Contacts and money
© Ali Abbas/picture-alliance/dpa
Most returnees are aware of the importance of civil society activities: Journalists electing their trade union representatives in Baghdad in August 2011
What influence do Iraqi migrants have on the development of their homeland?
Since the regime change of 2003 in Iraq, migrants have had a political influence on national reconstruction. Returnees hold various political positions in ministries and the administration, political parties and civil society and engage in public awareness work and lobbying for Iraq in Germany. They also exert an economic influence, mainly through official and unofficial money transfers home. Apart from that, especially as returnees, they make investments and establish new businesses. The economic links forged by migrants are particularly important. There are groups in Germany that act as facilitators for that, persuading German companies to invest in Iraq. Another area in which migrants have an influence is academia – through activities at universities and research institutes. And finally, both, returnees and migrants in Germany working through the Internet are a force for social reconciliation. Most of them have been in Germany for decades and are familiar with democratic values.
Do you see any negative impacts of migration to Germany for Iraq?
Countries of origin are often reported to suffer from brain drain as a result of migration. But over the past two decades or so, researchers have observed a brain gain for such countries due to emigrants returning with valuable skills. Having said that, the picture is not all positive. Studies show that there are isolated instances of diaspora communities impacting negatively on their country of origin by supporting conflict parties. Iraq experienced a brain drain from the 1960s through to the 1990s. Since 2003, the flow has tended to be in the other direction. Well-educated migrants who have lived for decades in Western countries are moving back to Iraq, either temporarily or for good, or supporting progress in Iraq from the country in which they have settled.
People migrate for very different reasons. How does their background influence their political activity?
The example of Iraq shows that people displaced from their country because of their political views are actually more politically active. In the case of Iraq, most of the refugees are well educated. Because they were victims of the regime themselves, they are particularly keen to support the creation of a democratic system.
What role do formal migrant organisations or associations play?
I think organisations are hugely important because they channel the commitment, activities and ideas of individuals. They create resources and networks. It is only in associations that Iraqis have a voice that is heard by civil society, science, politics and business. But they still have no umbrella organisation speaking for all Iraqi associations. An umbrella organisation would be useful.
What impact does the formation of associations have on the migrants themselves?
For one thing, the associations build identity. They seek to preserve culture, history and the various languages – which they do by running language courses, arranging cultural events and holding celebrations to mark special days in the Iraqi calendar. They also promote social integration. In 2008, Germany responded to an EU resolution
by accepting around 2,500 Iraqi refugees. Many associations provided interpreters for the new arrivals, helped them find accommodation and work and offered German language courses.
What conditions are needed for such a positive migrant influence?
The political system in Iraq underwent a complete transformation in 2003 switching from dictatorship to democracy. Reconstruction and democratisation are still a challenge but there are now democratic federal structures in place that allow people to play an active role at regional level. That has been crucial for the influence of the Iraqi diaspora. After the war was officially over, for example, Iraqis started to return in large numbers – especially to the northern autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where security is greater than in the centre or south of the country. Many more started to help the country from outside and invest in it.
Who can enhance the positive influence that migrants can have on the development of their country of origin?
The engagement of diaspora communities in the field of foreign and development policy is a new phenomenon. Germany trails other countries in harnessing that engagement to its own political waggon. Many diaspora organisations are foreign policy actors and want to be perceived as such. Anyone seeking to involve them in policy and to draw on their networks, resources and knowledge needs to establish where their interests lie. Depending on whether a group has a foreign or development policy agenda, it should be aligned with either the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development or the Foreign Office. Financial support is also important. Civil servants often consider the diaspora associations unprofessional. There is still a lot of work to be done.
What needs to be done in the case of Iraq?
Most of the migrants are highly qualified, with access to major transnational networks and a detailed knowledge of German and Iraqi bureaucracy and life. So they already have a very high degree of professionalism. What is more, the majority of diaspora organisations are democratically structured and pursue democratic goals in Iraq. What is lacking in the case of truly committed associations is not so much professionalism but rather support for the implementation of individual projects. There are medical associations, for instance, that bring Iraqi doctors to Germany on internships. Some doctors even fly to Iraq themselves, run health and public information campaigns and train personnel at health centres and hospitals. Those associations are interested in cooperating with development institutions but cannot find partners. I do not understand why professional projects like that are not supported by development agencies.
Experts wish that many developing countries had migrant communities abroad providing economic, political and sociocultural support. Why does it work in Iraq but not elsewhere?
First of all, I think that socioeconomic background is important. Well-educated migrants who are vocationally and socially integrated in Germany and have a secure residence status find their feet better in Germany and are better placed to have an influence on their country of origin. Secondly, a democratic environment is needed, in both the country of origin and the host country, to permit civil society activity. A third parameter – which is particularly important for political commitment – is the reason that people left the country in the first place. Research shows that where migrants were refugees, they are generally more motivated to help the country they came from than if they were migrant workers. All three factors apply in the case of post-regime-change Iraq. In the long run, all parties involved could benefit from this situation: the diaspora community as well as the countries Iraq and Germany.
Questions by Laura Hinze.