COVID-19 is an unexpected test for everybody including governments, intergovernmental organizations and societies. As has been widely discussed, the coronavirus pandemic has changed all our ways of communication, living and working conditions.
Social distancing has pushed people to socialize through digital platforms. This process is likely to influence the relationship between diaspora communities within their homeland and the countries and societies in which they reside. In some countries such as Cameroon and Romania, the spread of COVID-19 has sparked xenophobic and anti-diaspora sentiments, thereby leading to negative consequences for the diaspora-homeland relations. Ferdinand Muffo Che, a businessman of Cameroonian origin living in Milan, explained the regular attacks and harassment he has faced since his return to his home in Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon, on March 17. Talking to a newspaper, he said: “I do not see why my own country where I was born will reject me because I have been out. The coronavirus is a problem that concerns the whole world.” The situation is similar in Romania, which has one of the largest diasporas among European countries. More than 5 million Romanians are living abroad, mainly concentrated in Italy and Spain. On March 19, President Klaus Iohannis asked Romanians living abroad not to return for the Easter holiday. He even extended the duration of this request by adding that Romanians living in the diaspora should be sincerely told not to come home this year.
The case is different in the relationship between the Turkish diaspora and Turkey. More than 6 million people of Turkish origin are living abroad. They are mainly concentrated in European countries – in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and other countries. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on April 4 said that 156 Turkish citizens living abroad had died because of COVID-19. In addition to following the spread of pandemic within its diaspora, Turkey has responded to the pandemic in various ways. This article aims to analyze the shift in Turkey’s diaspora engagement policy and Turkish diaspora-homeland relations with the spread of the pandemic. It elaborates on the transnational activities of Turkey and the Turkish diaspora during COVID-19.
The engagement steps
Turkish government institutions responded to the spread of the pandemic in the context of its diaspora. Considering the projection of national policies across borders for the Turkish diaspora during the pandemic, it is important to highlight the “diaspora engagement policies of states.” Turkey's reaction was completely different from that of Cameroon and Romania. The diaspora engagement policies of Turkey during the pandemic's spread can be elaborated under three main concerns: the transfer of Turks abroad, the introduction of new services, and a shift in already existing diaspora engagement policy tools.
First, the Turkish government organized the transfers of Turks which could be grouped under three categories: the repatriation of Turkish citizens living abroad on a temporary basis, the transfer of Turkish citizens from Turkey to their countries of permanent residence, and finally, the transportation of bodies of members of the Turkish diaspora who succumbed to COVID-19 to Turkey. The Turkish government organized the transfer of its nationals living abroad, mostly students, on an urgent basis to Turkey. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that around 25,000 Turkish citizens living abroad had been brought back from 55 countries and kept in quarantine for 14 days. Transfers were also organized from Italy on March 24, and more than 400 Turkish students were transferred from Rome and Milan to Samsun.
While these transfers were mostly of Turkish students and citizens who were abroad on a short- or limited-term basis, the Turkish government also tried to organize the return of the diaspora members who have been living abroad for a longer time – with a residence permit or with citizenship – but who had gotten stuck in Turkey because of the flight restrictions since March 13. Finally, the repatriation of bodies of its nationals abroad who died because of COVID-19 was also organized. The transfer of the dead bodies of Turkish nationals living abroad was also organized upon the approval of the Science Council in Turkey. This effort has meant a lot to the members of the Turkish diaspora, especially for the first generation for whom being buried in Turkey means an eventual return to their homeland.
Second, Turkey introduced new services and programs in the countries where the Turkish diaspora resides to respond to the needs of its citizens during the pandemic through information announcements, the establishment of new hotlines for emergency situations and two-way communication with nongovernmental organizations established by the Turkish diaspora. The consulates keep Turkish nationals abroad up to date about the COVID-19 restrictions in place in their cities. Initially, the Turkish translations and announcements about the latest situation, precautions and health facilities provided by the countries of residence to combat the pandemic specifically helped Turkish nationals living abroad. New hotline services have now been established by Turkish consulates for emergency situations. Turkish consulates can be reached 24/7. In order to reach Turkish citizens living abroad and to keep track of the number of COVID-19 cases among the Turkish diaspora, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), a Turkish diaspora institution, reached out to NGOs established by Turks abroad and established two-way communication.
Third, the diaspora engagement policy tools of Turkey have been altered in accordance with the new circumstances through the introduction of a new funding program to respond to the pandemic. A social responsibility campaign about the pandemic targeting the Turkish diaspora, digitalization of the already existing diaspora engagement policy tools, the introduction of new content and a broader target group in social media broadcasting, and establishment of a donation campaign for those affected by the pandemic are also on the charts in Turkey.
First of all, the already existing YTB funding for the projects concerning the Turkish diaspora, which aims to foster their transnational identity and belonging to their homeland and Turkish culture, responded to the pandemic. The new funding program has now shifted its focus to providing support in the fight against COVID-19 under a special title: “Diaspora COVID-19 Program for Support and Cooperation.” This program launched in April is mainly aimed at projects for the Turks living abroad and their NGOs, for their activities relevant to the pandemic. The funding aims to send a message of solidarity not only to the Turkish diaspora but also to the countries Turks live in. It could be argued that it is an integration message of the Turkish diaspora and an example of how the country of origin contributes to the integration of its diaspora to their countries of residence while fostering their transnational ties.
