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World Wide Webs: who governs the diasporas?

  • Flemish Peace Institute
  • EU Institute for Security Studies


Migrant groups are influential actors in the international arena. Globally, diaspora communities and governments alike are capitalising on this state of affairs, as demonstrated by the fact that diaspora lobbying is on the rise and governments are seeking to instrumentalise their expatriates. This Alert looks at how the EU finds itself increasingly exposed to foreign states’ interference through its migrant/diaspora communities.
European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) October 2016 1
Global migration patterns have changed over the past
two decades. Formerly linear, unidirectional and often
permanent, migration has fast become more ‘circu-
lar’, pluridirectional and temporary: globalisation fa-
vours frequent and intense contact between migrants
and their home countries. This has allowed for tighter
economic connections between the host-country and
homeland, and Western states have come to view
diasporas as a useful conduit for channeling wealth,
expertise and perhaps even values. For the most part,
countries of origin gratefully accept the advantages
their expatriates bring such as remittances, invest-
ments, or the transfer of innovative technologies and
More than half of UN members have now adopted
diaspora strategies, creating institutions, engaging
in outreach or extending rights for citizens abroad.
India, for instance, has eased travel rules for overseas
citizens and set up a public-private partnership be-
tween its Diaspora Ministry and the Confederation of
Indian Industry. Such initiatives have in turn spurred
many Western states to deepen their engagement with
diaspora communities, using them as peacebuilders
or democratisation actors but also in other spheres
such as intercultural dialogue.
Numerous studies have shown that migrants with
strong ties to their homeland become self-aware and
confident, leading to better employment prospects.
Thus, when states like Turkey and Morocco recent-
ly intensified their diaspora outreach efforts, this
seemed to complement Western policies: the pair
aimed to empower their diaspora communities, ex-
horting their expats to benefit from educational op-
portunities in the West, to learn the language and
participate in local politics. But, as diasporas rise, so
too does ‘diaspora lobbying’, and now there are fears
that governments like Ankara or Rabat may seek to
instrumentalise their expatriates.
Are migrant groups manipulated?
Governments can use their overseas nationals to ex-
tend their international influence. Turkey, which has
been engaged in diaspora politics since at least the
1980s, is trying to increase its hold over the approx-
imately 4 million Turks in Western Europe for just
such reasons. The Turkish government apparently
aims to further not just the national interest but its
own political agenda. The AKP government has vast-
ly expanded overseas voting rights in a bid to shore
up its electoral base.
Across the West, support for (functional) integration
is usually gladly accepted. Problems arise, however,
when the sending-state’s interference conflicts with
the interests of the host state. The debate regard-
ing foreign interference recently resurfaced when a
Turkish consulate in Europe called upon local Turkish
organisations to report Turks who insulted President
Erdogan, or when the Turkish state-run press agen-
cy Anadolu Ajansi published a list of local schools
and organisations which allegedly maintain links to
Fethullah Gülen, suspected by the Turkish govern-
ment of having orchestrated the July coup attempt.
World Wide Webs: who governs the diasporas?
by Roderick Parkes and Annelies Pauwels
© EU Institute for Security Studies, 2016. | QN-AL-16-036-2A-N | ISBN 978-92-9198-410-7 | ISSN 2315-1129 | doi:10.2815/809442
European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) October 2016 2
Eritrea is another tricky case. Asmara has long been
suspected of extorting taxes from its overseas popu-
lation. Currently, exiles loyal to Afewerki’s repressive
regime appear to be attempting, through a series of
court cases, to dissuade European newspapers and
academics from investigating and reporting about the
regime’s intimidation of expatriates.
Russia is seemingly trying to increase its influence over
its diaspora across Europe, too. In 2015 a number of
demonstrations against one EU government fuelled
suspicions that the Kremlin is intentionally mobilis-
ing its diaspora to bolster division in host countries.
EU governments are also concerned that a handful
of Russian asylum-seekers, mixed in among a recent
influx of Chechen refugees, may act as trolls, sowing
dissent. Following Russian actions in Ukraine, and
before that in Georgia, Moscow is suspected of por-
traying its diaspora as vulnerable in order to justify
overseas actions in its defence.
Are states losing grip?
In reality, however, diaspora groups can seldom be in-
strumentalised in this way. They undertake their own
independent advocacy activities. Canada, under the
previous Harper government, provides an illuminat-
ing example: 1.2 million Canadian-Ukrainians lob-
bied for and managed to obtain Canadian arms and
loans for Ukraine after Russia’s incursions there.
Some diaspora organisations are flatly hostile to their
home country’s government. Turks in Europe are
a fragmented community, and include Kurds and
other minorities hostile to the current government
in Ankara. A 2013 protest organised by a diaspora
organisation close to the AKP, and aimed at support-
ing the government during the Gezi Park protests,
had a relatively poor turnout. In frustration at such
setbacks, President Erdogan alleged that Turkish-
German parliamentarians have ‘impure blood’ since
they had voted for the recognition of the Armenian
genocide in June 2016.
The Iranian regime too is finding it difficult to es-
tablish links with its diverse (and mainly liberal) di-
aspora: many Iranians fled the country for political
reasons, whether after the Islamic Revolution, dur-
ing the war with Iraq, or after conservative president
Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009. Although this di-
aspora has occasionally entered into a series of brief
rapprochements with Teheran, they may be pursuing
their own agenda – such as investment opportunities
in post-war reconstruction or under the international
sanctions regime.
Diasporas are not always a force for liberalism.
Certainly, Ethiopia’s 2008 diaspora bond project – an
initiative to attract investments from Ethiopian émi-
grés to develop a state-owned hydro-electric power
project failed to raise enough money due in large
part to reluctance to finance the authoritarian regime.
Yet, emigrants often adopt hardline – more nationalist
or conservative – views with regard to their country
of origin. Armenian-American lobbying repeatedly
exerted influence on US foreign policy, allegedly stall-
ing Armenia’s reconciliation processes with Turkey
and Azerbaijan.
Play or be played?
Europeans have only just got used to the idea that di-
asporas’ engagement in their home countries is a po-
tentially useful asset rather than a sign of split loyalties
whether it be Egyptian diaspora groups support-
ing their country’s struggle for democracy, or Somali
women pushing for greater gender equality at home.
Yet now Europeans fear seeing their societies split by
dissent and conflicts imported from outside. They
fear Saudi Arabia’s funding of Wahhabi mosques, or
lobbying by South Asian diasporas to take sides in
polarised geopolitical debates, or the growth of for-
eign fighters and of Kurdish-Turkish and Sunni-Shiite
Yet European societies rank as cohesive and stable.
Their governments have the means to manage inte-
gration problems. The situation only really becomes
problematic, however, when they are bargaining
with other states over issues such as migration. In
the course of the migration crisis, it has become clear
that some governments actively fear their overseas
diasporas. Ethiopia and Mali are reluctant to take
back irregular migrants from the EU, for fear that
they will foment political dissent. One South Asian
country has reportedly lost track of citizens who have
been given passports by its consulates, and now frets
about who might be expelled from Europe.
The risk for European governments is clear: they are
coming under pressure to help authoritarian regimes
increase control of their diasporas. Major sending
countries stipulate which of their citizens should be
returned from Europe, and which not. They are mak-
ing demands about which of their citizens may move
to Europe, and which not. Thus, when these states
demand that the EU create ‘legal migration oppor-
tunities’ for their citizens, they are not talking about
classic ‘mobility partnerships’. What they really want
are benefits for a small number of people with un-
questioned loyalty to the government and official
Roderick Parkes is a Senior Analyst and Annelies
Pauwels a Junior Analyst at the EUISS.
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