Diasporas and initial state responses to the Covid-19 pandemic

How did states act in relation to their diasporas in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic? In this blog post we look at the three case studies of the MIGRADEMO project, Romania, Morocco and Turkey, to paint a picture of their diaspora-oriented responses within the wider context of these countries’ discourse and policies towards their citizens abroad.

By Vladimir Bortun, Chaimae Essousi, Deniz Pelek, Nicolas Fliess and Eva Østergaard-Nielsen – Published on 16/09/2020


Introduction

To what extent has the pandemic cast a new light on homeland-diaspora relations? During the first months of the Covid-19 health crisis, sending governments worldwide had to deal, among other things, with the impact of the pandemic on their citizens abroad. The closure of borders and other travel restrictions was often accompanied by the emergency repatriation of citizens stranded during their short-term travels or studies abroad. But what about the assistance to citizens who are working or residing abroad for a longer period of time, be they permanent or temporary migrants? A report from the European Commission has highlighted the vulnerability of migrant workers during the pandemic. Similarly, the World Bank has predicted a sharp decline in remittances of an average 20%, which indicates important loss of income and wellbeing of migrants and may also have a devastating impact on the livelihood of their families back home.

Arguably, the first months of the Covid-19 crisis is an example of an external shock to the transnational relationship between the state and its citizens abroad. Migrants are important contributors to the economy, politics and processes of social transformation in their countries of origin. A growing number of countries have implemented polices to support citizens abroad and facilitated their input to the political process (external electoral rights) and economic development (remittances and foreign direct investment programs) in their homelands. Do Covid-19-related government measures towards the diaspora in times of need reveal alignments or gaps with the broader welcoming state rhetoric and policies towards emigrants?

Researchers and international organizations have already started to trace and unpack the different government responses to these challenges. For instance, Anna Triandafyllidou asks, “what does solidarity look like at the time of a pandemic? What does membership to a social or political community mean and what are the citizen’s or resident’s obligations towards their community?”. Daniela Vintila has analysed how EU member states such as Romania and Cyprus have responded to the needs of their diasporas during this difficult period. Also, the University of Neuchatel’s National Center of Competence in Research has compiled a comprehensive and up-to-date database of the international travel restrictions and border control measures taken by governments around the world. Such resources are important and enable researchers to assess how states interpret long-distance membership of their mobile citizens.

The MIGRADEMO project focuses on the impact of migration on democracy in countries of origin using three in-depth case studies: Romania, Morocco and Turkey. All three countries have large numbers of citizens residing abroad and have implemented diaspora engagement policies over the last decade. Interestingly, these three countries have taken somewhat different approaches to assisting citizens abroad during the first period of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Romania sent somewhat ambiguous messages regarding returning to the country; Morocco largely disregarded the Moroccans residing abroad, while Turkey engaged in well-publicized albeit piecemeal assistance to Turks abroad. We have therefore taken a look at how crisis management of the first months of the pandemic has been practiced in Romania, Morocco and Turkey beyond the national borders, how this relates to the broader diaspora engagement policies in these countries, and how these different responses of the states prompt new questions in the field of migration in general and diaspora-homeland relations in particular.

Romania – questioning return during the pandemic

Romania has the largest number of free movers of all EU member states. Importantly, more than 1.2 million Romanian citizens live in Italy, other 670,000 in Spain, and 420,000 in the UK, which have been among the European countries most affected by the pandemic. Migrant-led relations between these countries and Romania are intense. For example, before the outbreak of the virus, there were regularly 186 flights between Romania and Italy every week, not to mention the numerous weekly coach trips. Such high level of mobility between the two countries is largely due to many Romanian migrants working on seasonal or other kinds of temporary contracts. The more general interconnectedness between Romania and its diaspora is also reflected in the relatively high level of financial remittances sent by the latter, amounting in 2019 to almost 3% of the GDP. Despite this, the Romanian state’s diaspora policy has been described by scholars as rather ‘inconsistent’ or even ‘out of touch’. One of the most important developments in recent years has been the creation of six seats in the parliament for diaspora representation in 2008. Furthermore, the Romanian diaspora vote has also figured prominently in presidential elections, having even been decisive in 2009. 

In Romania, the first cases of Covid-19 were recorded on 18 March, slightly later than in some of the main countries of destination. The peak was reached on 11 April, when over 500 new cases were confirmed. The numbers went down in subsequent weeks, although a new spike has been recorded since the end of June. From the start, three of the five most affected counties were from the North-East, the region with the highest rate of out-migration according to 2011 census data. By the end of March, around 200,000 Romanians had returned since the start of the pandemic. Indeed, a network analysis by researchers from the University of Bucharest indicates that the virus spread to Romania via the established migration corridors, with Italy as the main source country.

In relation to the diaspora, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up special facilities such as phonelines and an online hub to provide personalised pandemic-related information to Romanians abroad. Also, the embassies in key destination countries (Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK) established task forces to give specific information to Romanians living there, in particular seasonal workers and students. At the same time, on 19 March 2020, President Klaus Iohannis urged Romanian citizens abroad to not come home for Easter, pointing out that this is an exceptional situation. Subsequently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organised the repatriation of only 1331 people from Spain and Italy, where otherwise nearly 2 million Romanians reside. In an official press release from 20 March, the ministry emphasised that for those living abroad “travels to Romania are not recommended”. Even so, Romanians abroad were able to enter the country, provided they commit to a 14-day quarantine.

However, during the state of emergency, there have been reports of unpaid Romanian carers stranded in Austria, with no access to social benefits and no assistance from Romanian authorities to come home either. Furthermore, in the midst of the lockdown, the Romanian authorities facilitated the transport of migrant workers to other EU member states such as Germany, despite the lack of any guarantees regarding their health and safety. Indeed, at the end of April, it was reported that Romanian seasonal workers in Germany had been facing inadequate health and safety conditions and even virus-related deaths, which raises question marks over how effective the aforementioned communication channels and task forces have been. Any decisive action on behalf of Romanian authorities came only a month later, when the Minister of Labour visited Germany and signed a bilateral agreement with her German counterpart, although it is yet to be determined whether that will improve the situation of Romania migrant workers.  

The relatively limited efforts of Romanian authorities to enable repatriation were accompanied by harsh statements against the diaspora from some politicians, such as the mayor of Suceava (initially the country’s main epicentre of the pandemic), from the right-wing governing National Liberal Party, who blamed returnees for bringing back the virus. One Bucharest MP for the right-wing Popular Movement Party claimed that some migrants are returning “with such an air of superiority as though we owe them something” and he singled out those who live abroad without proper documentation. Interestingly, he was not publicly challenged by any fellow MP, thus reinforcing a discourse that distinguishes between ‘good emigrants’ and ‘bad emigrants’. Only the State Secretary of the Department for Romanians Abroad issued a statement criticising such divisive rhetoric and reasserting the need for unity in times of crisis.  

Morocco – the laissez faire approach

The long-standing emigration trajectory of Morocco has resulted in an estimated 3.1. million Moroccans living abroad, according to UN data in 2019. The Marocains Résident à l’étranger (MREs) are important contributors to the Moroccan national and local economy, with remittances accounting for 5.6% of GDP as of 2019. More than two million MREs return for annual holidays and many also own houses in Morocco. With King Mohammad VI coming into power, Moroccan outreach policies are generally considered to have moved from a more repressive effort to control the MREs to a more inclusive approach. For instance, nowadays Morocco has a widespread consular network and has negotiated a series of bilateral social security conventions with top destination countries. At the same time, while the 2011 constitutional reform gave MREs the right to vote, that has not been yet enacted, with MREs unable to vote directly in the last legislative elections from 2016.

On 2 March 2020, health authorities registered the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Morocco. The Ministry of Health assessed that the spread risk of the virus was ‘low to moderate’ but the risk of importing cases from abroad was labelled as “high”. Therefore, the agency recommended a total confinement to avoid propagation across the national territories, intergovernmental coordination and the establishment of specific channels of communications with the population. Thus, an official online portal dedicated to the Coronavirus in Morocco was set up. The peak of this first wave of the pandemic was reached on 17 April, with 281 confirmed cases, while a second spike started in June and increased over the summer.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the Moroccan government seemed willing to assist Moroccan citizens abroad. For instance, at the end of February, 167 Moroccan nationals were repatriated  from Wuhan, reportedly at the order of King Mohammad VI. However, like in the case of Romania, during March there was growing concern that the MREs would facilitate the spreading of the virus in Morocco, not least because Italy and Spain are two of the main countries of residence for Moroccan emigrants. Indeed, one of the first cases Covid-19 in Morocco was an MRE from Italy who had returned to Casablanca.

