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

ISIS calculated that this would not only clear a path for its own foot soldiers, but also overwhelm the resources of neighboring and perhaps pro-Western regimes, such as Lebanon and Jordan, while adding to the flow of refugees into western Europe. In the long term, this would probably be seen as a way of “Islamizing” the West—increasing the numerical presence of Muslims—but most obviously, in the short and medium terms, it was a means of infiltrating Europe with sympathizers: there have been numerous attacks across Europe, including Paris, Nice, Manchester, London and Berlin, by ISIS-linked insurgents. And in December 2016, Europol published a report that pointed out another danger: “A real and imminent danger is the possibility of elements of the [Sunni Muslim] Syrian refugee diaspora becoming vulnerable to radicalization once in Europe and being specifically targeted by Islamic extremist recruiters,” argued the authors of “Changes in Modus Operandi of Islamic State Revisited.”

However, it is also possible that Islamic State had another motive. Instead of deliberately creating a flow of refugees in order to carry out attacks or overwhelm its enemies’ resources, it may have been trying to provoke them to undertake a “migration intervention.” Its motive for doing this would have been either to spark a confrontation with other regional actors or to tie down foreign troops in a protracted insurgency and steadily drain its resources. For example, if NATO had undertaken a large-scale deployment into parts of Syria to fight ISIS, then its presence would have sparked a conflict not just with President Assad but also with his chief supporter, Russia. Alternatively, NATO troops would have faced sustained casualties from a protracted insurgency, comparable to the conflict that they (and the Russians) fought in Afghanistan as well as the experiences of the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s, and Israel in Lebanon in the 1990s.

THE ADVENT of sustained mass migration could also trigger conflict if a country tried to forcibly return or expel some or all of its new arrivals. This scenario is, of course, also a recipe for civil unrest. The migrants themselves may resist: such violence broke out at Calais in northern France in the fall of 2016, for example, when the French riot police forcibly removed thousands of refugees from a camp known as “The Jungle.” However, violence could also break out between neighboring states, for instance if one tried to drive refugees away from its own territory onto the soil of the other; or if it closed its own border to stop a column of refugees crossing its own borders, thereby forcing them to move into, or remain within, another country.

This scenario is already causing political conflict within the EU, as the Polish and Hungarian governments continue to resist demands for a quota of refugees that other member states, notably Italy, Germany and France, are already hosting. However, it could in some circumstances spark military confrontation—for example, between countries that already have unstable and tense relations, or even when countries of destination are severely overstretched by the strains of coping with a large influx of people. This nearly happened in Southeast Asia in the late 1980s, when a huge exodus of civilians from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia threatened to overwhelm neighboring countries—Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia—which, in return, used naval and police boats and helicopters to push back refugees away from their coasts. The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, admitted, “All we are doing is preventing foreign vessels from entering our waters.”

Another variety of migration wars will break out when migrants from one country will be pursued and persecuted by militias—or perhaps by government forces—based in their countries of origin. This may be because, for example, those soldiers seek to take revenge, or to destroy a political cause that the refugees are seen to represent. Such cross-border attacks would then trigger conflict with the host country in which those migrants have taken refuge. Such a scenario took place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the mid-1990s, as Rwandan troops crossed the border, killing thousands of Hutu refugees who had fled there. This provoked resistance from the Zairean army, whose leader was broadly sympathetic to the Hutu cause. More recently, in September 2017, there were also reports that Myanmar helicopters had crossed into Bangladeshi airspace in hot pursuit of Rohingya refugees.

But because of the vociferous international condemnation it inevitably provokes, this type of conflict is only likely to occur in relatively obscure parts of the world, and at moments when events elsewhere distract international attention. Otherwise, a more likely outcome is an intelligence-led war against elements within a refugee population, comparable to Soviet spies assassinating émigrés during the Cold War.