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The Geopolitical Consequences of Migration in 2020

The geopolitical risks inherent in migration come not necessarily from the existence of migrant or refugee populations within national borders, but rather, from the inability of governments to effectively anticipate and manage the coming changes in ways that preserve or create security and prosperity for their own citizens.

Atmeh Refugee Camp near Idlib, Syria on the border with Turkey. (File photo)

Whether it’s due to lack of political will or lack of an existing mechanism by which to address the issue, governments, businesses, and the international community have yet to adequately recognize that large and sudden migrant flows — any situation which existing relief systems are not designed to absorb — are problematic not just from a human rights perspective, but also from a security standpoint. The long-running displacement of millions of people acts as a major roadblock to building more stable states and creating sustainable development, both in the home and host states of economic migrants and asylum seekers.

While both the positive and negative impacts of migration are geographically complex, a full third of refugees worldwide have fled to some of the least developed countries, where governments struggle to provide for their own citizens, let alone others. As we recently discussed in an article on the challenges of climate change, the geopolitical risks inherent in migration come not necessarily from the existence of migrant or refugee populations within national borders, but rather, from the inability of governments to effectively anticipate and manage the coming changes in ways that preserve or create security and prosperity for their own citizens. The consequences of migrant or refugee surges can be difficult to predict because they have a cascading effect as they intersect with other pre-existing, or worse, unanticipated, risks in the receiving country, but this difficulty does not lessen their urgency.

Sweden: A High Immigrant Population in a Social Welfare State

On June 11, 2019, a bomb exploded in Linköping, a peaceful university town south of Stockholm, injuring 25 people and damaging 250 apartments. That same week, two explosions were reported in Malmö. Gang violence in Sweden has long been a problem, especially in crowded, low income areas, but the country has experienced a sharp rise in explosions in recent years, predominantly tied to conflicts between warring criminal gangs. Beyond the increase in explosions and shootings linked to gang violence, reported sex crimes also increased by 61 percent between 2007 and 2017.

For every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee their homes. (UNHCR Global Trends for 2018)

The uptick in crime in Sweden is just one of the many controversies that has accompanied the country’s acceptance of large numbers of asylum seekers — in the past five years, the country of 10 million has accepted more than 400,000 asylum seekers and relatives of previous immigrants. By 2017, 24 percent of Sweden’s inhabitants had a foreign background, meaning they are foreign-born or have two foreign-born parents. Populist politicians around the world are beginning to point to Sweden as an example of what can go wrong when a high income welfare state accepts too many immigrants. Though the rhetoric of this discussion is often coarse, from a security perspective, the underlying concerns about culture clashes and acceptance of the norms and laws of a host country are valid.

Critically, in Sweden, a core component of the collective social discourse dictates that crime must be understood in socio-economic terms and that welfare provisions are a bulwark against violence and social unrest. This concept, and the generous benefits that it undergirded, served Sweden well for much of the 20th century, when the population was relatively homogeneous. Today, given that lack of material comfort is not necessarily driving the present uptick in aggression, it is not surprising that the government is having a difficult time addressing the current wave of violence.

In Sweden and in other countries, right wing political groups have used the idea of immigrant crimes, especially rape, to further their political agendas, while left wing groups have focused on the (at times ugly) rhetoric of their rivals at the expense of truly grappling with unsavory data. After groups of young men encircled and sexually assaulted a number of young girls at a music festival in Stockholm in 2015, the Stockholm police eventually admitted that these incidents were kept from the public due to fears of “playing into the hands of the Sweden Democrats,” a party undeniably rooted in Sweden’s neo-Nazi movement. In this environment, the debate over the degree to which migration is contributing to the strain on Sweden’s welfare system will continue for the foreseeable future because open discussion of the problem and what to do about it has been usurped by political squabbling.

Situations like the one in Sweden, where politicians have largely chosen to ignore the problems created by immigration rather than to have uncomfortable conversations involving race and culture, are truly obscuring the debate across much of Europe. Ignoring the challenges of migration is unlikely to improve the situation — either for immigrants or for receiving countries — in the near future. As time goes on, and the situation continues to worsen without being addressed head-on, migration will be a significant factor contributing to the development of other Brexit-like problems around the EU.