In the period that followed, Morocco adopted one of the most severe confinement measures in North Africa. In April, the Mohammad V Foundation launched “Operation Ramadan 1441”, a fund of 85 million DH ($9 million) dedicated to food supplies for families in need and a fund of 2,000 million DH ($217 million ) for those affiliated to the social security agency as well as aid funds to the banking sector. Initiatives of civil society such as the GADEM (Groupe antiraciste d’Accompagnement et de Défense des Etrangers et Migrants) and ALECMA (Association Lumière sur l’Emigration Clandestine au Maroc) developed solidarity networks to compensate for the negative consequences of confinement, especially for highly vulnerable migrants, who were excluded from the governmental funds.

On 15 March, Morocco drastically closed all borders leaving both tourists and MREs trapped in the country. Moroccans who were temporarily abroad at the time found themselves unable to return to their country. At the end of April, the minister of Foreign Affairs stated  that return is a “natural right” but it needs to be done in the “optimal conditions”. He clarified that the state policy towards the pandemic focused on avoiding the collapse of a limited health and welfare system to prevent the spread of the virus throughout the country. Instead, the Moroccan government relied on consular networks abroad to offer support to MREs and Moroccan tourists or students that were abroad when the state of emergency was declared. However, assistance remained minimal in terms of repatriation, including that of deceased relatives who died abroad and were supposed to be buried in Morocco.

On 8 May, the Prime Minister stated that Moroccans stranded abroad would not be allowed to return until the borders reopen (which eventually happened on 14 July), confirming that no special repatriation assistance would be extended to them. The lack of assistance to Moroccans abroad has provoked widespread discontent, both in Morocco and among the MREs. The mainstream media in Morocco lambasted government management of the crisis as a ‘global exception’ in terms of its lack of repatriation policies.

Turkey – reaching out to stranded citizens abroad

Turkey has a long-standing history of migration to the EU, with an estimated 5.5 million of a total of 6.5 million Turks abroad today residing in Western Europe. Over the last two decades, the Turkish state has been actively engaging with Turkish nationals abroad, in accordance with its more active foreign policy. The latter has been often characterized as neo-Ottomanism, which refers to the ideal of being a regional power in the ex-Ottoman territories and being a state responsible for all Turkish people in the world. Furthermore, the Turkish political authorities have paid special attention to the Turkish expatriates in recent years, mainly because of vote expectations. As of 2014, Turkish expatriates are allowed to vote in a consulate or an embassy, leading to transnationalised election campaigns abroad and relatively high turnout among Turkish voters. In key countries of residence, such as Germany, the majority of voters abroad support the ruling party, AKP.

Turkey announced its first confirmed case of Covid-19 relatively late on 11 March 2020. A number of precautions were taken gradually for preventing the spread of the virus and one of the immediate responses by the Turkish government was to ban travel to many European countries marked by high number of Covid-19 cases. On 13 March, the Ministry of Transportation declared a stop all flights to and from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden. These countries are important locations for the Turkish communities since many Turkish emigrants have been living there for a long time and also tend to attract Turkish holiday makers. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to accept, until 17 March, the arrival from these countries of Turkish tourists and students only. The Turkish emigrants who are EU citizens, however, were excluded. On 21 March, 46 more countries were added to the travel ban list. Over the summer, travel bans were gradually lifted, as the numbers of Covid-19 cases decreased, but restrictions are still being negotiated in Turkey and Europe, since the evolution of the rate of confirmed cases is unstable in many countries.

