Refugee Diasporas, Remittances, Development, and Conflict
By Nicholas Van Hear
June 1, 2003
Diasporas have long been a feature of the world stage, but the acceleration of migration in the last 20 years both for economic betterment and to escape conflict and persecution – in short, to assure human security – has greatly expanded their reach and significance. Protracted conflicts and widespread human rights abuse that have generated substantial refugee flows to neighboring territories or further afield to more affluent Western states have contributed to the formation of new diaspora populations. Somalis, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Iraqis, Ghanaians, Palestinians, Congolese, and many others have fled conflict or extreme stress in their homelands, joining other co-nationals who have migrated for reasons of economic betterment, professional advancement, education, marriage or family reunification. Some of these populations are very extensively dispersed: for example, in the 1990s, asylum applications by Somalis were recorded in more than 60 countries, and a similar total was recorded for Ghanaians. A similar spread is seen among other diaspora groups dispersed by a mixture of economic, social, and political forces.
Helped by rapid and massive leaps forward in communications technology, these dispersed populations now have the capacity to exert far greater influence on their homelands than ever before. But the influence of these "new diasporas" on their homelands depends on the resources they can mobilize, and this in turn depends on where they are located. The resources that can be mustered by Afghans or Somalis in Western countries or working in oil-rich Gulf states are rather greater than those that can be generated by Afghan refugees in Pakistan or Iran, or by Somalis in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen, or Kenya. There may nevertheless be important three-way connections between the diaspora in the West and the Gulf, refugees in neighboring territories of first asylum, and those left in the homeland. People, money, resources, ideas, and values circulate among these sites: between the homeland and the neighboring countries; between the neighboring countries and the wider diaspora in the West and in the Gulf; and between that wider diaspora and the homeland. This paper focuses on the movement of resources from the diaspora to the people at home.
Refugee Remittances and Survival
One of the most important influences refugees and other migrants can have on their countries of origin is through the remittances they send. There is increasing evidence that remittances are crucial to the survival of communities in many developing countries, including many which have suffered conflict and produced refugees. Estimated to total $100 billion in 2000, migrants' remittances represent a large proportion of world financial flows and amount to substantially more than global official development assistance. To underline their importance for the developing world, 60 percent of global remittances were thought to go to developing countries in 2000.
It is very difficult to estimate the extent to which refugees contribute to these global flows of money. First, the data on remittances generally are very patchy, and for countries in conflict and which produce refugees even more so, since data collection in such countries is generally very difficult. Second, such data as exist do not allow the contribution of refugees to be disaggregated from that of other migrants. Third, refugees in richer countries may remit both to the homeland and to neighboring countries of first asylum to support their relatives, making their contribution more diffuse than that of other migrants.
Nevertheless, remittances from the diaspora can help individuals and families to survive during conflict and to rebuild afterwards. The limited evidence available suggests that these transfers are used in ways similar to those sent by economic migrants to people at home in more stable societies: for daily subsistence needs, health care, housing, and sometimes education. Paying off debt may also be prominent, especially when there have been substantial outlays to send asylum migrants abroad, or when assets have been destroyed, sold off, or lost during conflict. Expatriates may also fund the flight abroad of other vulnerable family members; this may not necessarily involve transfers of money home, but rather payments for tickets, to migration agents, for documents, for accommodation, and to meet other costs incurred during and after travel.
Downside of Refugee Remittances
Other aspects of remittance transfers attenuate their beneficial influence on the countries from which refugees come. First, the distribution of remittances is uneven: not all households receive them. Like remittances from economic migrants, transfers from refugees in the wider diaspora are selective in their benefits, because such refugees tend to come from the better-off households among those displaced and to send money to those better-off households. Furthermore, the distribution is likely to have become still more skewed in recent years because of the rising costs associated with migration: long distance, intercontinental mobility is increasingly the preserve of those who can afford to pay migration agents' inflated fees.
But perhaps the most serious charge is that remittances and other transfers from refugees and others in the diaspora may help perpetuate conflict by providing support for warring parties. This negative view of diasporas, and by implication refugees within them, particularly those better-off in the West, has been advanced by several writers on the "new wars" that have blighted many parts of the developing world in the 1990s. On the whole it is the wealthier members of the wider diaspora who are the sources of the resources and connections that fuel conflict, just as they are also the sources of relief and welfare for those at home.
Return to Post-conflict Societies
While refugees can make substantial contributions to the homeland while in diaspora, the return of refugees can be a substantial force for development and reconstruction of the home country, not least in terms of the financial, human, and social capital they may bring home with them.
