Ending Forced Migration as a “Weapon of War”

By James C. Simeon

By the time the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s (UNHCR) Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2021 was released on June 16, 2022, its figures for the previous calendar year were already outdated in a number of key respects.[1] The most obvious being Russia’s blatantly illegal full scale invasion of the Ukraine on February 24, 2022, that has resulted in some 14 million people being forcibly displaced to date.[2] It is significant to point out that Russia’s crime of aggression in the Ukraine has resulted in “the most rapid and largest single increase in forcibly displaced populations since WW II.”[3] Moreover, it increased the number of forcibly displaced persons in the world to a record of over 100 million or 1 in 78 people.[4] The war in the Ukraine has had a devastating impact on the maintenance of global peace and security and has ushered in a critical period of high international instability.[5]

The report’s statistics are grimmer still and indicate that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of all refugees, and Venezuelans displaced abroad, at the end of 2021 came from only five countries: Syria 6.8 million; Venezuela 4.6 million; Afghanistan 2.7 million; South Sudan 2.4 million; and, Myanmar 1.2 million.[6] All have been embroiled in protracted armed conflict for years, if not decades, save for Venezuela that is a special case of political and economic turmoil. And, sadly, 41 percent or more than two-fifths of all forcibly displaced people are children, that is, those who are under 18-years-of-age.[7]

What is also worth noting that is significant is that the number of forcibly displaced persons has doubled over the last decade (42.7 million in 2012 and 89.3 million at the end of 2021). And, moreover, what is driving the unprecedented numbers of forcibly displaced persons are the ongoing and newly developed armed conflicts.[8] According to the Centre for Preventative Action’s Global Conflict Tracker, there are 27 ongoing conflicts in the world that are of concern to the United States.[9] The World Population Review, Countries Currently at War 2022, indicates that there are four countries that are experiencing war with more than 10,000 casualties in 2020-2021, Afghanistan, Ethiopia [also involved Eritrea], Mexico, and Yemen [also involved Saudi Arabia].[10] And, there were 17 other countries that were experiencing war with 1,000 to 10,000 casualties in 2020-2021.[11] There is also, of course, the Russia/Ukraine war or protracted armed conflict that commenced its current stage, as previously noted, on February 24, 2022.[12] While the statistics vary widely in the number of armed combatants killed on either side of this conflict it is probably reasonable to say that there have been more than 10,000 battle casualties since the start of the current stage of the war in Ukraine.[13]

Protracted armed conflict and forced displacement are synonymous. This is currently most evident with what is happening with the war in the Ukraine. And what is happening in the war in Ukraine is evident in all modern warfare: a tremendous loss of life, both civilians and combatants, and destruction of property; the commission of the most serious international crimes; and, of course, mass forced displacement.[14] The widespread “atrocity crimes” that are being committed by Russian forces in the Ukraine is really quite staggering.[15] Indeed, it has been argued that modern warfare is characterized by the deliberate targeting of civilian non-combatants, “ethnic cleansing” and/or genocide, the distinction between legitimate violence and criminality breaking down, and, wars and protracted armed conflicts becoming “endless.”[16] Further, the weaponization of the forcibly displaced is also a characterization of modern warfare as well.[17] The forcibly displaced, it has been argued, are used as “human demographic bombs” against their opponents.[18] Sadly, this is most evident in the war in the Ukraine. To date over seven million people have been forcibly displaced outside the Ukraine and they have had to find refuge principally in neighbouring countries but also countries as far away as Canada and the United States.[19] The millions of people who have been forced to flee the Ukraine will impact all the host countries who will be accepting them and this is, undoubtedly, not lost on the Russian aggressors.

What is evident in the world today with the unprecedented and ever escalating numbers of those who are forcibly displaced is that the primary driver is war and protracted armed conflict. And, integral to this is the use and abuse of those forced migrants as “weapons of war.”[20] To end the weaponization of forced displacement, one must at least consider ending “war and protracted armed conflict” for once and for all. It is fair to say that at its very core modern warfare is not only morally repugnant but, in essence, it is criminal.[21]

This is, to say the very least, an extraordinary undertaking. While some might consider it an impossible task, others have been pursuing it for years. In fact, the peace movement has been around for centuries. To achieve the supreme goal of ending war a multi-pronged simultaneous approach must be applied and fully implemented. Naturally, such a bold and transformative undertaking will take effort and time to realize. But it starts simply with the belief that this is, indeed, possible to achieve and not simply a futile task. In this regard, it might be helpful to keep in mind what Nelson Mandella, former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, once said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.”[22]

What is necessary to start, then, is the acceptance of the essential and inviolable human right to peace. Any violation of this core human right must be universally accepted as an unacceptable heinous crime. To emphasize, we must all come to accept that anyone who breaches this core human right to peace has perpetrated a heinous crime and, accordingly, must be prosecuted for their crime against peace. The waging of war and armed conflict must simply be outright banned at not only the international but national levels.[23]

There is at present a “perpetual cycle of organized political violence” or “endless wars” or protracted armed conflicts that produce the “atrocity” crimes that, in turn, generate mass forced displacement. War or protracted armed conflict is, in fact, essential to the three major international organized criminal networks that trade in illicit drugs, weapons, human beings, either human smuggling or in its deviant form, human trafficking.[24] The profits from these international organized criminal networks are often used to purchase weapons from the illicit international arms trade. These weapons are used by insurgents or rebel forces in their armed struggle against their own States’ government authorities. International organized criminal networks feed off the protracted armed conflicts because it generates the forced displaced persons needed for its human smuggling and trafficking operations. Likewise, insurgents or rebel forces rely on the illicit drug trade to generate the profits necessary to purchase the illicit weapons required to engage in the wars or protracted armed conflicts. International organized criminal networks are, hence, essential to perpetuating the endless cycle of organized political violence or war or protracted armed conflict. If one hopes to end wars and protracted armed conflicts then the international organized criminal networks who depend on wars or protracted armed conflicts for their criminal activities need to be dealt with as well. All those who benefit from wars and protracted armed conflicts, its stakeholders and beneficiaries, need to be addressed in order to eradicate war.  

Research studies have found that democracies rarely ever resort to war or protracted armed conflict to resolve their differences. The “democratic peace theory” asserts that democracies are more peaceful than non-democracies and that the general democratization of the international State system will result in a more peaceful world.[25] What is also essential to the eradication of war or protracted armed conflict, then, is the democratization of the international State system. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2017 there were 96 out of 167 countries in the world with populations of 500,000 or more that were democracies, 57 percent.[26] Clearly, this is not sufficient to generate the peace benefit that would be possible if many more of the world’s countries were full democracies. However, the Pew Research Center study also found that there has been an increase in the number of democracies in the world over the last four decades.[27] Hopefully, this trend will continue.

If these steps are pursued simultaneously, the full criminalization of war and the prosecution of its violators, addressing all of wars’ stakeholders and beneficiaries and, more specifically, the elimination of the largest international organized criminal networks that deal in the illicit sale of drugs, weapons, and smuggling and trafficking in human beings, and if the world State system continues to democratize with more and more States becoming full democracies then wars and protracted armed conflicts could be eradicated. If so, the “weaponization” of forced migration will end and, simultaneously, the number of forced migrants will also be dramatically reduced and refugee crises will be a thing of the past.

Dr. James C. Simeon, Associate Professor
School of Public Policy and Administration
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies
York University,
4700 Keele Street, North
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3

[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2021. (Copenhagen, Denmark: Statistics and Demographics Sections, 2022), https://www.unhcr.org/62a9d1494/global-trends-report-2021 (accessed July 28, 2022). This is duly acknowledged in the report on pages 6 and 7.

