Far from being a burden, diasporas can be harnessed to counter the vile regimes from which they emerged
The refugee crisis in Syria and the Mediterranean has led to a rethinking of the role of refugees in society. Given that Europe now has lots of refugees, and is receiving more via the central Mediterranean, how can we empower them to make a contribution?
Research by the World Bank and others has shown that refugees can have a positive impact on the economy, yet there has been little corresponding thinking about refugees as a political resource. Could we help those in Europe to support long-term transitions to peace and democracy back home in countries such as Syria, addressing the root causes that led to them fleeing their homes in the first place? If we include countries with sham elections, more than half the world’s population lives under authoritarian regimes. Through repression, the governments of countries such as Iran, North Korea and Eritrea make political opposition almost impossible within their own territory. But such regimes do not extinguish political life altogether – it simply needs to relocate.
This is where an opportunity arises. In addition to more than one million Syrians in Europe, we have citizens from just about every troubled country around the world. We spend billions in aid, trying, generally unsuccessfully, to support transition in these countries. Yet we have an extraordinary untapped opportunity on our doorstep: the citizens of those countries who retain connections, send remittances and may ultimately go home. Many of us will have had a conversation with a Somali taxi driver thinking of returning to serve in government. How we treat these refugees in exile will shape their ability to determine the political trajectory of their countries of origin.
During the cold war, so called “refugee warriors” were mobilised by US foreign policy, from the Nicaraguan contras in Honduras to the Afghan mujahideen in Pakistan. Today, there is recognition of the role of “diasporas for development”; remittances to developing countries are worth $430 billion a year. But it is not just about rebels and remittances. This is also about the more mundane but equally important contribution of non-violent political opposition.
We tend to assume that “diasporas” simply emerge by themselves. Some, such as the Jewish and Armenian diasporas, have. But others develop a critical mass because they get external support, including from third-party governments, contributing money and resources. This is why some refugee and migrant populations, for example Zimbabweans and Rwandans, quickly become politically active, and others (Ugandans and Chinese) do not.
Two recent examples from Africa show the potential opportunities and limitations of British foreign policy engagement with refugee diasporas. Until the Syria crisis, Zimbabweans represented the largest refugee exodus of the 21st century: up to two million are estimated to have fled to South Africa alone between 2003 and 2010. In a host country that offers limited formal assistance to refugees, Zimbabweans had to help themselves. Rapidly, myriad organisations emerged. Some provided psycho-social support, others food assistance; some received international funding, others did not. Nearly all supported the main opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in some way.
Two things stand out. First, the Zimbabwean diaspora had an impact. Their political triumphs include blocking a Chinese arms shipment destined for Harare in the port of Durban; successfully litigating to get the South African police to investigate incidents of torture, even though they took place within Zimbabwe rather than on South Africa soil; and shaping the South African government’s decision to offer a moratorium on the deportation of Zimbabweans.
Second, the Zimbabwean diaspora was not simply a creation of Zimbabweans; it was also the creation of outsiders. Powerless to influence politics within Harare, Britain, the US and a range of foundations put money into select diaspora organisations in an attempt to loosen Robert Mugabe’s grip on power. Their selective funding inflated some organisations and marginalised others. But with a lack of local intelligence, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) relied on the insights of South African advocacy organisations with vested interests. In several cases, donors backed unrepresentative and even corrupt organisations. As the Government of National Unity emerged in Harare from 2008, donors lost patience, withdrew funding and prematurely concluded that regime change could be achieved by focusing on politics within Zimbabwe’s borders.
Around the world, Rwanda still has around 3% of its population in exile. Unable to operate in Kigali, the main opposition FDU-Inkingi relies on transnational mobilisation, operating between London, Paris, Brussels, Kampala and Johannesburg. It quietly organises political meetings and low-level protest. However, the Rwandan government has counter-mobilised, creating a pro-regime diaspora, which raises funding to promote the state and support ideological exchange programmes. The government’s own investment means it can command loyalty abroad without solely depending on assassination and violent intimidation. Meanwhile, parties such as FDU-Inkingi are left out in the cold by British and US foreign policies that strongly support Rwanda.
These two African cases show that refugee diasporas can have an impact. But the UK and other western governments’ policies towards them are often muddled and incoherent. We often rely on the wrong sources of local intelligence. Yet here in Europe we have populations capable of influencing politics back home – through their money, networks and the creation of political parties.
So which populations does this apply to and how? In 2015, the UK’s leading arrival country for asylum-seekers was Eritrea, which suppresses political dissent, uses forced conscription and imposes exit controls. Transition in Asmara is an FCO priority, yet the diaspora remains divided. Whether directly or through intermediary organisations, support in the UK or in the neighbouring countries could enable viable opposition to emerge. Similarly, helping Syria’s exiled population to prepare for a post-Assad era must begin with supporting Syrian-led civil society and enabling representative political platforms to flourish.
To achieve this requires a shift from seeing asylum not just as a home affairs issue but one inextricably connected to foreign policy and development goals, including post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building. It is not easy to empower exiles to contribute to change back home but the long-term sustainability of transition in some of the least stable regions of the world may depend upon it. Alexander Betts is professor of forced migration and international affairs at Oxford. He is co-author, with Will Jones, of Mobilising the Diaspora: How Refugees Challenge Authoritarianism
Alexander Betts, 22 January 2017