The Turkish authorities actively engaged in overseas assistance to the Turkish diaspora during the first wave of the health pandemic. The Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), which acts under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, took a lead in providing precautions and recommendation, including the call for citizens abroad to “stay at home”. YTB announced the launch of a Diaspora COVID-19 Support and Cooperation Program, consisting of a cooperation between YTB and NGOs to fight against the virus and provide basic healthcare materials to people in need. In this neoliberal governance model, pro-religious elements carry a significant importance. For instance, the YTB cooperated with the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs in Germany (DİTİB). The latter organized an activity for miraj kandil (a holy night in the Muslim tradition) in a mosque in Cologne, which the YTB YouTube channel streamed.

The management of the pandemic beyond the national borders was much publicized by the government with the aim of creating a caring image for all Turkish people. The repatriation case of Emrullah Gülüşken provides a good example of this. A 47-year old Turkish emigrant to Sweden, father of four children, was apparently tested positive but not hospitalized and told to stay at home, according to his daughters’ tweets, which also tagged members of the Turkish government. On 26 April, the Turkish government sent a private jet to Malmö to repatriate the man. The case was quickly picked up by pro-government media and senior officials, with the minister of health tweeting the photo of the repatriation. However, this was a rather isolated case and was not followed by a systematic effort to aid citizens abroad in need.

Final remarks

Turkey, Morocco and Romania all have substantial parts of the population living and working abroad. In the first wave of the pandemic, all three countries closed their borders at more or less the same time, but the initiatives and efforts in terms of repatriation and overseas assistance have differed somewhat and sent contrasting messages of solidarity and belonging to citizens abroad. During the first months of the pandemic, the Romanian government displayed an ambiguous attitude towards the extent to which Romanians abroad should or could return, the Moroccan authorities did relatively little to assist citizens abroad, while the Turkish government emphasized its rather piecemeal assistance to the Turks living abroad, including the repatriation of a few citizens.

Despite these differences, all three states have arguably done less to assist their diasporas than one might have expected given these states’ usual pro-diaspora rhetoric and policies.

It is still early days to fully unpack how we may explain this apparent contrast as well as the country-specific differences. Clearly, the capacity of the national health-system and social services to deal with the pandemic, the concentration of citizens abroad in countries particularly hard hit by the health crises, and the extent to which overseas citizens are more likely to return from short term stays abroad – all are some of the key factors to consider when analysing the extent to which sending states have assisted their citizens abroad and welcomed them home.

Nevertheless, the Covid-19 crisis does raise important questions regarding the policies and politization of homeland-diaspora relations and the general perceptions of the emigrants’ national belonging and right to protection during a time of crisis:

  • To what extent are the government initiatives – or lack thereof – towards non-resident citizens in reaction to the pandemic shaped by the broader framework of outreach policies aimed at courting emigrants? Are countries with a stronger and more inclusive diaspora policy framework more ready and willing to assist citizens abroad?
  • To what extent are government policies embedded in partisan strategies towards the electorate abroad? Are ruling parties who see an important part of their electorate residing abroad more willing to assist them in times of crises?
  • Similarly, to what extent does the significance of the financial remittances from migrants for the national economy play into the willingness of governments to reach out in times of crisis?
  • Why has the issue of assistance to citizens abroad been more visible in the national press/public debate in some countries than in others? And to what extent have governments reacted to criticism of their lack of assistance?  

To these questions can also be added a more holistic perspective on states and migration, including questions of the symmetries or asymmetries in government assistance and protection to emigrants and immigrants. It is also important to keep in mind that the relationship between sending country and citizens abroad is a two-way street and emigrants may also play an important role in the local and national efforts to deal with the pandemic from afar through their social and financial remittances or collectives support initiatives.

Further comparative studies can help us better understand what these extraordinary months of the first wave of the pandemic bring to the table in terms of research on homeland-diaspora relations. These unexpected and particular events emphasize the need of a systematic approach on when, how and why sending states reach to their respective diasporas, allowing for a relevant inquiry of core dynamics in these relations, more firmly anchored in the broader socio-political contexts of these countries.

Last updated on 16/09/2020


Cite this publication

Bortun, V., Essousi, C., Pelek, D., Fliess, N. & Østergaard-Nielsen, E. (2020). “Diasporas and initial state responses to the Covid-19 pandemic”. MIGRADEMO Blog posts. Available at: https://migrademo.eu/diasporas-and-initial-state-responses-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/