Governments of countries producing refugees have traditionally been suspicious of the loyalties of those who flee, for obvious reasons. However, governments of countries emerging from conflict are now increasingly coming to appreciate the potential that refugee diasporas hold, particularly in terms of the remittances they can send. The Eritrean government was among the first to recognize this potential. After initial disappointment that Eritreans in the wider diaspora had decided not to return after independence, the government turned its attention to mobilizing their potential. Since independence, Eritreans in the wider diaspora have been asked by the government to pay two percent of their income to the state, as a "healing tax;" during the recent conflict with Ethiopia even greater demands were made of the diaspora, and their contributions paid for much of the conflict's costs. More recently, the Afghan government has made similar overtures to the Afghan diaspora. Opening a seminar on trade and investment in July 2002, President Hamid Karzai appealed to Afghans who were investing in other countries to invest rather in Afghanistan.
But mass return presents the dilemma that the flow of remittances and investment to the home country will dwindle. If the resolution of conflict is accompanied by large-scale repatriation, the source of remittances will obviously diminish, raising potential perhaps for instability and further conflict. There may even be an argument against repatriation on these grounds. Such was the thrust of a series of appeals in the 1990s by the government of El Salvador for the US authorities to refrain from repatriating Salvadorans whose temporary protection in the US was imminently expiring.
Such cases highlight potentially damaging consequences for countries of origin if refugees are repatriated en masse. The consequences include the possibility that a diminution of remittances may lead to hardship, instability, socio-economic or political upheaval, and even the resumption or provocation of conflict – and then quite likely renewed out-migration. Repatriation of refugees may therefore imperil the very economic and political security – in broader terms the human security – that the international community claims to want to foster. It follows that policies that purport to be oriented to migrants' countries of origin cannot afford to exclude those abroad, especially refugees hosted by relatively affluent countries.
Conclusion: Encouraging Mutually Supportive Aid and Migration Policies
Diasporas and development are linked in many ways, such as through the livelihood and survival strategies of individuals, households, and communities; through large and often well-targeted remittances; and through investments and advocacy by migrants and refugees in diaspora.
Until recently, migration and development have formed separate policy fields, marked by differing approaches that hinder coordination and cooperation. For migration authorities in destination countries, the control of migration flows is the highest priority. By contrast, development agencies may fear that their objectives will be jeopardized if migration control is paramount. Can long-term goals for poverty reduction be achieved if short-term migration policy interests are to be met? Can partnership with developing countries be real if containing further migration is the principal migration policy goal?
While there may be good reasons to keep some policies separate, conflicting policies are costly and counter-productive. There is much potential in mutually supportive policies — in constructive activities and interventions that are common to both fields and which may have positive effects on poverty reduction, development, and prevention of violent conflicts. To fulfil this potential, diasporas should be acknowledged as a development resource, and mutually supportive aid and migration policies should be encouraged. In particular, aid policies could take greater account of the impact of migrants' remittances, so as to foster complementary roles for the two kinds of flows to developing countries. The international migration and asylum regime could be made more supportive of these ends. This would involve:
These measures should be taken in consultation with migrant-sending states rather than unilaterally. Steps could also be taken to "multilateralize" the discussion on migration, in order to develop an international migration regime that is comparable to the multilateral arrangements on trade and investment. The field of international migration might then have a better defined constituency with the possibility of developing greater consensus than is currently the case.
- maintaining flexible asylum and resettlement policies that relieve pressure on poor first asylum countries hosting refugees
- allocating temporary work permits to workers from poor countries both to meet labor shortages in developed countries and to enhance remittances to their homelands
- ensuring sensitive recruitment of highly skilled workers to avoid depleting developing countries of human capital
- introducing dual or flexible citizenship to allow migrants to return to home countries without prejudicing their right to stay in host countries
Dr Nicholas Van Hear has worked on migration, refugee, conflict, development, and related issues for more than 20 years. He is currently a Senior Researcher at the Institute for International Studies (formerly the Centre for Development Research) in Copenhagen, Denmark. His publications include New diasporas: the mass exodus, dispersal and regrouping of migrant communities (London: University College London Press 1998).
Sørensen, Ninna and Nicholas Van Hear 2002, The Migration-Development Nexus.
Koser, Khalid and Nicholas Van Hear, 'Asylum migration: implications for countries of origin', United Nations University/World Institute for Development Economics Research Discussion Paper, DP 2003/20, Helsinki: UNU/WIDER, February 2003.
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