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Refugee Movements as a Consequence of Hybrid Wars

The “classical” wars of the 20th century, and especially the Second World War, produced the highest ever numbers of refugees and displaced persons around the world. During the subsequent Cold War, from the European point of view, refugees were mainly individuals fleeing communism, or victims of dictatorships in South America. It has almost been forgotten that the millions of Palestinians whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counted as international refugees, even in 2014, are war refugees as a consequence of the Israeli War of Liberation. The innumerable war refugees resulting from civil or proxy wars – whether in Rwanda, Congo or Angola – have received less public attention. The end of the Cold War did not bring the hoped-for peace dividend for refugees and displaced persons. Quite the contrary. Since then, civil wars and hybrid wars have driven their numbers to new record levels. Currently, more people are refugees than at any time since the Second World War.

So if flight and displacement have always been a consequence of war, why inquire about their relevance as a result of hybrid wars? For the persons concerned, it makes relatively little difference what name is given to the war that drives them from their homeland. Yet hybrid wars, by their nature, are particularly responsible for refugee flight and displacement.

In hybrid wars, the addressee of international humanitarian law – which is directed at states as legal subjects, as the actors in a war – is absent. If states are not even “officially” involved in a hybrid war, then nor can they be called upon to observe this law. Where it is not clear who the warring parties are, where even state actors proceed by “unconventional” means, the protection of civilians is more easily overlooked than in the case of classical interstate wars. Where destabilization is part of the plan, the people themselves become the target of hostilities. 

The aspects that define hybrid wars – their ambiguity, the blurring of boundaries between civilians and the military, the exploitation of modern media, and especially the disregard for normative and humanitarian considerations – are particularly dangerous for the civilian population. Syria and the Ukraine are clear examples of how the minimal consensus contained within international law to protect civilians is flouted in hybrid wars. It is hardly possible for the Red Cross or or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide humanitarian assistance, such as care for the wounded or for people who become refugees in their own country (internally displaced persons). The assistance needed in East Ukraine was politicized by Russia and hence used as a tool of warfare. In Syria, it is too dangerous for foreign aid workers to provide humanitarian assistance, which is now possible only on a very limited scale. This is a further reason why the war in Syria is regarded as being one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of our time. 

According to UNHCR statistics, there were around 60 million refugees worldwide in 2014 – and contrary to perceptions in Germany, the majority do not come anywhere near Europe. Sixty-four percent were internally displaced persons, mainly in Syria and in countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. “Only” 19.5 million fled to other countries. Apart from Syria, the refugees’ main countries of origin include other countries that are suffering from wars or their late effects, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. A new country of origin that was included in the statistics for 2014 was Ukraine. The war in Ukraine, often cited as a prototype of hybrid war, resulted in 1.64 million people fleeing East Ukraine in 2014. Around one million people were displaced within Ukraine and 640,000 fled to neighboring countries. Russia, which was partly responsible for and an actor in this war, was at simultaneously and for the first time, the country, in the world that took in the most asylum, seekers in 2014 as a result of accepting people from East Ukraine. People who flee to another country where they formally apply for asylum are recorded as asylum seekers. There were nearly two million such people in 2014. This number will probably be significantly higher in 2015, when Germany could be the country taking the most asylum seekers, based on current estimates of the anticipated number of asylum applications, which range from 800,000 to 1.5 million. Russia and Germany were followed by the United States, Turkey, and Sweden in 2014.

For a number of years, the EU and Germany have also seen an increase in the number of people seeking refuge from the consequences of hybrid wars. Syrians are currently the largest group, but many people are also coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. As large numbers of refugees opt not to stay in the camps in adjacent countries, and instead risk their lives to head for the EU, via the Mediterranean or on foot across the Balkans, it is becoming clear that hybrid wars represent more than just a far-away challenge for foreign and security policy. The destabilization of states to the point of collapse (referred to as failed states) accompanying hybrid wars has consequences for the people who live there – and, with their flight, increasingly for EU countries as well.

The EU is currently struggling to get to grips with the situation. Remedies include making it more difficult to enter the EU by tightening border enforcement and combating people smugglers, as well as distributing refugees who are already here within the EU. With regard to Syria, efforts to end the war are to be stepped up. Adjacent states, particularly Turkey, are to be given more support to accommodate refugees, but in return they are asked to prevent them leaving for the EU. So far many countries – including within the EU – have not honored their financial commitments to provide better care for refugees. Refugees need prospects if the camps are not to become a decades-long phenomenon and if refugee movements are to abate. The neighboring states of crisis countries should therefore receive support to help them take refugees, and especially for their integration.

Germany, meanwhile, is relying on the EU and has just tightened its asylum laws. With regard to the current wars and crises, however, one might question whether it is helpful, for example, to prevent rejected asylum seekers from working legally while cutting their welfare benefits. Another measure recently passed, that of routinely banning asylum seekers from working for six months during their initial reception, somewhat reduces the concerns of local authorities. As a result, however, the most acute problem – accommodation – is merely shifted to the federal level, not solved. To make progress here, the construction code in Germany has just been changed to make it easier to create collective accommodation. This initial provision is not enough. Refugees are currently also creating problems for government structures in terms of coping with their registration and processing asylum applications in reasonable time. On average, it still takes significantly longer than the three months that the process is supposed to take. Some asylum seekers have waited up to two years for a decision. Changing this requires, above all else, more staff. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) in Nuremberg is currently making efforts to recruit extra personnel. They are also receiving support from staff in government ministries and other authorities.

Based on current acceptance rates, around half of asylum seekers will stay in the longer term. It is therefore a very welcome development that policy makers with responsibility for housing, jobs, family policy, and education are giving thought to what the immigration of refugees means in these areas. The challenges are huge, but not new. After all, large numbers of people have been migrating to Germany for decades. If refugees are granted a protected status, they face the same problems as other immigrants: they have to learn German; getting their qualifications recognized in Germany is a complicated process; they need to find a job and a place to live. At the moment, Germany has a high demand for workers and trainees. Some refugees have a good education. But around 20 to 25 percent cannot read or write. It will therefore be a matter of education, training, and supplementary qualification. The employment service’s offerings will need to be adapted and expanded accordingly, without this being to the detriment of those who already need support with labor market integration. As people generally go where the jobs are, many refugees will move into cities where affordable housing is already in short supply. Sufficient housing space therefore needs to be created for them and for other people on low income. Schools need to be equipped to deal with a return to rising student numbers and increasingly heterogeneous students. Germany can accomplish these tasks, and the openness and willingness to help shown by many people in local communities are an encouraging sign. But everyone needs to realize that it will cost money. Nevertheless, the immigration of so many young people and children also presents an opportunity from the point of view of demographic change.


For sustainable integration, it will also be important to shape the way people live together at a local level. Integration takes place in everyday life. It is therefore essential to have the existing local population on board. Yet there are fears, concerns, and uncertainties. To counteract these, political decisions need to be made transparent and explained. Other pressing problems in Germany such as poverty, long-term unemployment, and climate protection must not be lost from sight. Information, education, and person-to-person contact are required at the local level. The high level of volunteer involvement that we are currently witnessing represents a significant contribution to achieving this. The provision of support for volunteers – for example, by the German Federal Commissioner for Migration, Refugees and Integration or by churches and charities – is therefore a key element for medium- and long-term integration.

Elke Tießler-Marenda

Elke Tießler-Marenda has been employed in the department for migration and integration at Deutscher Caritasverband e. V. since 2001. She has been focusing academ­­ically on the subject of migration and care since 2006, including in the context of a lectureship at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg (Katholische Hochschule Freiburg). Her dissertation on the history of immigration law and asylum law was published in 2002. Since then, she has published in the fields of the law on aliens, the law on social benefits for foreigners, and antidiscrimination law. Tießler-Marenda studied law at the Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) in Erlangen, Germany. After taking the second state examination in 1995, she worked as a research fellow at the Chair of History of German and Bavarian Law and Civil Law (Lehrstuhl für Deutsche und Bayerische Rechtsgeschichte und Bürgerliches Recht) in the Faculty of Law at FAU.

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All articles in this issue

Hybrid Attacks Demand Comprehensive Defense
Bastian Giegerich
Hybrid Wars. The Dissolution of the Binary Order of War and Peace, and Its Consequences
Herfried Münkler
"Hybrid Warfare" – A Possible Trigger for Advances in the Comprehensive Approach?
Fouzieh Melanie Alamir
From Hybrid Threats to Hybrid Security Policy
Christian Mölling
Just Peacemaking and Hybrid Wars
Drew Christiansen SJ
Old Wars, New Rules – The Impacts of Hybrid Warfare on Women
Karin Nordmeyer
Myths of Hybrid Warfare
Mary Ellen O’Connell
"Hybrid Warfare" and the Continuing Relevance of the Just War Tradition in the 21st Century
David Whetham
Media Battlefields: Hybrid Wars and Their Communicative Declarations of War
Bernd Zywietz


Michael Gmelch Jan Heymann Andreas-Martin Seidl
Elke Tießler-Marenda
Jürgen Weigt