Analysis 2017/3: Migration as an instrument of foreign policy

September 20, 2017

Analysis 2017/3: Migration as an instrument of foreign policy

Analysis 2017/3: Migration as an instrument of foreign policy

Migration as an instrument of foreign policy

The recent crisis between Turkey and the Netherlands shows how long-term migration could be an instrument of foreign policy. The 2017 Dutch–Turkish diplomatic incident, called the Tulip crisis, illustrates the nexus migration establishes between internal politics of a host country (the Netherlands in this case) and foreign policy of the exporting country (Turkey in this case). Exporting-migration countries use their nationals, of first or subsequent migrant generations, to put pressure on host countries, leading thus to permeate and impact the political system of these countries.

Extensive evidence suggests that several countries use migration to influence politics of targeted countries in Europe and beyond. We mean by influence here the capacity to mobilize immigrants to change or contest measures taken by a government, to intervene in elections, to dissuade a host country for pursing a policy, or to bring it to support the exporting-migration country’s policy. We shall provide examples of different countries, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, in addition to Kurds whose areas of influences extend to Western Europe. Throughout this paper influence is addressed as pressure and soft power. It is not in the paper’s scope to inspect migration as a weapon, although this could be one aspect of migration as a tool of foreign policy.[1] Displacement of populations and driving them towards a targeted region or country has been observed in the recent conflicts in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, etc.) and Africa (Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, etc.). The article does not engage neither with minorities as a geopolitical tool[2], despite its relevance, sometimes intermingling with migration (one can think of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria).

The specific aim of this study is to examine the double allegiance of some migrant communities as a vulnerability point, used by countries to influence decision-making in a European political system. The use and misuse of migration as an instrument of foreign policy bears the risk of turning social conflict, inherent to any society, into an identity conflict, as allegiance to the exporting country or group increases. Furthermore, a risk of a parallel state is real; when significant parts of the population are manipulated or implement the strategy of their country of origin, the host country looses control over this population. As we head further to what M. Leonard calls “connectivity wars’[3], namely migration, finance and trade, knowledge of migration as a diplomatic weapon can play an important role in addressing the issue of the autonomy of decision-making and sovereignty. Migration is a pivotal vehicle of information and economy, which could foster relations between the North and the south, as it could engender major risks to these relationships.


Turkey has long used its nationals to influence politics in the host European countries. Close to our memories is the involvement of Turkish immigrants in early 2000s, in a largely funded and organized campaign in favour of Turkey’s adhesion to the UE. Following the change of Turkey’s internal and foreign policies as the AKP, under the leadership of Erdogan, turns more authoritative, and anti-Western, Turkish communities in European countries supported in majority Erdogan. This support demonstrates the permeability of second and third generations Turkish communities to the AKP and its Islamic-nationalist rhetoric.

In Belgium, (with an estimated population of 200,000-250,000 Turks) Recep Tayyip Erdogan led, in May 2015, a meeting, one of the biggest ever in Belgium, in Hasselt, the Flemish city with an important Turkish community, mobilising 25000 person.[4] The gathering people treated Erdogan as a hero, and not just as a politician in campaign in support of AKP party. Belgian politicians and media were worried about the event, because no Belgian politician could mobilize any comparable number to that among Turkish communities, and the debate turned quickly to the issue of loyalty and infiltration by foreign countries of migrant communities, who supposedly are Belgians. Again, in Belgium, another issue sparked the debate with regard to Turkey’s influence. As the Belgian parliament was about to vote the resolution on the Armenian genocide in July 2015, the Belgian-Turkish parliamentary members made huge pressure on their political parties, especially the left and centrist parties. The result was an ambiguous resolution which clears the way for Turkey while acknowledging the genocidal nature the events in 1915.[5] Moreover, some Turkish members contested overtly the vote of their political parties. The parliamentary member Mahinur Özdemir, who was close to Erdogan, was excluded from her party CDH, Centre démocrate humaniste.[6]