[2] Lauren Burke, Catherine Nzuki, Erol Yayboke, Anastasia Strouboulis, “Ukraine Refugees: Forced Displacement Response Goes Fully Digital,” Centre for Strategic and International Studies, June 23, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/ukrainian-refugees-forced-displacement-response-goes-fully-digital. (accessed July 25, 2022). The CSIS report states,

As of mid-June, more than 7.3 million people had left Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. An additional 7.1 million people were internally displaced, representing one-third of the prewar Ukrainian population. Though almost 2.4 million people have crossed back into Ukraine, the speed and scale of forced displacement have been unprecedented compared to recent crises, putting tremendous strain on available services.

[3] Omer Karasapan, “Forcibly displaced Ukrainians: Lessons from Syria and beyond,” Brookings, June 21, 2022,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2022/06/21/forcibly-displaced-ukrainians-lessons-from-syria-and-beyond/#:~:text=Source%3A%20UNHCR.,forcibly%20displaced%20populations%20since%20WWII.. (accessed July 25, 2022)

[4] UNHCR, “UNHCR, Ukraine, other conflicts push forcibly displaced total over 100 million for first time,” Press Release, 23 May 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2022/5/628a389e4/unhcr-ukraine-other-conflicts-push-forcibly-displaced-total-100-million.html. (accessed July 25, 2022); United Nations, UN News, “More than 100 million now forcibly displaced: UNHCR Report,” 16 June 2022, Migrants and Refugees, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/06/1120542#:~:text=Today%2C%20one%20in%20every%2078,agency’s%20annual%20Global%20Trends%20report.. (accessed July 25, 2022). See also Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2021, op. cit., page 7 and Figure 1: People forced to flee, 2012-2022.

[5] United Nations, Peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet, “Maintain International Peace and Security,” https://www.un.org/en/our-work/maintain-international-peace-and-security. (accessed July 28, 2022)

[6] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2021. (Copenhagen, Denmark: Statistics and Demographics Sections, 2022), p. 3, https://www.unhcr.org/62a9d1494/global-trends-report-2021 (accessed July 25, 2022)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., pp. 5-9.

[9] Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[10] World Population Review, Countries Currently at War, https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/countries-currently-at-war. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[11] Ibid., The countries listed here are Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Columbia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisa. (The UNHCR uses the World Bank’s figure of 23 countries that are experiencing high or medium-intensity conflicts in 2021. See Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2021, op. cit., p. 5.) 

[12] Ibid. The armed conflict in the Ukraine started in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed the Crimea. See Steven Pifer, “Crimea: Six years after illegal annexation,” Brookings, March 17, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/17/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/. (accessed July 28, 2022)

[13] Sarah Habershon, Rob England, Becky Dale, Olga Ivshena, “War in Ukraine: Can we say how many people have died?” BBC News, 1 July, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-61987945. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[14] UNHCR, Ukraine Emergency, https://www.unhcr.org/ukraine-emergency.html. (accessed July 26, 2022). Ukraine has been declared a Level Three Emergency by UNHCR. The highest level that it has. “Ukraine reports 15,000 suspected war crimes,” BBC News, 31 May 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-61652467. (accessed July 26, 2022_

[15] Yaroslav Lukov, “Ukraine war: 21,000 alleged war crimes being investigated, prosecutor says,” BBC News, 7 July 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-62073669. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[16] Martin Shaw, “The Contemporary Mode of Warfare? Mary Kaldor’s Theory of New Wars,” Review of International Political Economy, 7:1, Spring 2000, 171-192. Mary Kaldor, “What are new wars?” #europeatsea, Copyright Springshot Productions, 6 November 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BCl4dSR8KA. (accessed July 26, 2022; Mary Kaldor, “Mary Kaldor: New Wars as a Social Condition,” Institute of Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna, May 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_a8PKW_Astc. (accessed July 26, 2022); Mary Kaldor, “Old Wars, Cold Wars, New Wars, and the War on Terror,” International Politics (2005) 42, 491–498. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800126. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057/palgrave.ip.8800126.pdf. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[17] Kelly M. Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, Cornell University Press, 2010).

