April 16, 2017

Dealing with Arab diaspora communities

The story of migration from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is not new but the push for a diaspora strategy has never been as urgent as it is today.

The World Bank has put out a paper titled “Mobilis­ing the Middle East and North Africa Diaspora for Economic Integration and Entrepreneurship,” which recommends that the region pay more attention to its 20 million or so people who live abroad.

This makes sense. The diaspora from the Middle East and North Africa repatriated no less than $53 billion in 2014. Nearly 2 million Palestinians abroad provide about 17% of the West Bank and Gaza’s gross domestic product (GDP). For Lebanon and Jordan, overseas remittances accounted for more than 10% of GDP, which exceeds each country’s budget allocation for education, health and defence combined.

The paper points out that the benefits of a diaspora strategy would go beyond remittances. A diaspora can help with knowl­edge transfer, entrepreneurship, investment and bilateral trade between the country of origin and that in which it resides.

“If only 1% of the MENA diaspora were mobilised, that would mean tapping into the expertise and network of 200,000 profes­sionals, which is significant,” notes the World Bank.

Such professionals can — among other things — contribute to transfer of know-how and encourage tourism and investment in their countries of origin. They can also help in times of crises. The World Bank highlights the case of the Syrian International Business Association, officially launched in February in Germany. It is expected to assist the process of rebuilding the shattered lives of Syrians abroad.

But it is worth noting the caveats that go with creating a suc­cessful diaspora strategy. A diaspora needs to be socially, eco­nomically and politically integrated in its adopted country, rather than seen as the marginalised outsider, or worse, be perceived as a fifth column.

A diaspora — first-, second-, third-generation and beyond — loses clout in its host country if it is eternally viewed as a minor­ity group of culturally different people. East Asian communities in the West are a good example of an economically integrated diaspora and they have contributed a great deal to the pace of industrialisation and technological progress of their countries of origin.

The case for diaspora engagement, therefore, has to be made in a way that allows people of MENA ancestry to be solidly and proudly part of the world in which they live.

Anything else would encourage marginalisation and all the resulting problems of radicalisation, ghettoisation and youth delinquency.

Cultural or religious differences should not be used by Western politicians or by ideologically driven elements within the dias­pora themselves to drive a wedge between their communities and adoptive societies. The status of diasporas should instead be that of full-fledged citizens with full rights and responsibilities towards their adopted countries. They cannot be eternal immi­grants.

This is all the more crucial in a time in which terrorist incidents are liable to exploitation by populist demagogues.

Except for those forcibly displaced, diaspora communities need to be allowed to grow as equal members of their new environ­ments.

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