There is tremendous potential for states to enhance their people-focused power and resilience by cooperating on migration and mobility policies, and by ensuring that those who migrate have the optimal conditions for integration. If properly implemented, such strategies can help benefit all players – including migrants and refugees themselves

Professor of international relations, SOAS
2020-21 Leverhulme Trust visiting professor, SOAS

Demography is destiny, the saying goes, and the twenty-first century is no different in this regard. From time immemorial, people have been a bedrock of state power and capabilities. Population size and growth rates, for instance, place critical limits on a state’s aggregate power. A large population does not, by itself, make a state a great power – indeed, overpopulation can be a profound vulnerability – but it is likely impossible in the modern world to achieve and sustain great power status without one. Although technology has reduced and even supplanted the need for human labour in numerous domains, human capital continues to be a critical determinant of a state’s industrial and military capabilities, and of its prestige and position in the international system. Therefore, it is unsurprising that all the world’s major powers have sizeable populations (see: Map 1).

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However, while the significance of demography is perennial, the ways in which states manage their people power has changed. The world is now highly interconnected, thanks to seismic shifts in recent decades in communications and transport technologies; the volume and levels of dependencies in global trade; and cultural dispersion and homogenisation. In this context, managing people is about not just populations but also cross-border mobility – who crosses borders, and why and when they do so. The ways in which states manage mobility can have fundamental effects on their economic, security, and diplomatic interests. Consequently, issues of migration, border control, and citizenship and other forms of political membership have become ever more important to states’ political and strategic agendas – in addition to being issues of social concern.

States have long viewed populations as a source and battleground of power – as illustrated by histories of imperial expansion, colonial control, and military conquest – but the terrain on which this has occurred has changed over time. States are less likely to pursue control over populations through direct military conquest or colonial expansion than through the strategic management of different forms of mobility. On this new battleground, the arsenals at states’ disposal can be their immigration, entry, diaspora, and citizenship policies. And states’ location within the global system of migration and mobility shapes this dimension of power (see: Map 2). Labour migrants, refugees, tourists, students, expatriates, and global elites all emerge as potential pieces on a strategic chessboard on which states compete for advantage and influence.

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The birthright lottery

People as a source of power and vulnerability

Military competition can push states to mobilise their populations either as manpower in combat or as labour in defence-related industries. Economic competition can lead them to use people in other ways: the search for cheap labour creates a market for migrant workers, often forcing large numbers of people to live without citizenship or rights in precarious conditions on the margins of societies. At the same time, a global class of super-elites purchase mobility via citizenship or residence through investment schemes such as “golden visas” – enabled by states that commodify their legal instruments of membership and belonging for economic gain.

In this context of human geopolitics, national borders take on new meanings. Traditionally, borders were viewed by governments as fortified zones designed to prevent intrusion by foreign enemies. Today, states increasingly expect borders to perform dual functions – to simultaneously facilitate the types of movement and mobility that states view as desirable and prevent those that are not. At the most basic level, states seek to attract cross-border flows that enhance their economic and political strength, and to prevent cross-border flows perceived to have detrimental effects on their economic well-being, security, and stability. The enormous contradictory pressures on states create a “liberal paradox”: states have economic incentives to be open to free flows of trade, capital, ideas, and people but political incentives to halt these flows – in many places, increasingly so – through mechanisms that define who is a citizen and, therefore, who has access to various political rights, duties, and obligations.

Illiberal states can jettison these political imperatives without undermining the basis of their political legitimacy. The populations of the Gulf – which, along with north America and Europe, is a leading destination for migrants (see: Map 3) – are composed largely of non-citizens. However, liberal states must live with, navigate, and balance these fundamental tensions. This leads to different types of power and vulnerabilities for different types of states. Illiberal states may have fewer constraints on how they manage migration. At the same time, they are less likely to be attractive destinations for global talent and the wealth it brings. Liberal states may be more vulnerable to charges of political hypocrisy: their political ideology relies to some extent on placing restrictions on membership and belonging, but those restrictions also undermine universalist liberal conceptions of individual rights – including the right to freely move, cross borders, and travel. States may make unsavoury trade-offs between ‘rights and numbers’, and may abrogate or instrumentalise their normative and legal commitments to provide refuge and protection.

