeatedly and quite profitably exploited China's fears of large-scale outflows of North Koreans to extract, among other things, large quantities of food aid and technical, monetary and law enforcement assistance, and, last but far from least, a relatively soft stance on North Korea's nuclear program.
That China decided to abstain — rather than block (as many predicted it might) — the United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya could be interpreted as a signal to the North Koreans that there may be limits beyond which even China should not be pushed.
Kelly M. Greenhill is assistant professor at Tufts University and research fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of “Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy ”and co-editor of “Sex, Drugs” and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict.”
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