North Africa, West Asia

In times of crisis, diaspora groups know what to do

Kurdish diaspora associations in European cities have performed a crucial function to mitigate the challenging implications of the coronavirus.

Veysi Dag
Veysi Dag
8 May 2020
Distribution of care packages in Al-Hasakah, Syria by the Kurdish Red Crescent
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Picture from Heyva Sor A Kurd @hskurd Facebook page

Diasporas in general and state-lacking diaspora structures in particular have often demonstrated their abilities to effectively respond to various economic, political and social crises affecting them or their compatriots. They have provided economic, social and information services and relief assistance to respond to conflicts, ethnic cleansing, political persecution, forced displacement and natural disasters in their countries of origin.

By reacting to crises, diaspora engagement can be understood as an attempt to alleviate the effects of such crises on their constituencies in receiving countries or in countries of origin. Thus, diasporas can be significantly viewed as inevitable partners in aiding the authorities to respond to major events, such as a global pandemic. Diaspora communities have extensive knowledge, expertise, modes of organisation, accountability and understand the demands of their compatriots in the countries of origin, which have been neglected by authoritarian governments.

In recent weeks, authorities in Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the UK have faced the challenging task of responding to the spread of the coronavirus and its implications on health, economy and society. They have attempted to spread information, boost the health system by supplying and optimising personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers and masks for citizens and introduced economic relief packages. However, it is less known how these measures leverage diverse populations.

Within this context, local Kurdish diaspora associations in European cities have performed a crucial function to mitigate challenging implications of the coronavirus pandemic for their local constituencies and compatriots in countries of origin. These structures have internally organised crisis management teams to coordinate activities of local committees, consisting of association representatives and members working in the health sectors. Digital platforms such as WhatsApp groups have also been widely used to help organise.

These committees have set themselves the tasks of translating relevant information provided by official bodies in mainstream language into various dialects of Kurdish, as well as Arabic and Turkish languages. They have started disseminating vital information in order to inform the Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic speaking immigrants and refugees. They have localised and identified the undocumented, elderly and illiterate refugees in remote neighbourhoods and cities to provide them with food and to explain to them the importance of measures enforced by the governments in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.

They ensure that these vulnerable people at risk comply with the requirements of authorities. They inform them about the local contact details of health institutions and advise them on how to behave and who to contact in an emergency. The work of these organisations have ensured that cafés and bars run by Kurdish owners are closed. Moreover, they set up email addresses and phone numbers to consult the Kurdish refugees and migrants about their urgent matters such as the extension of residence permits, appointments with authorities, and other relevant paperwork. Other significant efforts have been to encourage Kurdish shop owners and businesses to make donations to be used to fund essentials for homeless people, Kurdish refugees and students. These efforts have not just stopped here but have also included the organisation of the most obvious impact of this pandemic; the burial of corpses and ensuring that these burials are in accordance with religious rituals.

Diaspora engagement can be understood as an attempt to alleviate the effects of such crises on their constituencies in receiving countries or in countries of origin

While diaspora structures played a crucial role at the local level, they have most importantly played a vital role in mitigating the damages of the global coronavirus pandemic for their compatriots in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. These authoritarian, non-transparent and discriminatory regimes failed to provide the Kurdish community with adequate services.

Diaspora structures such as local associations, Kurdish Red Crescent, Sterk TV and social media groups, reacted swiftly in an organised and well coordinated manner. These pre-established structures and networks exploited their knowledge, expertise and contacts to help people in need. They coordinated with legal parties and civil society organisations in Turkey, Syria and Iraq to identify vulnerable families and refugees who have become unemployed, failed to pay their rents, or lost access to basic governmental services as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

A fundraising campaign was launched through “Let’s twin up with a family in need in Kurdistan” and approached the Kurdish shop owners and businesses in European countries to participate in this solidarity campaign. These diaspora campaigners did not only aim to collect donations for their compatriots in home countries, but also to build social relationships between donors and recipients so that these families are provided with a chance to deepen and extend their contacts and interactions in future social events. Thanks to digital media, they could disseminate vital information amongst their family members and compatriots in home countries.

The diaspora structures demonstrate in this case that they complement governmental efforts and provide necessary services in those local areas in which governments are unwilling to or incapable of meeting the needs of diverse citizenries. The bureaucratic procedures and structural challenges make it complicated for government agencies to act promptly. In contrast, diasporas are flexible and well organised so as to serve vulnerable people such as asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants who are unable to avail themselves of relief benefits to cope with the implications of the global pandemic or natural disasters without unnecessary bureaucracy.

Diasporas can function as non-state actors that compete with the governments on the political and economic fields, and over resources and loyalty. However, this argument seems to pay less attention to the agency and legitimacy of diasporas and overlooks the way in which the diaspora services are celebrated and trusted by vulnerable compatriots in the countries of origin.

This argument also disregards the fact that authoritarian governments prefer to pursue a repressive and discriminatory approach toward their diverse ethnic, religious and racial citizens rather than to provide needed services in times of crisis. However, with their campaigns and engagement, diasporas could contribute to the social and economic well-being of citizens in their countries of origin suffering under miserable conditions and inequality because of the repressive and hostile policies of authoritarian regimes.

In this sense, diasporas serve not only as the economic, political and cultural backbone of local constituencies and remote communities in authoritarian countries, but also as crucial “legitimate” actors in times of crisis whether it is a pandemic, a natural disaster or a political crisis that transcend the capacity of governments. Partnering and empowering diasporas can be efficient in the process and policy implementation of governments, especially in times of crisis both at the local level in countries of settlement and at the transnational level in the countries of origin.

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