Does migration have a geopolitical impact?
At the global level, this impact is minimal, as relations between the major powers are not affected by migration issues. On the other hand, this impact can be seen on a regional scale, particularly in Europe and Africa. Let us start with Europe, where two phenomena can be identified.
The first is the political sensitivity of the subject. The migration phenomenon itself has not gotten any worse. In France, a country of 67 million inhabitants, there are about 150,000 additional immigrants every year. Apart from in Germany, the situation is similar in other European countries. But southern European countries had no immigration thirty years ago, and the novelty of the phenomenon is causing political disturbances. Among the northern countries, Germany, Sweden, and Norway opened their borders to refugees before backtracking. The sensitivity of the subject and the emergence of populist movements can have a political impact and shape the conduct of European countries, with international tensions as we have seen recently between Paris, Algiers, and Rabat.
These tensions can also be seen within the EU. The hard line taken by Poland or Hungary goes hand in hand with a demographic paradox. The countries of the East and the Balkans are in a peculiar situation: their population is decreasing, their fertility is low, their citizens are emigrating, but these countries are hostile to any migratory influx. For example, Romania has gone from 23 million inhabitants in 1990 to 19 million in 2020. They would therefore need immigration to maintain their working population or their level of education. But the concern regarding their cultural identity takes over.
This brings us to the second, much newer phenomenon: the use of migration by some of the EU’s neighbours as a way to exert pressure. Belarus plays on migration flows to put pressure on Poland or Lithuania, and through them on Brussels. Turkey has an agreement with the EU on the management of refugees from the Middle East; it modulates its position in its tense relationship with the EU. One could also mention Libya and the flow of sub-Saharan migrants. In this particular regional context, migration has become a geopolitical weapon.
There is also the situation regarding the border between Mexico and the United States, with caravans of migrants coming from Central America, but also from Haiti and Venezuela. This development increasingly impacts US domestic politics.
Could these tensions be exacerbated by climate migrants?
This is an emerging issue. What we know at the moment about so-called “climate migration” is that it occurs over short distances. In the Mekong Delta and in Bangladesh, farmers move over short distances: they go to the neighbouring hills. But if it gets too much, it could lead to some countries becoming destabilised. This is what India fears, and it has set up electric fences with Bangladesh.
In the Sahel, the advance of the desert – a long-standing and often fluctuating phenomenon – is mainly reflected in the rural exodus. When the desert retreats, the farmers stay in the cities. The same phenomenon can be observed in Bangladesh: following floods, farmers leave their farms and move to the nearest towns. The poorest and most indebted stay in the town, those who have some assets return and take back their land.
You mention the Sahel. Part of the issue here is high fertility?
Yes, this is the last major area of high fertility. A country like Niger already has 22 million inhabitants and is growing at 4% per year: a doubling every seventeen years. Nigeriens are moving southwards, towards Togo, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire. Here, there are geopolitical risks of destabilisation. We have already seen troubles in Côte d’Ivoire, about ten years ago. Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad are also unstable. We imagine a risk for Europe. But a poor farmer in Burkina Faso will not travel that far. Most of the international migration from Africa takes place between African countries.
Yet more than issues of climate migration, the factor to consider here is civil war. The two best known examples are Darfur, from where between 500,000 and one million people have fled to eastern Chad, and Somalia, from which one million people have left for Kenya, where the world’s largest camp houses 500,000 people. This creates problems within the country itself. In Chad, on the other hand, I have not heard of any major problems, perhaps because some of the refugees from Darfur are Zaghawa, an ethnic group that straddles the two countries and to which the Chadian president belongs.
Part of African migration is therefore facilitated by the mismatch between administrative borders and ethnic distribution. Nevertheless, the fact remains that African states, like others, are seeking to strengthen their borders. This reinforcement can have side effects, such as those observed in Europe: by making migration difficult, fluid comings and goings, such as “noria”, have been reduced in favour of definitive emigration. This poses problems for host countries, but also for countries of emigration, because a large proportion of today’s migrants are qualified professionals who settle in rich countries.