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Migration magnets: Leading destinations for international migrants

States also compete for transitory visitors who can be major sources of income, such as international students and tourists. For instance, international tourism generated almost $2 trillion in revenue globally in 2019 alone – but this figure declined precipitously in 2020, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions. Therefore, states or entities within them can become vulnerable if they depend on this revenue as a key source of income, as do some tourist destinations (see: Map 4), or to balance the books in certain industries, as is increasingly the case in higher education. The number of foreign students in the US – over half of whom hail from China and India – has more than doubled since 2000. (The UK higher education sector is similarly reliant on overseas students, particularly those from China.) And many universities need to charge high tuition fees to foreign students to cover their operating costs and offer educational aid to domestic students in financial need.

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Global tourism and travel: The major players

Great people powers

States’ position in global and regional systems of migration and mobility can shape how they wield and exercise power – and what strategies they adopt to gain a competitive edge. Countries of origin, transit, and destination for migrants possess different tools to leverage the power of mobility to their advantage. States that are populous but poor have incentives to export labour and promote emigration, as do states with population bulges that could contribute to domestic instability. For example, the share of the population aged 15-29 is around 7 percentage points higher in the developing world than elsewhere – a disparity that is especially apparent in parts of the Middle East and Africa. In both sub-Saharan and North Africa, around 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 15, and nearly 70 per cent is under the age of 30 (see: Map 5). Exporting ‘excess’ people has long been a means of reducing domestic pressure associated with surplus labour, as well as a means of securing income from migrant remittances.

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Africa: A future centre of people power?

At the same time, states that are heavily reliant on remittances – such as Nepal, Tajikistan, and Ukraine – may be vulnerable to fluctuations or disruptions in monetary flows tied to shifts in the size of their overseas workforces (see: Map 6). Countries with large numbers of emigrants, such as India or China, have incentives to wield political influence via their diasporas, which they can draw upon as instruments of soft power and public diplomacy – but which may also be seen as a source of security concerns and vulnerabilities. Wealthy states that have ageing populations and are in need of labour and talent will seek to attract migrants that fit their economic needs – either via points-based or highly skilled visa programmes, or temporary-worker or low-skilled work programmes (see: Map 7). They may also seek ways to keep out irregular migrants whom they categorise as politically, economically, or socially burdensome.

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The global remittance economy: Inflows, outflows, and dependencies

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The top five remittance-dependent countries (share of GDP)
South Sudan34.4%
Source: The World Bank. (2021). Annual Remittances Data, May 2021
The top five remittance receivers (US$m)
Source: The World Bank. (2021). Annual Remittances Data, May 2021

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Global labour mobility

Weaker states can exploit the restrictive migration policies of stronger states by using their positions as buffer zones or so-called “container states” that can prevent outward migration flows. In 2016 Turkey – which hosts more refugees than any other country (see: Map 8) – leveraged European concerns about migration to secure a €6 billion aid package, a commitment to visa liberalisation, and promises to restart talks on EU accession. The tiny island of Nauru has used Australia’s interest in offshoring irregular migrants to secure tens of millions of dollars in payments, including implementing a visa fee of $1,000 per person per month, payable by the Australian state; in 2013-2014, the $18m in visa fee income Nauru received amounted to 18 per cent of its GDP.

