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Refugees can be used as a political resource to help those left behind – Alexander Betts

The Guardian 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,

The Guardian

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

The Guardian

Review overview
  • Z, Hagos January 22, 2017

    The Guardian states in connection with refugee flows to Europe that “the governments of countries such as Iran, North Korea and Eritrea make political opposition almost impossible within their own territory.” That may be true of Eritrea but is considered fake news or distorted report about North Korea and Iran.
    The Eritrean refugees percentage per country exceeds all of those other countries including Syria and Somalia, which are said to be failed states. Thus, Eritrea is on top way above Syria and Somalia. Unlike Somalia and Syria whose peace and economy are ruined by civil wars and that the people are fleeing for their lives, the Eritrean case is that the people are fleeing to avoid starvation, disappearance, death and prisons because the regime is intentionally ruining the peace and economy of the country. Therefore, the effect of intentionally ruined economy of a country is worse than those countries whose life and economy are ruined by civil war.

    • Eri January 23, 2017

      Z HAGOS
      Tell me why the government will kill , in-prison and torture Eritrean population ??
      it’s like the authority have nothing’ to do than torturing the hole population
      If you sincere read Wikileaks’ to know who is the architect of the suffering of our people,he is also the architect of the suffering of Ethiopian people
      God will judge him
      We have only one enemy and it is the criminal TPLF regime.
      They are the one lobbying everywhere to isolate our country and the imposition of the sanction with lie read again Wikileaks.
      And I can assure you Eritrea refugee number has been exaggerated,,Eritrea can still defend herself if woyane think there is no one home he will found out

      • Sol January 24, 2017

        Are you telling us that the mafia regime in our country is encouraged by its enemies (CIA, Weyane etc.) to destroy Eritrea?

      • Sol January 24, 2017

        Are you telling us that the mafia regime in our country is encouraged by its enemies (CIA, Weyane etc.) to destroy Eritrea?

      • Asmara Eritrea January 26, 2017

        I thought long and hard before using my valuable time to reply to “Eri” but in the end I felt compelled to do so.

        “Eri”, I sincerely pity you for you are the by-product of repression as it is amply demonstrated by the way you articulate yourself. If I was you, I would shut up and try to find a school to educate myself before opening my mouth.

        Your view and the way you express yourself, is the result of Isaiais’ misrule of our country where people begin to think repression is norm just as a battered wife, after enduring torture in the hands of her husband for years comes, to accept her maltreatment as a part of life.

        “Eri” do not deceive yourself by blaming TPLF/Wayane. Learn to distinguish the facts from falsehood. After all Isaias himself is from Tigriya – at least in part. Ask yourself, why is this person asking you to hate his own people?

        It is always dangerous when people claim a nationality that is not of their own and want to be more natives than the natives themselves. Look what Hitler, as an Austrian, did to Germany.

        Eritrea forever, death to dictatorship.

  • k.tewolde January 22, 2017

    True,in this bleak,chaotic situation there is an opportunity for those who can see and exploit it positively.As for those people in the picture in their 70’s and 90’s respectively,isn’t this the age when people prepare their living will,assign power of attorney and sit in a rocking chair reading the holy book,instead some of them are seen partying with their great grand children,there must be unlimited supply of Viagra there,forget food,let the people eat dirt.

    • Daniel January 23, 2017

      As a lifelong crippled savage evil ELF criminal crock, you would not operate or function even with unlimited supply of super Viagra!! Super deKhalu shit like yourself scumbags are the main causes of the Eritrean refugee crisis and other miseries of Eritrea. We need to eliminate or burn alive all the deKhalu remnants of the barbaric criminal savage evil Islamic ELF terefmerf goHafat cockroaches sooner than later. You as a son of a whore scavenger deserve to eat dirt, sleep on dirt, cloth on dirt and be chopped by dirty choppers.

      • k.tewolde January 23, 2017

        I must have hit a summer Eritrean diaspora tourist nerve. Pardon me.

      • Anti-Higdef January 24, 2017

        Anta Mendef !! Higdef kedem nefisa,
        Baka akhiluwa, cab Asmera tesekimu ab deposito zidirbya tizibe ala

  • Amanuel January 23, 2017

    Brilliant idea from a brilliant mind. Yes, but I personally believe we Eritreans also are not doing enough to unit and stand together as people of an ailing nation. Lets all get involved and be part of an acting civil, political or social movements and not just be spectators and waiting for others to do the job for us. We should not remain out witted by the bandit in power. This is man (beast) made problems and they need to sorted by us.

  • Mohamed January 23, 2017

    “This is man (beast) made problems and they need to sorted by us.”


    He is a beast indeed. But who created a tyrant of him in the first place ?,
    who elevated a beast who suffers from acute identity crisis to that level ?
    The most stupid answer would be blaming only him. But truth be told, according to many who know him well, he personifies all the bad things we suffer from, so we created him.
    And now, unless we free ourselves from the many weaknesses that made us a fertile ground for his divisive sub-culture, he is not going any time soon, if not he someone else. Iseyas the man is almost gone. His poisonous tongue is still active, but he is existing, like every one else he too will not be there, may be soon. But his legacy, which is nothing but pure fascism, won’t go anywhere, till we change ourselves, and see in each other first of all humans who deserve a dignified life and peace.

  • PH January 23, 2017

    Very good comments, suggestions and a call for all of us for action that we don’t have to ignore it. I my self pro-action (army wise ) because all means of dialogue will not work anymore. Some one may ask how? Who leads it? Do we have “roccaforte “to start with? The answer is simple! By joining the all ready existing poletical organizations or civic organisations. expelling our selves wouldn’t help. even use less organisation could be ours. convincing our selves will convince others too.

  • hidat January 24, 2017


    • eri January 25, 2017

      Neskhi tihishi hidat haftey, iziom kulom kem ertrawian mesilom abzi comments zihibu
      Nahna aykonun.
      Kifaatin tenkol aetiquom fetari

  • hidat January 25, 2017