We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. (UNHCR Figures at a Glance)

Libya: Cascading Geopolitical Consequences from Redirecting Migrant Flows

CNN shocked the world in November 2017 when it broke a story about the slave trade in Libya. A grainy video of men appearing to be sold at auction for $400 outside the capital city of Tripoli focused international attention on the exploitation of migrants and asylum seekers in the north African country. While the world reacted with outrage and incredulity, the truth is that, as far back as 2010, Italy and other European countries were paying tens of millions of dollars to Libya’s then-leader Muammar Qaddafi for help in reducing African migration. Italian legislators were aware that Qaddafi was holding migrants and asylum seekers in the equivalent of concentration camps in the desert.

Libya is still the main transit point for sub-Saharan Africans crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Every year for the last three years, 150,000 people have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. The Libyan Coast Guard, which is supported by funds and resources from Italy individually and the EU, has focused operations on boats smuggling people to Europe. Humanitarian organizations working in the region have repeatedly warned that the EU’s restrictions on safe and legal routes for migration are contributing to the deterioration of conditions in Libya. Despite good intentions, European aid has created financial incentives and a competitive market for the detention, abuse, and sale of migrants in Libya.

While this strategy may have been somewhat more effective when Qaddafi was in power, nearly eight years after his death, Libya has yet to achieve a meaningful level of stability or centralized control, and at best, can be described as a loose confederation of tribes competing for power. There is little to no effective governance in Libya. The EU’s willingness to partner with an array of tribal militias to stem the tide of migrant flows has created a situation in which anything goes, with no meaningful consideration of international laws or standards.

Many of the militias and political factions that have positioned themselves as potential EU partners are simultaneously involved in other trades, including the smuggling of fuel, stolen goods, and narcotics or arms trafficking, as they continue to battle for control of Libya’s ungoverned spaces, including more than 2500 miles of porous desert borders. Despite this, EU funding for training and support persists in the name of building a professional force to stop the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. EU money is unlikely to disappear any time soon, but any company operating in the Sahel or state entity contemplating acting on migration must be clear-eyed about the strong role it will continue to play in Libya’s ongoing conflict.

Turkey: Using Migrants to Further Political Goals

On the southern edge of Europe, meanwhile, Turkey was ill-prepared for the sheer number of Syrian migrants who made their way across the border. Today, as the Syrian civil war stretches into its eighth year, more than 3.6 million Syrians are living in Turkey — the largest refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long been seen as a supporter of Syrian refugees, and for eight years, Turkey has welcomed millions fleeing the civil war as “guests,” a legal status affording them temporary protection and granting them the right to stay in Turkey and to access some public services, including free health care and, more recently, education.

Syrian refugee families living in tent in Sanliurfa, Turkey. October 2015. (File photo)

Since 2016, Syrians in Turkey have received modest financial support through a couple of EU programs (the Emergency Social Safety Net ( ESSN) and the Conditional Cash Transfer for Education ( CCTE)), but work permits remain elusive for most Syrians and the support they are receiving from the state is far from adequate to meet their needs. Where they have been able, Syrians have been participating in the informal Turkish labor market for some time. Beyond the difficulties around trying to obtain a work permit, there are various other obstacles to formal employment as well.

Erdogan, despite some rather grand efforts to cement his rule over the last several years, found himself on shaky ground politically after his Justice and Development Party suffered an embarrassing defeat in the June mayoral elections in Istanbul. This came on the heels of a deepening recession, mounting unemployment, and astronomical inflation, all of which have helped to stoke the fires of populist politics, including anti-Syrian sentiment, in Turkey.

Under tremendous pressure domestically, over the last several months Erdogan has begun to reverse course on the Syrian issue, launching a plan to relocate over one million people to a strip of Syrian territory that is currently controlled by the United States and its Kurdish allies. Erdogan has long desired a “buffer zone” along Turkey’s Syrian border to maintain distance from Kurdish forces, whom he considers to be a security threat, and Turkey. Now, he has simply reframed the idea as a solution for the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and is threatening to open the migrant floodgates to Europe if the EU fails to support the establishment of a safe zone.

The issue has essentially become a money game between Turkey and the EU. While Ankara, no doubt, realizes that its demands for a buffer zone are unlikely to be met with enthusiasm, Erdogan knows that the mere mention of “opening the gates” is enough to make populists all over Europe shiver with dread. He has long endeavored to see Europe and the United States share more fiscal responsibility for the Syrian burden. The stronger anti-immigrant sentiment grows in the West, the more money Erdogan can undoubtedly collect to host immigrants in Turkey, potentially helping to bolster both his reputation and his economy at home. Europe, for its part, must begin to take control of its own migration situation, rather than trying to outsource responsibility for border security well beyond the actual geographical limits of the EU.

The Geopolitical Cost of Migration in 2020

Regardless of politics, the overarching takeaway from Sweden’s recent struggles is that vast and rapid migration surges — those which exceed whatever volume a pre-existing system is designed to absorb — are guaranteed to strain receiving nations to a point that compromises security.

Libya offers a grim but illustrative example of not only the snowballing consequences of geopolitical risks, but also of what happens when multiple geopolitical risks collide. While Qaddafi was alive, the EU money funneling into Libya to keep African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean helped to create the slave trade that exists today. However, after the dictator was removed from power in 2011, the power vacuum that was created set off a chain of events that effectively extended Libya’s southern border straight into the Sahel, spilling traffickers, weapons, and extremists along the way. This surge of lawlessness exacerbated both the nature of criminal smuggling in the region and the threat from extremist groups, as alliances shifted and new splinter groups formed. Because of Libya’s position in the region, such changes steeply increased security risks across at least two continents, amplifying threats to everything from Nigeria’s oil fields to the growth of extremism in Europe.

  • Assuming Erdogan manages to gather international support and funding to push forward with the creation of a buffer zone to house a million or more Syrian refugees, the primary issue that governments, businesses, and the international community need to understand is that this change will be permanent, and will have far reaching consequences:
  • The buffer zone, which could become home to over a million people, could easily become a place similar to the refugee camps created by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which currently house more than five million Palestinian refugees living in legal limbo since 1948.
  • From the Kurdish perspective, though the buffer zone would fail to resolve the issue of statelessness in the short term, it would provide formal distance from Turkey and allow the focus of nation-building to continue in northern Iraq. This is where, in part because of the strength of existing Kurdish institutions and in part because of the chaos in the rest of the country, the chances of a 21st century success are greatest. Political division among Kurds remains a significant impediment.
  • Assad is likely to view the creation of such a zone as a diplomatic slight, as the civil war in Syria draws to a close and his regime remains in power. Assad finally has his country back, but not in full geographically or demographically, as more than seven million Syrians are now living outside national borders. The creation of the zone offers a way to help wind down the conflict and alleviate some of the (financial) burden of putting the pieces back together, but Assad’s ego will prevent him from seeing the silver lining in the situation, including that most of those who fled are not supporters of his regime to begin with.
  • The strip of Syrian territory in question is currently controlled by the United States and its Kurdish allies, giving the United States an additional strategic foothold in the region from which to operate — and potentially counter Russia’s presence — and one that is not in Turkish territory, which may minimize strain over the next few years as relations with Ankara show no immediate signs of improving.

Each of these examples highlights the importance of two fundamental principles of managing the geopolitical consequences of migration: governments must not be afraid to have tough conversations about the cultural, social, and economic realities of migration and they must be able to control their borders effectively. Singapore, despite having other policies that are Draconian next to those of similarly developed nations, has embraced both principles. With an aging and wealthy population, Singapore is surrounded by countries with younger populations in search of economic opportunity, including Indonesia and Malaysia, and yet, Singapore controls inbound migration because it chooses to. Certainly there must be a balance, and Singapore is not known for its moral leadership on humanitarian relief, but there must also be self-determination. At varying times, a country will likely want to expand or reduce the flow of migrants based on moral imperative or available capacity to provide relief services. It is when a country does not have a sufficient level of control over its borders that migrant surges have a profound and destabilizing effect.

Interested in learning more?

For more information about how global migration could affect your business, or to schedule a confidential consultation, contact our team at Luminae Group.

Originally published at on September 26, 2019.

Luminae Group is a global advisory firm specializing in geopolitics and risk forecasting. Learn more:

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