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Top refugee-hosting countries. Refugees: Total numbers and share of population

A state’s relative power and position in the global migration regime will, therefore, determine the advantages and disadvantages it has in exercising control in this area, and the mechanisms and policies at its disposal to do so. In the geopolitical pecking order, economically powerful liberal countries such as the United States and Germany may gain the greatest advantages by implementing labour-enabling policies that allow them to act as migration magnets, as Map 3 suggests. Meanwhile, major countries of origin for migrants such as India or China may mobilise or repress the political power of their diasporas, and weaker states may commodify migrants by exploiting restrictive migration policies elsewhere. These weaker states do so by either selling citizenship (as does St Kitts-Nevis); using their geographic position to block migration outflows (as does Libya); or, as discussed, acting as ‘warehouses’ of their own or others’ populations, be they labour migrants or asylum seekers. Thus, the advantages and disadvantages states have in this realm vary across mobility tools and how they are wielded, aggregate strength, and domestic governance systems.

The power dynamics of migration

The evolution of migration into an area of high politics has entailed the growing employment by states of diplomatic tools, processes, and procedures to manage and exploit cross-border population mobility. In pursuit of various strategic goals, states increasingly link issues of migration and mobility to other geopolitical interests.

For example, since the mid-2000s, the European Union has distributed ever more aid to countries that host large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, creating a new basis for alliances and financial assistance. This could create incentives for states that receive such aid to make inflated claims about the number of refugees they host. And it has an impact on the strategic value of states to the EU, with countries such as Niger gaining new significance as key players in the bloc’s external migration control policy. The International Organization for Migration estimates that Niger – which is at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index – received an injection of approximately €100m into its economy in 2015 due to its significance as a key migration hub and transit state. The country also received approximately €1 billion in EU development cooperation aid between 2014 and 2020.

In this context, states can strategically use migration as a political weapon. In May 2021, for example, Morocco opened its border with the Spanish city of Ceuta in a bid to punish and coerce the Spanish government over policy decisions related to its support for Polisario, an insurgent group locked in a long-term conflict with Rabat. A similar move by Turkey in February 2020, which aimed to secure NATO support in Syria, came close to provoking a military confrontation with Greece. More recently, Belarus opened its borders and reportedly attempted to weaponise migration in retaliation for EU sanctions on the country. This instrumental use of migration as a policy tool is a surprisingly common strategy, one that states across the globe have long adopted to achieve a wide range of political, military, and economic goals.

Unless the backlash against globalisation severely limits global transit, these trends are likely to continue – and to be shaped by other dimensions of geopolitics, including competition between states, public health, climate change, and technology. However, states have significant leeway in leveraging mobility regimes to shift the power dynamics of the international system. For example, having made a concerted effort to improve its passport ranking, the United Arab Emirates has boosted its position on the Arton Capital Passport Index by 161 per cent in the last decade – more than any other state (see: Map 9). The country did so by undertaking a massive diplomatic effort, first securing visa-free travel within the Schengen Zone – which significantly raised the value of UAE passports – and then moving on to the rest of the world. Conversely, when the United Kingdom decided to end freedom of movement with the EU, the value of UK citizenship dropped by more than 27 per cent in a single year in the Quality of Nationality Index.

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The world’s most powerful passports

How states can enhance their people power and resilience

Enhancing national power and resilience on this new terrain requires a range of trade-offs and an eye to the stability of the global system of migration and mobility. To sustain the openness of the system, which can benefit all states, governments need to balance competition and cooperation. They should acquire enough autonomy and capacity to quickly and successfully respond to changes in international conditions – as the covid-19 pandemic and its fallout have reminded us. At the same time, there is tremendous potential for states to enhance their people-focused power and resilience by cooperating on their migration and mobility policies, and by ensuring that those who migrate have the optimal conditions for integration (see: Map 10). States can implement these changes in ways that mitigate shocks to the system and benefit all players. Such strategies would also benefit migrants and refugees themselves – and ensure that they are not simply treated as pawns in geopolitical games.

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Top countries for migrant integration

It ought to be possible for states to simultaneously enhance their attractiveness as homes for global talent and investment while avoiding dependence on the resources that proactive mobility management can bring, or engaging in exploitative practices that lead to systemic instability and moves towards autarky. Such strategies can have significant knock-on benefits, especially when they involve inter-state cooperation. They can be mutually beneficial for states and the people whom they are charged to protect.