[18] Ibid., p. 3.

[19] “How many Ukrainian refugees are there and where have they gone?” BBC News, 4 July 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-60555472. (accessed July 26, 2022); Government of Canada, “Ukraine immigration measures: Key figures,” date modified: 2022-07-22, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/services/immigrate-canada/ukraine-measures/key-figures.html. (accessed July 26, 2022). The Government of Canada indicates that 10,046 Ukrainians have arrived in Canada by land and some 54,951 have arrived in Canada by air. Nina Lakhani, “US on track to welcome 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing war this summer,” The Guardian, 24 June 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/24/ukrainians-enter-us-asylum-biden-pledge. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[20] Mark Galeotti, “How Migrants Got Weaponized,” Foreign Affairs, December 2, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2021-12-02/how-migrants-got-weaponized?check_logged_in=1. (accessed July 26, 2022); Kelly M. Greenhill, “When Migrants Become Weapons,” MIT Centre for International Studies, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2022, http://cis.mit.edu/publications/analysis-opinion/2022/when-migrants-become-weapons. (accessed July 26, 2022); Arthur Jennequin, “Turkey and the Weaponization of Syrian Refugees,” Brussels International Centre, Policy Brief, January 2020, https://www.bic-rhr.com/sites/default/files/inline-files/ME%20Policy%20Report%20-%20Turkey%20and%20the%20Weaponization%20of%20Syrian%20Refugees%20-%20Jan%202020.pdf. (accessed July 26, 2022); “The Weaponization of Refugees,” Lobo Institute, March 24, 2022, https://www.loboinstitute.org/the-weaponization-of-refugees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-weaponization-of-refugees. (accessed July 26, 2022); Doug Saunders, “When we turn refugees into human weapons, nobody wins,” The Globe and Mail, March 6, 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-when-we-turn-refugees-into-human-weapons-nobody-wins/. (accessed July 26, 2022)

[21] Mia Swart, “Explainer: What is a war crime?” Aljazeera, 23 October 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/23/explainer-what-is-a-war-crime. (accessed July 27, 2022)

[22] Jessica Durando, “15 of Nelson Mandela’s best quotes,” USA Today, updated December 6, 2013, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2013/12/05/nelson-mandela-quotes/3775255/. (accessed July 27, 2022)

[23] James C. Simeon, “Ending Endless Wars,” Peace Magazine, Vol. 38, No. July-September 2022, pp. 18-19. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/17/crimea-six-years-after-illegal-annexation/. (accessed July 28, 2022)

[24] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Transnational organized crime: the globalized illegal economy,” 2022, https://www.unodc.org/toc/en/crimes/organized-crime.html. (accessed July 27, 2022); United States Department of Justice, International Organized Crime, April 30, 2021, https://www.justice.gov/criminal-ocgs/international-organized-crime. (accessed July 27, 2022); INTERPOL, “Organized Crime,” https://www.interpol.int/en/Crimes/Organized-crime. (accessed July 27, 2022)

[25] Dan Reiter, “Democratic Peace Theory,” Oxford Bibliographies, last modified, 2 May 2019, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756223/obo-9780199756223-0014.xml. (accessed July 27, 2022); Robert Longley, “What is Democratic Peace Theory? Definition and Examples,” ThoughtCo, January 2, 2022, https://www.thoughtco.com/democratic-peace-theory-4769410. (accessed July 27, 2022); Azar Gat, “The Democratic Peace Theory Reframed: The Impact of Modernity,” World Politics, Vol. 58, No. 1, October 2005), pp. 73-100. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40060125. (accessed July 27, 2022)

[26] Drew Desilver, “Despite global concerns about democracy, more than half of countries are democratic,” Pew Research Center, May 14, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/14/more-than-half-of-countries-are-democratic/. (accessed July 27, 2022)

[27] Ibid.