Weaponized Migration Towards Europe: Humanitarian Crisis or Hybrid Warfare ?

Francesco Felici
Ukrainian fleeing Russian attacks on civilian targets. Source: ABC News.

The issue of refugees and migration in Europe is, and always has been, a very sensitive topic. That is due partially for the objective socio-economic implications of migrants and refugees, and for the political instrumentalization they suffer. It follows, then whenever external factors push migration and refugees’ flows towards Europe, this inevitably impacts the political stability of the Union. It has happened in the 2010s during the so-called “migration crisis,” and it has been happening recently with the complex situation in Cyprus. Now, the war in Ukraine has reopened Pandora’s Box, and the Union is called to face and welcome a new wave of people finding refuge in its territoy. However, rather than an inevitable consequence of an armed conflict, this migraton could hide more: a deliberate strategy from Russia to destabilize Europe in a delicate time by weaponizing migrations. As such, it becomes imperative to determine what weaponizing migration entails, and investigate whether there is a foundation to claim that. Morever, as the European Commission has proposed a new Instrumentalization Regulation to address such issues in the area of migration and asylum, it needs to be evaluated whether the EU response on this matter manages to protect the interests of displaced migrants, or to exacerbate a delicate situation.

Migrates boarding train Source: Pew Research Center

Looking back at the period between 2011-2016, the European Union was hit by a considerable migration wave stemming from the civil war in Syria. This movement created rising tensions and political conflict in the headquarters of Brussels, as the EU institutions struggled to cope with this flow, and the raging anti-migration parties which were surfacing in the Member States. Amid this growing instability, in February 2016 the Head of NATO Forces in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, came out with a resonating statement, “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration from Syria. In an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

 Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Philip M. Breedlove discussing Russia’s belligerent behaviour. Source: Nato

This allegation did not come out of nowhere, nor did it lack any ground to stand on. The strain that this migration flow had put on Europe was not merely a socioeconomic issue, it was a political and ideological fracture between EU members. A clear disruption emerged between southern and northern members, each feeling a lack of support from the other and a general sense of loosing control. The sense of mistrust was rising in Europe, and some speculated that Russia had meddled with this crisis to weaponize the migration flows in order to create a fracture in the EU and weaken its neighbor.However, how much of this can actually be proven? And if so, can we assume a similar situation is occurring now with Ukraine?

The concept of weaponized migration comes from the work of Kelly Greenhill, who created a substantive literature on this subject. According to the author, this form of hybrid warfare can take four distinguished forms: Dispossessive, Extortive, Militarized and Coercive. While all of these frameworks provide relevant perspectives on this topic, it is the latter which appears to better fit the Russian behaviour. Indeed, this form of weaponized migration is based on the creation of aversion to asylum seekers from either ethno-nationalist or socioeconomic perspectives, to destabilize the political order of a country. This is meant to ultimately lead to fracturing in the regional and institutional cohesion of an enemy nation, thus weaponizing migration flows for strategic gains.

Russia Weaponizing Migration

In regard to our hypothesis that Russia weaponized migration to destabilize the European political landscape we can note that during that period, not only did Russia support the Assad regime, which was the primary cause of this migration flow, but it also facilitated migration through state sponsorship towards the Finland and Norway borders to put pressure on the EU. This appeared as a deliberate choice from Russia, in order to retaliate after the sanctions imposed in 2014 after their first incursion in Crimea. However, it is imperative to note, that if this strategy was a deliberate attempt to either repel the sanctions, or to effectively harm the European Union, then it significantly lacked the scope and methodical implementation to be categorized as an actual form of hybrid warfare.In light of this, we cannot categorize Russia’s meddling with migration flows as an intentional attempt to weaken the European institutions. For what concerns the war in Syria, it appears that Greenhill claims were at best speculative at that time, and eventually this issue became dormant. Indeed, it seemed that even if that was within the objectives of Russia, it lacked the methodical implementation necessary to categorize it as a proper act of weaponised migration.

However with the illegitimate aggression towards Ukraine this February, Russia has once illustrated its ability to instrumentalize migration flows. This also follows the growing tensions between the Polish and Belarus border, where President Lukashenko publicly sponsored migrants towards the EU to foster instability, which was dubbed by the Commission as a form of hybrid warfare. Thus, this begs for a re-evaluation of Russia’s and Belarus’ behavior, and to determine whether we can identify a form of coercive weaponizations of migrants, and to analyze the EU efforts to cope with this situation.

