A ‘Hybrid Threat’? European militaries and migration

Europeans have struggled to come up with a coherent policy towards immigration and irregular migration flows. This has been particularly evident in the response to the so-called ‘migrant crisis’, which has seen increasing flows of migrants from the regions south and south-east of Europe. Migration is now a policy area that has triggered both internal and external responses. Within the EU these two dimensions have become increasingly interconnected. In the external dimension, the military has become more visible, from EU and NATO operations in the Mediterranean to a new Italian mission in the Sahel, where the military has taken on a range of responsibilities including fighting human trafficking and smuggling, contributing to situational awareness, and deterring migration flows.

However, this military engagement has raised questions: What value does it add to civilian security operations? How effective is it? What consequences will military involvement have in the long term for the way Europe approaches migration?

This paper examines the driving forces behind Europe’s resort to the military in migration policy in recent years and how it is likely to develop in the near future. It argues that a key reason for more extensive military involvement is the perception of ‘hybrid threats’ associated with migration, particularly the weaponisation of migrants, human smuggling and trafficking, and terrorist infiltration. It then discusses recent military operations intended to address migration and assesses their limitations, highlighting the confusion in the logic behind many of the deployments. The paper concludes by exploring an alternative policy approach and its implications for the military’s role. It argues that EU leaders need to clarify the nature of threats, strengthen resilience, and address hybrid aspects more effectively without relying on such strong military participation.

Keywords: European Union, hybrid threats, migration crisis, Common Security and Defence Policy, NATO

Download Julia Himmrich’s working paper here.

Julia Himmrich is a Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics.