The Geopolitics of Refugee Crises

by Lionel Beehner

Two hundred thousand Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring countries in recent months as their country descends ever deeper into civil war. In August alone, over 100,000 refugees fled Syria, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The flood of refugees has pushed Turkey to amplify its calls for a no-fly zone near Idlib along its border, not unlike the no-fly zone imposed on northern Iraq to protect Kurds from becoming refugees in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. All of which invites the question: Is there a magic threshold before outside powers intervene to stem the tide of asylum seekers?

The relationship between refugee crises and humanitarian interventions remains unclear. On one hand, the use of brute and indiscriminate force appears to be a deliberate tactic by the Assad regime to displace locals and create refugee flows, thereby raising the costs for outside powers like Turkey to either provide humanitarian assistance or intervene militarily. But this tactic could also backfire, prompting calls for greater military involvement by the West. 

A look back at recent interventions is instructive on how the size and scope of refugee flows has swayed policymakers and the public to intervene militarily. One of the major motivations behind the northern Iraq no-fly zone, established in 1991 was to relieve the burden of an estimated million-plus Kurds seeking shelter in Turkey by creating a secure zone for them within Iraq. Ankara was particularly worried about the influx of refugees exacerbating tensions among its own Kurds in the southeast, creating a kind of “Kurdish Gaza Strip” that could become a lawless zone of instability. In Bosnia and Kosovo, similar spillovers of refugees and the threat they posed to regional stability provided the catalyst for greater involvement and eventual military intervention. As then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, “Spreading conflict … could flood the region with refugees and create a haven for international terrorists, drug traffickers, and criminals.” 

That being said, obviously not all refugee crises lead to international interventions. In fact, most don’t. The Great Lakes refugee crisis of 1994—when over 2 million Rwandans, most of them Hutus, fled during the aftermath of the genocide into neighboring countries—resulted in little humanitarian relief or interventions from outside parties like the U.S., just a few Dutch medics and nurses and a French field hospital. The biggest refugee crisis in recent memory—Iraq between 2003 and 2007—was the consequence of U.S. intervention, not the cause. 

But refugees can create humanitarian crises and export instability, which in turn can ratchet up domestic pressure for military interventions. In Haiti, for example, the 1991 coup by General Raoul Cedras and an attack against pro-Aristide shanty towns two years later by forces loyal to him set off a chain of events that left some 500 Aristide supporters dead, over 300,000 Haitians internally displaced, and roughly 100,000 refugees, mostly forced to flee on ramshackle rafts heading for the U.S. coast. The coup and subsequent refugee crisis ratcheted up pressure on Washington to respond with military force. The intervention was preceded by an arms and fuel embargo against the Cedras regime by the UN Security Council, the deployment of international monitors to document human rights abuses, and the freezing of all government funds. The only real threat posed to the U.S. homeland was the boatloads of Haitians seeking refuge, but it hardly posed a vital national security interest. Still, the Black Caucus and pro-Aristide camp pushed President Bill Clinton to issue calls for a multilateral intervention in 1994. Peacekeeping responsibilities, however, were not handed over to the UN until March 1995, well after the 20,000-strong force, almost all of them American, landed in Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy.

Similarly in Libya last spring, the flood of refugees to Europe’s southern shores created what the UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, described to The New York Times as a “logistical nightmare,” intensifying calls for a NATO no-fly zone. Over one million Libyans entered into Tunisia, Egypt, and other North African countries, while over a thousand refugees died en route to Europe by boat. Guterres also complained about Europe’s “grudging” response to resettle Libyan war refugees. Refugee crises also raise worries about health epidemics. But did the worsening refugee situation impede or hasten NATO’s eventual military intervention? As with Haiti, the first response was to free Libyan assets and tighten sanctions. There also was an airlift to repatriate workers. Yet, had there been no refugees, or looming threat of even greater refugee flows that could have unsettled Libya’s neighbors, it appears unlikely there would have been an intervention. After all, President Obama, in his March 28, 2011 address on calling for the intervention, said, “A massacre [in Benghazi] would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful—yet fragile—transitions in Egypt and Tunisia."

Despite their recurrent use, legal opinion is divided on whether interventions to prevent refugee crises are even justified under international law. Alan Dowty and Gil Loescher argue that customary law allows for some preventive action against refugee flows. They write, “A country that forces its people to flee or takes actions that compel them to leave in a manner that threatens regional peace and security has in effect internationalized its internal affairs, and provides a cogent justification for policymakers elsewhere to act directly upon the source of the threat.” Hence, the intervention would be both humanitarian and aimed at restoring peace, which could require removing the offending government and still be within the bounds of proportionality. Other scholars, however, dispute the notion that a refugee crisis provides any legal basis for military intervention. Peter Malanczuk has argued that the no-fly zones imposed in Northern Iraq in 1991 were illegal because the crisis did not sufficiently meet the criteria of posing “a threat to international peace and security in the region.” (Then-UN Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali also thought the no-fly zone was illegal). Other legal experts, such as Eric Posner, argue that refugee crises get lumped under the “responsibility to protect” mantle, which he worries is too “capacious a norm to regulate states” because “it can be cited to justify virtually any intervention in the type of country that the West might want to invade, while it can also be evaded on grounds that it is not formal law.”

The legality of interventions, however, is rarely a reliable barometer of the likelihood of outside intervention. The reason is that most interventions occupy a legal grey zone and fall under the category of what Judge Richard Goldstone, in his postwar investigation of Kosovo, described as “illegal but legitimate.” Nor is there a magic threshold of the size of refugee flows that prompts outside intervention: Libya’s crisis, after all, paled in comparison to Rwanda’s. Interventions occur when direct national security interests or those of allies, are thrown into question by refugee flows. The size, scope, and legality of such crises are important but insufficient predictors of military action.

Unfortunately for Turkey, it cannot act alone in Syria, as its hands are already full providing food and shelter to the 100,000-plus refugees already within its borders, not to mention its concerns that military action could spark a secessionist crisis among its own Kurdish population. Nor is the United States likely to come to Turkey’s defense and impose another no-fly zone as it did in 1991, given the lack of political will and fears of becoming bogged down in yet another sectarian civil war in the region. Even if Washington did intervene, there is little evidence such a humanitarian corridor would stem the tide of refugees out of Syria, and in fact, it could make the situation far worse for those not under its no-fly umbrella, thus exacerbating the refugee crisis on the borders of Jordan and Lebanon. Worse, the scholars Karl DeRouen and Michael Barutciski have found that the more displacement caused by civil war, the harder it is to keep the peace afterward, something that does not bode well for Syria's democratic future.

Hence, all sides of the Syrian crisis are in a kind of holding pattern. Refugees will continue to seek safety, while Assad’s forces will continue to pummel population centers. Turkey will plead for greater U.S. or NATO involvement, which will only grow louder as the humanitarian crisis on its border worsens. But the prospects for intervention seem dim. After all, it is not the size of the refugee flows that prompt the outside world to take action but rather self-interested geopolitics.



Lionel Beehner was a 2010 Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a term member with the Council on Foreign Relations

[Photo courtesy of United Nations]

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