The relationship between homeland and diaspora has the potential to acquire special significance in times of crisis, when issues of national belonging and solidarity become salient. This article looks at a selection of cases that demonstrate such diasporic engagement during the current unprecedented times of the pandemic crisis. During crises, diaspora groups can respond quickly, and their knowledge and familiarity with their home country on many levels, such as the social, political and economic, makes the response targeted. However, the pandemic is offering us a new framework to look at the homeland-diaspora engagement. The characteristic of the current crisis is that it is equally hitting homeland and hostland, so diasporas face the same difficult conditions. This is what makes this case exceptional when compared to other crises.
The following opinion piece looks at diverse responses by homelands and diasporas to address the pandemic. Based on initial observations, it suggests that there are disparities between the responses of different states. Research on repatriation of citizens stranded abroad or mobilisation for assistance for the management of the pandemic in the homeland could reveal the level of engagement between homeland and diaspora. In the case of Greece, there is an ongoing effort by the government to manage repatriation through the General Secretariat for Civil Protection and the Crisis Management Unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; however, the Greek government was judged when many Greeks were stranded in a London airport, when their flight was cancelled. Forty-five million euros was allocated from the EU budget to help member states’ efforts to repatriate their nationals from third-party countries. Even (post-Brexit) Britain has quietly obtained EU support to cover the costs of repatriation flights from Japan, the US and Peru for more than 14,000 people. However, the British Foreign and Commonwealth office has come under heavy criticism from British Pakistanis for their abandonment in Pakistan during the coronavirus pandemic. Governments worldwide have also been criticised for their failure to repatriate more than 100,000 ship employees still stranded at sea. Also, China’s ruling communist party has been attacked for the failure in repatriating its citizens.
In the case of trying to mobilise their diasporas in order to assist in the fight against coronavirus, Serbia implemented its Returning Point programme, in cooperation with the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomatic missions and consulates, and with the support of the United Nations Development Programme. Through this Programme an open call was issued to health workers from the diaspora currently not professionally engaged, to temporarily return and help fight the epidemic in Serbia. Greece employed the expertise of Greek diaspora scientists (such as Elias Mossialos) to offer their advice for dealing with the coronavirus; they assisted with the alleviation of certain pandemic risks and with the adoption of measures.
It is also noteworthy that the coronavirus pandemic has revived the World Bank’s interest in diaspora bonds, which facilitate monetary flows from diasporans to their countries of origin. In the past Israel, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have managed to finance development projects in this way. The renewed interest in diaspora bonds during the pandemic raises the question whether Greece would be willing to instrumentalise this investment tool. Perhaps the present moment poses a better opportunity for diaspora bonds, unlike the last unsuccessful effort back in 2011, when the Greek government was unable to raise the 3 billion dollars that it hoped for from the Greek community in the United States.
Diasporas prove their aptitude to support the homeland in times of crisis in a variety of ways. As the immediate responses in the case of the pandemic demonstrate, diaspora actors have channelled their efforts to support their homeland with financial resources, medical equipment, technical and advisory support. In many cases, new initiatives and structures have been set up to deal with the current crisis.
Regarding financial support to Greece, for example, the Hellenic Initiative, which is a transnational organisation, originally established in the US, of the Greek Diaspora has launched a fundraising campaign, the ‘THI Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund’, for raising donations from Greeks and Philhellenes of diaspora to support the country’s public health system, entrepreneurs and vulnerable people. Also, the high-profile Indian diaspora group ‘Indiaspora’ has raised 600,000 dollars to help communities that have been greatly affected by the pandemic crisis. More than half a million dollars was raised with contributions from the Armenian diaspora toward the homeland. Furthermore, members of the Bangladeshi diaspora from the United States mobilised funds in support of poor families in the homeland financially affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, NOVA Ukraine, a U.S. non-governmental organisation, raised approximately 40,000 dollars and it has been working closely with Ukrainians in Canada to raise money toward the ‘Protect Ukrainian Doctors from Coronavirus’ campaign.
There are several examples, whereby diasporas supported the homeland with medical equipment. Nigerians in the Diaspora Commission have set up the ‘Diaspora Support Initiative’ for collection of funds to provide medical equipment and treatment for Covid-19 patients in Nigeria. Also, as it was reported, a shipment handed over to the Ministry of Health of Armenia and distributed to health facilities, included more than 87,000 medical gowns, 20,000 KN95 masks, 24,000 medical masks, 101 non-contact thermometers, biochemical raw materials for coronavirus diagnostic tests, and other medical instruments. Lebanese diaspora in Australia offered 300 testing kits to the remote northern Lebanese town of Bsharri.
In addition, technical and advisory support was offered by diasporas. This kind of support is more valuable in contexts of developing countries, where social and public health services are not adequately developed. For example, the Kurdish American Medical Association developed a Covid-19 team to translate public health information and educate the global Kurdish community through the employment of social media. Similarly, the Association of Nigerian Physicians in the Americas introduced ‘telemedicine’, i.e. long-distance coronavirus consultations for patients in Nigeria, particularly for those living in areas with limited or non-existent medical access.
In the context of the crisis, new diaspora groups were born to support communities, illustrating that a crisis such as the pandemic affects group cohesion within single or between diaspora communities irrespective of any interaction with the homeland. The ‘Irish Covid-19 Support Group’ was born out of the big Irish community in British Columbia and it provides a space for the Irish community to come together to connect, coordinate, share information and keep an eye on the welfare of the Irish in British Columbia. Likewise, the group ‘4FRONT’s Youth Activism’, organised online meetings with young leaders from the Caribbean diaspora to discuss different government responses and the ways that the pandemic has impacted communities in US, France, Japan Canada and Brazil. Moreover, the Greek Community of Melbourne developed a coordinated response for Greek citizens without Australian rights during the pandemic; also a number of community organisations cooperated to prepare packages for families affected by the pandemic in the community.
The above examples of the immediate responses of diasporas and states towards their diasporas offer a fertile ground for further research on the ways and levels of interaction between homeland and diaspora. They also reveal the diverse capabilities of diasporas in terms of financial strength, mobilisation agility, and efficiency in deploying their networks to offer other kinds of help, such as technical support, equipment and advice. Last but not least, they portray that the pandemic can be observed though the lens of transnationalism, as there are signs that this crisis has triggered enhanced interaction between diasporic communities of different host countries in support of the homeland.
Foteini Kalantzi is the A.G. Leventis Research Officer at the Diaspora Project in SEESOX, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford