π Geopolitics
Do demographics still weigh in on geopolitics?

Geopolitics: “the impact of migration is essentially regional”

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On November 24th, 2021 |
3 min reading time
Hervé Le Bras
Hervé Le Bras
Research director in demographics at EHESS and Emeritus research director at Ined
Key takeaways
  • The geopolitical impact of migration remains low when considering relations between major powers, but it is more marked on a regional scale.
  • Some of the tensions within the European Union are based on the issue of migration and the use of migration to exert pressure on the EU by some of its neighbours is a new development.
  • Outside Europe, “climatic” migration nowadays takes place over very short distances.
  • The refugee phenomenon, both in Africa and in Europe, can affect the stability of states and their relations.

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.

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter