September 2008

Immigration as Blackmail

Many countries use threats of population movements to achieve their goals, and it's not just the bad guys

By Marjorie Howard

When Kelly Greenhill was growing up in South Florida, she couldn't turn on the TV or the radio without hearing something about the Mariel boatlift. Adult conversations, newspaper headlines, even her social studies classes in school all focused on how to deal with the massive influx of Cuban refugees into the United States supported by Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself.

Kelly Greenhill has identified more than 50 cases since 1951 in which large-scale population movements were used as means to political or economic ends. Photo: Tia Chapman

It was 1980, and many Cuban Americans viewed the boatlift as a welcome opportunity for their former countrymen to escape a repressive life. Others, however, worried about the impact of a flood of Cubans on the local job and housing markets, as well as on social services such as health care. The United States ultimately accepted some 125,000 Cubans, but Mariel turned out to be a profound embarrassment for the Carter administration and may have played a role in his 1980 electoral defeat.

"This was due in part to the magnitude of the influx and, in part, because Castro not only let legitimate immigrants leave, but also opened prisons and psychiatric wards to allow criminals and the mentally ill to join the boatlift," says Greenhill, now beginning her second year as an assistant professor of political science and international relations.

Of the tens of thousands who landed on Florida's shores, a number had to be institutionalized. For his part, Castro used the crisis to extract from the U.S. not only an agreement on prosecuting hijackers, but eventually a new immigration accord.

It was not the first time a political leader used migration as a strategic policy tool. Greenhill recently completed a book manuscript about this phenomenon, the first systematic study that analyzes and illustrates how and why large-scale migrations have been used to coerce or even blackmail other countries.

She has identified more than 50 cases since 1951 in which large-scale population movements were used as means to political or economic ends. They succeeded, at least in part, about 70 percent of the time, she says.

"Traditionally, we think of military force when we think of coercion," she says. "My book focuses on a non-military method by which state and non-state actors can attempt to get what they want, namely through the use of refugee and migration crises. During the Mariel crisis, for instance, it was clear even to a child that the person pulling the strings was Castro, and what was happening was not being controlled by the United States."

Similarly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) successfully pressured the U.S., among others, by threatening to expel or to refuse to accept Indochinese boat people and refugees.

"These states were able to manipulate the fact that the failed intervention by the U.S. in Vietnam lay at the root of this disaster, and if the Indochinese were expelled, the humanitarian fallout would be on our hands," Greenhill says.

Getting what They Want

"Some coercers simply wanted financial aid and promises of refugee resettlement," she adds. "Others sought more, including military assistance and an explicit alliance. The bottom line is that they got what they sought."

More recently, in 2004, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi persuaded the European Union (EU) to lift all remaining sanctions against his country in exchange for staunching the flow of North African immigrants, who were illegally using Libyan ports to enter the EU via Italy.

And since the early 2000s, the Chinese government's willingness to pressure North Korea to shut down its nuclear weapons program has been significantly tempered by its fears of a massive flood of refugees into China should North Korea collapse.

Greenhill says those applying pressure may take advantage of their target's ideological and moral commitments. In the early 1980s, for example, East German president Erich Honecker placed ads in South Asian newspapers offering to bring migrants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and elsewhere to East Germany, assuring them they would then be able to travel to West Germany to find jobs. "He did it to extract a variety of payoffs from West Germany," says Greenhill, "including money and technical assistance."

Given both the country's Nazi past and the liberal nature of its constitution, where asylum seekers were concerned, the East Germans understood their West German counterparts would be in a bind over how to deal with the South Asian migrants, some of whom might indeed be legitimate asylum seekers. Greenhill notes that one East German official is reported to have said, "They have a liberal, free society over there; let them prove it."

"While it's more typical for weak and illiberal actors to use the migration weapon, powerful democracies have also engaged in this practice," Greenhill says. "From 1954 to 1955, just after the First Indochina War, for instance, the United States offered a variety of financial inducements to entice North Vietnamese to flee to South Vietnam, in part to persuade the North Vietnamese to abandon demands for reunification elections."

"In the end, whether employed by democrats or dictators," says Greenhill, "it represents a kind of political blackmail. Would-be coercers threaten, 'Do X, or I will hurt you.' However, instead of employing force to inflict the promised pain, they use, or threaten to use, demographic bombs. In today's political environment, when border controls and uncontrolled immigration are such hot-button issues, it is not terribly difficult to understand why such threats may be effective."

Marjorie Howard may be reached at

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