In Austria, one can note two crises in the recent times between Ankara and Vienna in which Ankara uses its migrants in Austria as a way to make pressure on Vienna. First, in 2010, Turkey’s ambassador to Vienna Kadri Ecved Tezcan declared that « Turks did not wish to be treated like a virus in Austria…and  if he were the head of the organisation such as the UN he would not stay in Vienna… and also You must learn to live with others. What’s Austria’s problem? ».[7] An estimated 350,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria. In August 2016, a new crisis erupted. As Austria has banned Turkish immigrants from organising a public meeting in support of Erdogan, Turkey responded by accusing Vienna to be a center of Islamophobia and support of terrorism[8]. In February 2017, Austria refused to allow free election campaign appearances of Turkish politicians in Austria in favour of a referendum that would allow Erdogan more power.[9]

Germany with an estimated population of around 3 million Turks also undergoes the influence of Turkish foreign policy. In the recent Turkish elections, in November 2015, the AKP obtained almost 60 percent of the votes of registered 570,000 Turkish voters in Germany.[10] Turkey also uses the religious affairs through The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (known as DİTİB), the largest Islamic organization in Germany and directly controlled by the Turkish government. This organization runs over 900 mosques in Germany, controlling and directing the Turks in Turkey toward a support for the nationalist-Islamic tendency of the AKP.[11] Such influence could be seen as well in the Böhmermann affair. German satirist Jan Böhmermann made a satire of Erdogan on March 2016. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Numan Kurtulmuş, considered the satire as a “crime against humanity”[12]. Echoing Turkey’s harsh reaction, including that of Erdogan himself, a German deputy Detlef Seif attacked Böhmermann and supported Erdogan in the Bundestag. Moreover, Erdogan followers in Germany made a legal complaint in Germany against Böhmermann. The latter was put under police protection after he received threats.[13] The debate over dual citizenship in Germany illustrates further the permeability of the German system to Turkish influence: while A. Merkel’s party the CDU adopted a decision to stop issuing dual passports to Turkish Germans, to contain Turkey’s influence, Merkel still manages Turkey, and the German government did not apply this decision.[14]

Turkey certainly benefits better from Turkish communities with a double passport. Connectivity would only make sense if these communities are effective in the political lives of their host countries, and which can only occur if they have the European citizenships. For exporting migration countries, connectivity is attainable inasmuch as the instruments (the migrants) are leading a parallel political life: they constitute a force in the local vote, but have sufficient autonomy to prioritise the national interest of their countries of origin. Interdependence between exporting country and host country increases the political capital of the exporting country and reveals, at the same time and crescendo, the vulnerabilities of the host country.[15]

Kurds in Germany and Belgium

Approximately 1.000.000-1.500.000 Kurds live in Western Europe, and some 600.000 live in Germany.[16] Kurds pay allegiance to either political parties such as the PKK or quasi-states such as Kurdistan in Iraq, and their strategy consists in bringing the EU to support their claims of independence against mainly Turkey.

Considering what has been said earlier about Turkey’s use of its immigrant communities to put pressure on Germany’s policies, it is expected that Kurds also would act or react in this regard. If one focuses only on the last 2 years, one can observe the Kurds putting pressure on the EU in two directions: against Turkey and the ISIS. In both cases, the Kurds hope to make the EU, or some of its major decision-makers support the policies of Kurdistan or the PKK, and punish their adversaries.

In Germany, Kurds demonstrated and attacked several times other demonstrations by Turkish pro-Erdogan protestors. Kurds in Germany also protested against the Islamic State, the enemy of the Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq.[17] A German diplomat even declared that “”When you have a full blown civil war there, then there is the risk of direct transmission to German cities”.[18] In Belgium, with relatively a small number of Kurds 22000,[19] witnessed a similar tension between Kurds and Turks; as thousands of Kurds protest against Erdogan, disapproving “the weak and fearful EU attitude” towards President Erdogan, Turkish activists attack the Kurdish protestors.[20]

Whatever the outcome of these clashes between Turks and Kurds could be in terms of decision-making, it is improbable that these clashes could have no effect on this process. If the EU tends to favour Kurds or Turks, then a more violent reaction is expected from the other side, and more pressure to change the decision. Not being able to decide for its own interest and choosing neutrality could also be an outcome in favour of a status quo, beneficial to Turkey.

Conflicts in the Middle East were proved to be of the zero-sum type. The Kurdish-Turkish conflict is an example of such situation and its importation to Europe only means another zero-sum situation. In regard to connectivity, it is expected that the events in the Middle East will continue to fuel the imported conflict in Europe, and as belligerents will get more losses or gains, European societies will enter in a vicious circle of tensions. The recent war of words between Merkel and Erdogan demonstrates how connectivity makes political life in the host country resembles to the one in the original country. 

The rivalry of Morocco-Algeria in France

In 2014, the number of Algerian voters in France was 815 000, including Algerians with a French citizenship and Algerians with a residence permit in France.[21] This does not cover all the Algerians, but only those who registered at the Algerian embassy to vote in Algerian elections. Statistics of 2012, speak of 1 713 000 Algerians or their descendants in France[22]. An Algerian source, very much exaggerated, speaks of 5 million Algerians in France.[23] There are 1,3 million Moroccans in France.[24]

Since 1963, a cold war opposes Rabat and Algiers over the Sahara issue, and other geopolitical matters in Africa and beyond. This cold war extends to the organization of Islam in France. Each country attempts to obtain the maximum of authority over Muslims in France, so that it could have more weight in negotiating with Paris over hard political issues. This proxy Islam or embassy Islam works through a direct supervision by the embassies or consulates of Morocco or Algeria of specific mosques or religious associations, appealing to the national reflex, offering financial incentives and organization assistance, etc. This rivalry takes place in the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the CFCM, since its foundation by the French government in 2003 to organize Islam in France and control it. Morocco is represented by le Rassemblement des musulmans de France while Algeria relies on the Grande Mosquée de Paris. In the First elections, in 2003, Morocco largely dominated the vote and therefore the management of the religious affairs; the Grand Mosque of Paris, Algeria’s representative only got five members out of 41 members. The Morocco’s representative won the stake with 18 seats on the board of directors. The UOIF, close to the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by two Moroccans, got 16 seats. Morocco thus obtained 36% of control over the CFCM, and in the next elections in 2005, 40%.[25] In later elections, Morocco obtained 30 and 25 seats (2011 and 2013 respectively) while Algeria 2 and 8 seats (2011 and 2013 respectively).

After the terrorist attacks in 2015, the French government wanted to gain control over Islamic affairs in France. It created a new institution La Fondation de l’islam de France which clearly hopes to establish a French Islam, loyal to France, with a budget, and led by the Republican Jean-Pierre Chevènement, who is well-respected by many Muslims, right-wing and left-wing politicians. As this new foundation starts its negotiations to constitute a board of administration, it was confronted to the same rivalry between Morocco and Algeria that discredited the CFCM ; the Grande Mosquée de Paris withdrew from La Fondation de l’islam de France, bringing probably the hopes of an islam de France to end. Grande Mosquée de Paris expected to have more influence in the Foundation as it claims to control 250 mosques in France out of 2500.[26]

The rivalry between Morocco and Algeria affects even the French governments of the François Hollande’s presidency (2012-2017). Three ministers are of Moroccan origin: Audrey Azoulay, minister of Culture since February 2016. She is the daughter of a Jewish Moroccan diplomat and businessman André Azoulay, the senior adviser to King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Algeria vigorously and officially reacted to her appointment, denouncing the “Moroccanisation of French political life”.[27] The second minister of Moroccan origin is Najat Vallaud-Belkacem: an important pillar of François Hollande’s team; she is minister since 2012, first of women’s rights, then of education. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has been criticized in France for being a member of the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad; early in her political career, and prior to being a minister, she was an active and significant member of this Council between 2007 and 2011.[28] These ministries are certainly not concerned with hard politics such as foreign affairs, finance or interior affairs, but rather soft politics, and are pursued by the French socialists in the framework of what they call “diversity policy”. Finally, Myriam el-Khomri, the Minister of Labor, was appointed in September 2015.[29]

Both Morocco and Algeria need their immigrant communities for economic income they send to these countries, for investments, tourism, etc. While in terms of development policy, these remittances could be seen as lever for generating economic activity, it also has a price for the immigrant communities. They loose their autonomy in interdependence with their countries of origin; the more they invest in their countries of origin, the more they depend on them, at least for the property and funds they have there. The other side of this interdependence is the possibility of a military conflict between Morocco and Algeria, and the effects it could have on migrant communities in France.

Concluding remarks

In order for a foreign policy to use migration in an effective way, some elements are needed: a central government (Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, etc.) or centers of political decision (Kurds, etc. ), a considerable number of immigrants, and a critical transformation or geopolitical issue, at stake in the country of origin. These elements create a connectivity or interdependence between the country of origin, the migrant community and the host country whereby any political decision related to the country of origin or the host country is calculated, while taking into account the variable of migration. The more this connectivity expands, the less the host country could claim political autonomy with regard to the country of origin. As for the country of origin, the more its use, or misuse shall we say, of migration is fruitful, the more it would encourage migration.

An inference of this conclusion is the likelihood that parallel diplomacy might fragilise the host country, and turns its open gates policy to migrants into weakness. The host countries increasingly doubt the loyalty of their migrant communities and will likely be drawn to implement coercive measures. On the other side, whereas migration looks beneficial in the short run, it also fragilises the country of origin as migration will drain human resources needed for development. Although migration was seen for a long time as a win-win situation for the south as well as for the north, it could be a highly risky process for both.

[1] Kelly M. Greenhill worked extensively  on this aspect. See her most recent studies:

Kelly M. Greenhill, „Strategic Engineered Migration as a Weapon of War”, Suffolk transnational law review, Vol. 39, No. 3, p. 615-636.

Kelly M. Greenhill, „Migration as a Weapon in Theory and in Practice”, Military Review. Nov/Dec2016, Vol. 96 Issue 6, p23-36.

[2] Riva Kastoryano, « Minorités et politique étrangère : espace transnational et diplomatie globale”, Politique étrangère, n03-2010/3 (2010): 579-591.

[3] M. Leonard, Ed. Connectivity wars: why migration, finance and trade are the geo-economic battlegrounds of the future, European Council on Foreign Relations., 2016, p. 14.

[4] Erdogan lokt 25.000 Turken naar Hasselt

[5] Génocide arménien : le Parlement belge adopte une résolution qui pourrait froisser et Ankara et Erevan

[6] La députée Özdemir exclue du CDH pour avoir refusé de reconnaître le génocide arménien

[7] Turkey’s ambassador to Austria prompts immigration spat


Turkey recalls ambassador to Austria as row deepens

[9] Turkey to Austria: Our referendum doesn’t concern you

[10] Robert Schuster, The Turkish Effect in German Politics…/1-2017-the-turkish-effect-in-german-politics

[11] Turks in Germany: Old faultlines as tensions rise in Turkey, they spill over into Germany…/21703296-tensions-rise-turkey-they-spill-over- germany-old-faultlines

[12] Erdoğan stellt offiziell Strafantrag gegen Böhmermann

[13] Jan Böhmermann steht unter Polizeischutz…/Jan-Boehmermann-steht-unter-Polizeischutz.html

[14] Robert Schuster, The Turkish Effect in German Politics…/1-2017-the-turkish-effect-in-german-politics

[15] M. Leonard, Ed. Connectivity wars, p. 15.

[16] Birgit Ammann, „Kurds in Germany”, Encyclopedia of Diasporas, 1012.

[17] The Kurdish-Turkish conflict is playing out in Germany

[18] Germany fears return of Turkish-Kurdish violence on its soil

[19] Belgium

[20] L’institut kurde à Saint-Josse attaqué par des pro-Erdogan

[21] Les regards multiples des Algériens de France sur l’élection

[22] Hassina Mechaï, „La France entre l’ombrageuse Algérie et le sourcilleux Maroc”,

[23] Ibid.

[24] 4,2 millions de Marocains, citoyens du monde

[25] Bernard Godard, „Les États musulmans et l’islam de France”, Politique étrangère 2015/3, p.


[26] La Mosquée de Paris claque la porte des nouveaux chantiers de « l’islam de France »

[27] Alger en colère après la promotion d’Audrey Azoulay

[28] Rosso-Debord accuse à tort Vallaud-Belkacem d’appartenir à une instance marocaine

[29] Hassina Mechaï, „La France entre l’ombrageuse Algérie et le sourcilleux Maroc”,