Source: Statesman

Over the past months, over 6.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country and found safe harbor in the EU, a number which must be aggregated with the thousands of other refugees from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan which were provided free transportation to the Polish border from the Belarus government. This volume of intake will inevitably increase the socio-economic strain of not only the region, but of Europe as a whole. Given its volume and systematic nanture, this flow of migrants appear to follow of a specific joint tactic from Russia and Belarus to destabilize the eastern border of Europe. That is, for it is meeting the two-fold condition set by Greenhill in her work: targeting of civilian infrastructure and facilitating transit to sensible borders. Indeed, Russia’s repeated effort to damage key infrastructure – for example, its massive targeting of electricty plants in the past few weeks – has the outome of displacing people and prompting migration. Moreover, through forms of sponsorship and smuggling, Russia and Belarus have been funneling migrants into sensible points of access, thus increasing the welcoming strain of Europe.

European Union’s Response

Following this more structured attempt to weaponize migration flows on the behalf of Russia and Belarus, the EU has decided to prepare an institutional response in the form of a new Regulation, to address this situation before this hybrid warfare causes further instability. This legislative effort would provide EU Member States, which are the most effected by targeted mass-migration, with normative tools to act in situations of emergency. For the purpose of the Regulation, the instrumentalization of migration occurs when non-EU countries instigate migratory flows towards the external borders of the European Union to unsettle the Union or a Member State. As such, the Regulation would introduce the ability to exercise derogations from existing frameworks (such as the Return Directive or the Reception Conditions Directive), to apply emergency measures, such as determining specific checkpoints for access to limit the burden of people coming in, or to alter the procedure to register asylum seeker to streamline it.

This, of course, raises a series of political and institutional ambiguities. On the one hand, the Regulation’s definition of “instrumentalization” appears to be broad, which leaves an undefined room for maneuver for Member States to alter fundamental rights and procedures for migrants and asylum seekers. Such approach, ultimately, puts the people coming in at risk of an uneven treatment, by exploiting divergence from the rule of law. On the other, this Regulation has strong political implications, as migrants are judicially determined as a destabilizing force which leads to a strong sense of dehumanization. At the basis of EU migration policies, stands the principle of solidarity: to provide a uniform response that guarantees respect for the fundamental rights of any individual coming in. This proposal, instead, seems to be pushing towards a more auto-deterministic and securitarian approach, where the safety and security of the Union appears to be dependent on a harsher border control.

Source: EURACTIV

Thus, this leaves the European Union in a difficult position. On the one hand, the allegations of Russia and its supporters weaponizing migration flows to destabilize the EU appear to be confirmed. This, looking back at the political instability that a previous migration crisis brought, should serve as a warning for the potential repercussions of this form of hybrid warfare. Nonetheless, the current EC proposal does not seem to currently address many of the challenges that this issue poses. Rather, while emergency measures are necessary to address specifically targeted regions, such derogations from established rule of law could lead to confusion and rising tensions among European member states. Instead, what needs to be enforced is an increasing cooperation between Member States in regard to financial and humanitarian pressure, and a more defined legislative framework to set specific conditions under which such derogations can occur.

Weaponizing Migration

The threat of weaponized migration is, sadly, a reality that the Union needs to face. This de-humanizing practice, which instrumentalizes humanitarian crisis, and the struggle of innocent to gain strategic advantages, is a new way in which the conflict between Europe and Russia is being fought. As such, it is imperative to gain a comprehensive understanding of what the implications of such strategies are and also to maintain fortitude in addressing them. The European Union today is facing rising and complex challenges and Europe needs to ready itself to defend its safety and values by showing unity and strength in the face of humanitarian crisis.

Recommended Readings

Forti, Mirko: “Weaponisation of Migrants? Migrants as a (Political) Weapon and the EU Regulatory Response: What to Expect Now“, EJIL, 10/03/2022

IMCPD: “Migration Outlook for 2022”, International Center for Migrant Policy Development, 01/2022

Grenhill, Kerry: “Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy” & “Migration as Weapon in Theory and in Practice”, Military Review, 12/2016


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Weaponized Migration Towa…

by Francesco Felici time to read: 7 min
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