The Military's Increasing Role in Immigration Enforcement

By Paul J. Smith on July 1, 1997

pp. 12-13 in Immigration Review no. 29, Summer 1997

As wealthy countries face a growing influx of illegal immigrants and refugees, many are turning to military force to stem the flow. In many cases, soldiers and sailors who have trained for traditional military conflict are finding themselves patrolling national borders or sea lanes as part of campaigns to halt or manage illegal immigration and refugee flows.

The increasing reliance on military force by many governments facing immigration or refugee emergencies suggests a fundamental change in how countries will likely use their armed forces in the decades ahead. More importantly, however, the trend suggests a dramatic shift in how many countries are viewing the growing problem of international migration.

Immigration, once thought of as a social or economic phenomenon, is increasingly being viewed by many nations as a security concern. Around the world, political and military leaders from such diverse countries as Hungary, Malaysia. Russia, South Africa, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates are characterizing illegal immigration or mass migration as current or potential threats to their national security.

In the United States, high-ranking State Department and Coast Guard officials have declared that possible mass migration from Mexico or Cuba, or migrant trafficking in the Caribbean, constitutes a threat to America's national security. Defense planners in Western Europe, meanwhile, have suggested that mass immigration from Northern Africa could destabilize their region.

As a result, many nations are deploying military troops both to intercept immigrants and refugees before they arrive.

Malaysia, for example, recently gave its army limited police powers to patrol the country's border areas to counter illegal immigrants. Italy has deployed military troops along its lower Adriatic coastline to prevent an influx of illegal migrants from Albania and other countries. Similarly, South Africa has stationed hundreds of soldiers on its border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe to curb illegal entrants.

Probably the largest military blockade of refugees in recent history occurred in 1994 when the U S. faced a mass influx of thousands of Haitian and Cuban refugees. The U.S. deployed Coast Guard and Navy ships as part of a massive effort to intercept and rescue refugees on the high seas. Afterward U.S. officials sent the refugees to military-run processing camps in Cuba and Panama.

But in addition to using troops to stop illegal immigrants at the border, many countries are relying on military force to repatriate migrants — often involuntarily and forcibly — after they have arrived.

Last year. France and Spain repatriated several groups of illegal immigrants using military aircraft. When the Malaysian government decided to repatriate Vietnamese refugees last spring, it forcibly deported many of them aboard naval ships. Most recently, Tanzania has sent military troops to drive Rwandan refugees back into their homeland.

The U.S. Government has recently begun using armed forces to assist in repatriating illegal Chinese immigrants intercepted aboard human smuggling ships. In 1994, the Pentagon dispatched military troops to help repatriate migrants aboard a Chinese smuggling ship intercepted near Hawaii. Nearly a year later, American defense officials deployed roughly 300 soldiers to help repatriate illegal Chinese migrants found aboard the smuggling vessel Xing Da which was intercepted near the Bahamas.

Many governments are justifying the use of military force in immigration and refugee matters because of the massive logistical challenges posed by managing large groups of people. Military troops, they argue, can create refugee camps or temporary housing centers — complete with health clinics and dining facilities — on a scale and at a pace that simply cannot by duplicated by other government agencies.

Additionally, soldiers can provide a show of force that can prevent volatile situations from becoming explosive. A Hawaii-based Marine officer involved in the 1995 Chinese migrant repatriation effort stated that the presence of armed soldiers on Wake Island prevented Chinese smugglers and their enforcers from intimidating or physically threatening other migrants.

But reliance on military force to deal with immigrants and refugees is not without controversy. For one, many traditional military leaders do not believe that this is part of their duty. In a 1990 interview with the military publication Jane's Defense Weekly, an Italian Navy officer stated that "with our limited equipment, the decision to use frigates or long-range maritime patrol aircraft for anti-immigration patrolling is a demonstration of the limited comprehension of our politicians about defense matters."

Similarly, during the 1994 Cuban and Haitian refugee crisis, U.S. defense officials complained that critical military resources were being diverted to nonmilitary tasks such as housing and caring for refugees. At one point, the Pentagon proposed hiring civilians to substitute for the roughly 6,700 additional troops who were sent into Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to take care of the refugees.

Apart from traditional military resistance, there are human rights concerns. What happens when young, zealous soldiers, who have been trained for traditional warfare, suddenly confront an influx of would-be immigrants? Obviously, the most worrisome outcome is that potential refugees or migrants could be shot. Last September, for instance, the Greek government reported that one of its army outposts had fired upon a migrant trafficking vessel carrying 15 illegal immigrants.

And in May of this year, a Marine participating in anti-drug patrols along the Texas border with Mexico shot and killed a local teen-ager tending a herd of goats. As a result, the Pentagon has pulled all 240 troops participating in the patrols, pending a review; nonetheless, the House of Representatives passed in June a measure which would allow up to 10.000 troops to be stationed along the border with Mexico to help stem illegal immigration and drug trafficking. There is no equivalent measure in the Senate.

It is clear that military involvement in immigration and refugee matters is a growing trend. As the scale of international migration grows around the world — driven by such factors as population growth, unemployment in source countries, and rising economic disparities between nations — many governments will come under increasing pressure to "do something." For many of them, deploying military troops will be a tempting choice.

The question that must be answered is whether current military training in the military academies and schools around the world is preparing soldiers and sailors for this coming reality. Only with the existence of such training can the world be reasonably assured that growing military involvement in international migration matters will not lead to a humanitarian disaster.

Paul J. Smith is a research fellow with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a government-funded research institution in Honolulu.