How does the Migration Crisis Change the Roles of Militaries?


While recently most of the attention has been paid to the Baltic States and Poland concerning defence matters in Europe, as they are deemed to be the most vulnerable NATO members for Russian intervention, a silent transformation has happened in the military affairs of other NATO and EU member states too. As a consequence of the dramatic events of the migration crisis in 2015-2016, Central and Southeast European countries militarised the management of mass migration and border control that not only changed the roles of the armed forces but also had a significant impact on the dynamics of Central European defence collaborations. My recent article in Defense & Security Analysis explains these developments in detail.

Coming through the Balkans 764 000 irregular migrants crossed the EU member Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovenia to reach Western European states in 2015. As a response to this situation these countries first mobilized their police forces and civilian capabilities, but when they realized that these capacities were not sufficient to handle the situation they decided to deploy their armed forces too. Accordingly, almost 7 000 troops with significant amount of equipment and numerous vehicles were sent by Austria (1 600 troops), Bulgaria (140 troops), Hungary (4 500 troops) and Slovenia (700 troops) to their respective borders in order to help to manage the migration crisis in 2015-2016. Since then their troops have been participating in patrolling the affected borders, supporting civilian authorities and building border fences (500 km by Hungary; 200 km by Slovenia; 150 km by Bulgaria, 4 km by Austria). Not surprisingly border control has become one of the core tasks of the armed forces of these countries. Although the Czech Republic and Slovakia were not affected directly by the migration crisis, in 2015 they did not know if the migration routes would change to their directions. Thus, they conducted exercises, where hundreds of military and civilian personnel prepared together for a possible migration wave, and also offered military and civilian capacities for Hungary and Slovenia to tackle the migration crisis.

Despite the fact that the crisis of 2015-2016 has passed thanks to the tightened border controls and an agreement between the EU and Turkey, armed forces remained an integral part of border management in the region. Among others, Hungary still stationed 3 000 troops on its southern border in 2017, and both Austria and Bulgaria planned to strengthen its borders militarily again. As the migration routes have changed, now thousands of illegal migrants are arriving in Austria from Italy every year, thus last July Vienna threatened Rome that it would block the Brenner Pass – a major mountain pass and the busiest border crossings between the two countries – by 750 troops and armoured personnel carriers. This announcement generated diplomatic tensions between the two countries. In the end, Austria did not block the Brenner Pass but sent 70 troops to support the police in looking for irregular migrants on the Italian–Austrian border in August 2017. In the same month, Bulgaria’s minister of defence also announced that Sofia’s intention was to raise the number of troops stationing on the Bulgarian-Turkish border from 150 to 600.

Not surprisingly these developments have changed the dynamics of regional defence cooperation as well. For instance, the Central European Defence Cooperation (CEDC), which was created by Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2010 to support smaller NATO and EU capability development projects through military cooperation, became the most relevant Central European platform for defence collaboration against irregular migration. Since 2016 the defence ministers of the CEDC countries have been regularly discussing possible ways to enhance military cooperation concerning handling irregular migration, and they also often invite their counterparts from Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro to these meetings, as they are also affected by the same problems. During these meetings, the CEDC defence ministers agreed on enhanced intelligence sharing on irregular migration flows, providing material assistance to each other, developing shared situational awareness and effective coordination mechanisms. CEDC defence ministers have also involved their respective ministers of interior affairs into this regional cooperation, because they know that during migration crises armed forces play a subordinated role to them. The first ever CEDC military exercise was conducted in September 2017, where altogether 2360 CEDC troops made preparations for a possible new migration crisis.

A decade ago Timothy Edmunds pointed out that European armed forces were ‘undergoing a profound series of shifts in their core roles’ as they focused almost entirely on expeditionary war-fighting and peacekeeping roles and at the same time mostly abandoned their traditional roles like territorial defence, participation in internal security tasks and nation building (e.g. building infrastructure). However, as a consequence of the emerging Russian threat, the armed forces of certain NATO and EU member states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania) currently are reorienting themselves to territorial defence, while others (Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia) as a result of the migration crisis of 2015-2016 are focusing more and more on internal security tasks concerning managing mass migration and building security infrastructure like border fences. This means that at the moment many European armed forces are ‘undergoing a profound series of shifts in their core roles’ again, and have been increasingly rediscovering their traditional territorial defence, internal security and nation building roles.

Image: Wie in Spielfeld in der Steiermark helfen Anfang Jänner rund 1.000 Soldaten des Bundesheeres, die Flüchtlingssituation in Österreich zu kontrollieren (4 January 2016), via wikimedia.

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