On the Politics of ‘Demographic Bombs’: A Review of Kelly Greenhill’s Weapons of Mass Migration

Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in” — so warned the former Libyan statesman, Muammar al-Qaddafi, during an official visit to Italy in 2010. Uttered as no idle reflection, Qaddafi’s statement contained, in fact, a not-so-veiled threat: unless receiving €5 billion per year from the European Union, the Libyan state would cease to prevent the crossing of illegal migrants from Africa. Europe, in his words, would run the risk of turning “black.”[i] Such instances, in which state actors seek to capitalize upon the potential or actual movements of populations, form the subject of Kelly Greenhill’s monograph, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy, a worthwhile study for anyone concerned with the constitution and causes of migration patterns in the West.[ii]

With examples ranging from Honduras to Vietnam, Greenhill examines more than fifty cases in which “coercive engineered migration” was used as a means of achieving national ends, from diplomatic recognition and military assistance to monetary payoffs and debt relief.[iii] She finds that threats to detonate such “demographic bombs” occur at an average rate of about one per year—at least since the ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which, through its “rules and norms regarding the protection of those fleeing violence and persecution,” incentivized the employment of weapons of mass migration (WMMs).[iv] Adopting stringent measures of evaluation, Greenhill finds further that the brandishing of WMMs yield successful outcomes in over half the analysed cases. Interestingly, democratic states are judged to be particularly vulnerable, not least due to their professed commitment to “universal norms and legal structures”:

Target states disposed to respond to a threatened influx with promises to forcibly repatriate unwelcome asylum seekers or simply turn migrants back at the border, for instance, may find themselves facing significant hypocrisy costs if they attempt to undertake such actions after having previously made rhetorical and/or juridical commitments to protect and defend those fleeing violence, persecution, or privation. Such moral contradictions are well recognized—and often quite deliberately exploited—by those who engage in this kind of coercion.[v]

In addition, Greenhill calculates that democratic states may be destabilized by the potential or actual use of WMMs through exploitation of their pluralistic institutions:

Not only do opposition parties in democracies tend to have strong incentives to criticize and publicize missteps by sitting governments, but they also face powerful political incentives to adopt positions that run counter to those embraced by incumbents, whether or not those policies are currently viewed as problematic…For instance, the opposition may contend that the government is “betraying a just cause and sabotaging the political rights” of a group of migrants or refugees or they may equally well claim the government “has sold out to the refugees [or migrants] at the expense of the nation itself.”[vi]

 Published in 2010, Greenhill’s book nonetheless may be used to shed light on more recent European events. More than three years after Qaddafi’s demise, ISIS forces in Libya reportedly threatened to send 500,000 migrants across the Mediterranean into Europe should the country come under attack.[vii] Just over a year later, the administration of Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, struck a deal with the European Union to prevent migrants from crossing the Aegean in exchange for a €3 billion aid package, the prospect of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, and resumption of talks for EU accession.[viii] Migration was thence brought to a halt, at least until the following fall, when migrant flows to Greece surged, accompanied by threats from Erdoğan that EU member states had fallen short of their promises.[ix]    

Responses to threats of demographic warfare range from actual concessions—as in the case of Turkey—to counterstrategies of various types. Of the latter, Greenhill shows rightful reluctance regarding intervention in the internal affairs of foreign states, up to and including a changing of regime—witness the collapse of the Libyan state (and ensuing migrant chaos) following the murder of Qaddafi in 2011. She shows reluctance as well concerning the erection and bolstering of physical barriers to migration—a more questionable stance considering the relative imperviousness of the Hungarian border fence erected by Victor Orbán’s government in 2015.[x] A final option entails the actual acceptance of migrants, which, as outlined in a 2016 presentation by Greenhill, effectively says to the aggressor, “do your worst. Our people recognize the virtues of immigration over the longer term. We’re willing to pay some adjustment costs. Bring it on.[xi] This was, in effect, Britain’s response to the Ugandan president, Idi Amin, who in 1972 threatened the expulsion of Asian Ugandans while at the same time petitioning for military aid.[xii]

Although not addressed by Greenhill, one may note that Britain accepted over 20,000 of these migrants, the majority of whom settled in Leicester—a city in which they form, to this day, the dominant sub-group of a still-growing Asian community.[xiii] Over the same period, the “white British” portion of the population has shrunk, becoming, by the tally of the 2011 census, a minority in the city.[xiv]


About the Author

Christopher Franke is a London-based researcher and writer.


[i] Nick Squires, “Gaddafi: Europe will ‘turn black’ unless EU pays Libya £4bn a year,” The Telegraph, August 31, 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/7973649/Gaddafi-Europe-will-turn-black-unless-EU-pays-Libya-4bn-a-year.html. According to The Christian Science Monitor, Qaddafi’s threat had yielded, if not €5 billion, than “a more modest €50 million deal.” Dan Murphy, “How the fall of Qaddafi gave rise to Europe’s migrant crisis,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 2015, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Security-Watch/Backchannels/2015/0421/How-the-fall-of-Qaddafi-gave-rise-to-Europe-s-migrant-crisis.

[ii] Kelly M. Greenhill, Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2010).

[iii] Greenhill, ibid., 2.

[iv] Ibid., 3, 15.

[v] Ibid., 4.

[vi] Ibid., 61-62.

[vii] Hannah Roberts, “ISIS threatens to send 500,000 migrants to Europe as a ‘psychological weapon’ in chilling echo of Gaddafi’s prophecy that the Mediterranean ‘will become a sea of chaos’,” The Daily Mail, February 18, 2015, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2958517/The-Mediterranean-sea-chaos-Gaddafi-s-chilling-prophecy-interview-ISIS-threatens-send-500-000-migrants-Europe-psychological-weapon-bombed.html.

[viii] James Kanter, “European Union Reaches Deal With Turkey to Return New Asylum Seekers,” New York Times, March 18, 2016.

[ix] Ceylan Yeginsu, “Refugees Pour Out of Turkey Once More as Deal With Europe Falters,” New York Times, September 14, 2016.

[x] Kelly Greenhill, “Kelly Greenhill on Refugees, R2P, and Weapons of Mass Migration,” interview by Aroop Mukharji, Belfer Center, https://soundcloud.com/belfercenter/office-hours-kelly-greenhill-on-refugees-r2p-and-weapons-of-mass-migration?in=belfercenter/sets/office-hours. On Orbán’s border fence and the (grudging) acknowledgment of its success by Western media outlets, see, for example, Jim Yardley, “Has Europe Reached the Breaking Point?” New York Times, December 15, 2015.

[xi] Kelly Greenhill, “The weaponization of migration: implications for the EU and beyond,” a/simmetrie conference presentation, November 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FN52gOzD24.

[xii] Greenhill (2010), 298.

[xiii] See, for example, Janna Herbert, Negotiating Boundaries in the City: Migration, Ethnicity, and Gender in Britain (Alderhot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008), Chapter 1; Stephen Butt, Leicester in the 1960s: Ten Years that Changed a City, (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2015), Chapter 7; “Uganda | Idi Amin | Asian Expulsion | 1972,” ThamesTv documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-i0JVip9N4; and “Don’t Come To Leicester,” The Midlands Report documentary, 1992, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyopnoeWMvg.   

[xiv] See Stephen Jivraj and Nissa Finney, “Geographies of diversity in Leicestershire,” Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), The University of Manchester, October, 2013, http://hummedia.manchester.ac.uk/institutes/code/briefings/localdynamicsofdiversity/geographies-of-diversity-in-leicestershire.pdf.