Forced Migration and International Security

The Politics of Displacement Around the World

By Jerry Zhang

Forced migration has been persistent throughout human history. In 2017, over 670,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Burma to escape the military’s brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. Forced migration has significant implications in security studies as well. Mass displacement is not only the most common consequence of military conflicts, it can also be a possible cause of conflict. The presence of refugees can increase the chance of conflict in host countries and complicate the peace process.

Forced migration refers to the involuntary movement of people away from their home region. Military conflict is one of the most common causes of large-scale refugee crises. Over 11 million Syrians were internally displaced or became refugees in other countries since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, creating one of the worst refugee crises since the Second World War. Prosecution against ethnic minorities or political groups – discriminative policies, genocides, and mass killings – has also led to mass displacement in the past. Under Adolf Hitler, hundreds of thousands of Jews and political dissidents were forced to flee Germany. Additionally, the nation-building processes of many modern nation-states often involve the “removal” and displacement of communities who are considered outsiders. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk expelled over a million Anatolian Greeks and Armenians in his efforts to create a modern Turkish nation-state. Natural or environmental disaster has often resulted in large numbers of refugees as well. For example, the residents of Chernobyl and Pripyat in Ukraine were forced to leave their home by the infamous nuclear accident of 1986. Finally, another major cause of forced migration in history is slavery – more than 12 million Africans were enslaved and transported to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade.

What implications does forced migration hold for security studies? Displacement is closely related to the concept of human security – the emerging approach in international security that focuses on individuals and human rights, instead of solely state and military security. The people-centered human security approach is well-suited to offer insights on displacement. Disowned by their own country and rejected by their host nation, refugees exist in the grey-area of the Westphalian nation-state system and are often ignored by traditional state-centric security. Human security allows us to more comprehensively understand the issue by incorporating multi-disciplinary knowledge on development, human rights, political economy, global governance, and security.

Mass displacement is important to traditional state-centric military-oriented security as well. Not only is force migration the most direct and visible consequence of military conflict and political violence, mass displacement can also complicate regional security and increase the chance of further violence. In recent decades, scholars have found that the presence of a large number of refugees might spread out and escalate existing conflict, destabilize the host nation, and obstruct possible peace process. Human displacement is also intimately connected to domestic security. Refugees are fundamentally the result of the breakdown in state-citizen relationship: former citizens become refugees when the state is unable or unwilling to provide securities. A state’s control over its population and its border is essential to its sovereignty. Weak or failed states – for instance today’s Libya and Syria – are often characterized by their inability to control the flow of populace.

Forced migration is more than just the consequence of war and conflict. It also sets into motion new dynamics that would have more important security consequences. Researchers Idean Salehyan and Skrede Gleditsch have found that the presence of refugees from neighboring states increases the chance of conflict in the host country. They identify refugee flow as the driving mechanism that leads to the diffusion of conflict. Influx of refugees often introduces armed networks to the host country: refugees gather in enclaves – refugee camps or strongholds of the community – to access protection and aid. They often bring with them arms and ideologies that are conducive to conflict. Overtime, these enclaves in host nations become sanctuary to armed organizations where they can safely operate and recruit new members. Such spillover effect complicates existing conflicts, hampers possible peace process, and can even instigate  new confrontations. After fleeing to Jordan and Lebanon in 1948, Palestinian refugees exported armed networks to their host countries. Although the overwhelming majority of refugees did not engage in violence, insurgents used refugee camps as bases for replenishment, recruitment, and attacks against Israel. This dragged Israel into direct confrontations with Jordan and Lebanon, and further complicated regional security.

In addition, the influx of refugees can lead to confrontations between the exile community and their host nation. The presence of a large number of forced migrants is often a huge economic and social disruption for the host country. New arrivals compete for limited economic resources and employment opportunities, worsening locals’ living standard. Desperate for livelihood, refugees often engage in criminal activities and disrupt the social order. Refugees might also have different cultural or religious practices from the local population, which might potentially trigger unintended conflicts. All these factors create resentment among the locals and lead to clashes with migrants. After the Chinese Civil War in 1949, millions of mainlanders retreated with the Nationalist regime to Taiwan. Their presence was resented by the locals and tension was high between the two communities. 

Exiles frequently clash with the host government over political disagreements. They are often seen as a challenge to the government’s legitimacy. Sometimes, confrontation becomes so severe that it escalates into violence. During the 1960s -1970s, Palestinian militant groups objected to Jordan’s unwillingness to challenge Israel; more radical factions even began to consider overthrowing the pro-West Jordanian monarchy. In return, the Jordanian government resented Palestinian control over refugee camps and their growing interference over Jordanian domestic affairs. Relationships between the two sides became so strained that it eventually triggered a brief but bloody civil war in 1970.

In some cases, a similar ethnic or political community already exists in the host country and the arrival of displaced refugees can change the country’s relative political or ethnic balance. Researcher Daniel Krcmaric argues that conflict is most likely to erupt when the influx of refugees leads to significant change in the balance of power between different communities. The arrival of displaced refugees rapidly strengthens similar group’s relative strength. Increase in population gives the community new political power; refugees might also bring in new armed networks. Emboldened by new strength, the rising group can demand new concessions from its rivals – a process that quickly leads to conflicts. During 1950s-1960s, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon decisively overturned the country’s demographic balance between Christians and Muslims in favor of the latter. However, the country’s political system continued to benefit the now minority Christians, who refused to give up their institutional advantages. This later became one of the major triggers of the brutal Lebanese Civil War.

The fact that forced migration can instigate violence and de-stabilize regional security highlights why it is in the interest of the international community to swiftly and effectively tackle the refugee crisis. The nature of forced migration means that any meaningful response to the refugee crisis requires coordinated efforts between a wide range of actors, processes, and levels of governance. Unfortunately, international cooperation and global governance over mass displacement is more often characterized by its inadequacy. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was established in 1949 to tackle the Palestinian refugee crisis; seventy years later, more than one million Palestinians still reside in refugee camps. Until we find an effective mechanism to comprehensively tackle forced migration, refugee crises will continue to plague the international community for many years to come. International security scholars have now understood what is driving refugee crises, but they have much more to learn to find the solution to forced migration.

Jerry Zhang is a student at Tufts University

Image: Afghan refugees walk through a refugee camp in Pakistan

Image Courtesy of David Mark at Pixabay


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