Secondly, Turkey started its campaign in order to reach the Turkish diaspora, prevent the spread of the pandemic and convince them to stay at home and obey the rules of the cities in which they reside. These guidelines come in addition to the dissemination of religious explanations given by Diyanet, the religious authority in Turkey, about Friday prayer and how to bury the dead according to Islamic tradition in line with the conditions of COVID-19. The YTB has shot videos and organized a social responsibility campaign targeting specifically the Turkish diaspora to contribute to the realization of the severity of the pandemic. The campaign stresses the importance of social distancing, to put a stop to family gatherings and engagement parties and any other social gathering that are a part of the collectivistic Turkish culture and traditions. The videos have been published through the social media accounts of the YTB. Considering the gap between the collectivistic culture of the Turkish diaspora and the individualistic culture of the societies in which they live, this campaign aims to build a cultural bridge and pass on the importance of social distancing in line with the Turkish culture and institutions.
Thirdly, YTB has transferred most of its already existing programs and projects to digital platforms. It continues its activities through online broadcasting while encouraging the Turkish diaspora to stay at home. In this regard, the Turkish language courses, information meetings on legal concerns of the Turkish diaspora, family support programs and cultural programs of the YTB have shifted to social media platforms. Ironically the digitalization of YTB’s programs results in complete transparency for the countries of residence about the activities of the YTB. In this regard, it could be considered as a chance to break the ice between the countries of residence and origin. The digitalization effort definitely contributed to the establishment of a new transnational social field. The broadcasts bring the Turkish diaspora from different countries to the same social media platforms and contribute to the dissemination of the best practices, project ideas and cultural concerns. Thus, they contribute to their transnational ways of being and belonging.
Fourthly, the content and the target group of social media broadcasting should be underlined since it reflects a broader perspective on the concept of diaspora. It mainly focuses on the socio-cultural and legal concerns. In addition to the live online concerts of famous members of the Turkish diaspora every night, videos demonstrating examples of traditional Turkish arts such as marbling and calligraphy, Turkish fairy tales, lullabies and nursery rhymes, and the life stories of members of the Turkish diaspora who could be considered role models are being broadcasted. The religious ceremony held in the Cologne Central Mosque on March 21, to mark the anniversary of the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad into heaven, was broadcasted live from YTB's YouTube channel.
Finally, while the Turkish government is working to help its nationals abroad, it also expects their support during the COVID-19 pandemic through the national solidarity campaign which was announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on March 30, with the slogan of “We are self-sufficient, Turkey." Although this campaign does not specifically target the members of the Turkish diaspora, they can also make donations. Nevertheless, it is early to analyze the interest and contribution of the Turkish diaspora in this donation campaign.
Solidarity message from the diaspora
In addition to the diaspora engagement policies of Turkey as an example of transnationalism from above or state-led transnationalism, there are examples of transnationalism from below. In this regard, the response of the Turkish diaspora to the pandemic in the countries in which they reside needs to be underlined. It is important to highlight the fact that the transnational ways of being and living of diasporas are not necessarily contradictory with their integration to the societies they reside in. All over the world, the Turkish diaspora reflected solidarity and their transnational ways of being and belonging through their campaigns targeting health workers and the elderly, who are defined as the most vulnerable group during the pandemic, irrespective of their ethnic origin or religion. They cook and serve food to health care workers, make donations of sanitary equipment to the hospitals, go grocery shopping for the elderly, thank doctors and nurses in their own religious and traditional ways, and help in the production of medical masks with the local administrations.
Considering the spread of the pandemic in the Somali diaspora in Sweden, it could be argued that Turkey and Turkish diaspora NGOs have responded to the pandemic in a timely manner. In this regard, it adopted its diaspora engagement policy tools to help fight the pandemic. As has been discussed, Ankara has responded to the needs of the diaspora in three main ways: organizing the transfer of the Turkish diaspora to the homeland and from Turkey to the countries of their long-term residence, the transfer of dead bodies to Turkey, the introduction of new services targeting the Turkish diaspora, and the alteration of the existing diaspora engagement tools to suit the new circumstances.
With its diaspora policy during the pandemic, it could be argued that Turkey has tried to foster the transnational character of the Turkish diaspora and the solidarity, identity and sense of belonging within the Turkish diaspora into a broader meaning through social media channels. The pandemic contributed to the transnational character and digitalization of the diaspora engagement policy tools of Turkey. If the digitalization of programs, communication through social media and online transmission of culture attract the attention of the Turkish diaspora, the diaspora engagement tools could shift permanently since it is much easier and cheaper to organize these activities digitally. Social distancing is not a new phenomenon for Turkey in diaspora engagement policies, considering the long-distance nationalist policy perspective of Turkey. It would be interesting to discuss the influence of pandemic on the integration, solidarity and transnational ways being and belonging of the diaspora and the shift in diaspora engagement policies not only in the case of Turkey but also for others. The pandemic could contribute to the solidarity in the diaspora context within many societies and countries.
*Ph.D. in Area Studies at the Middle East Technical University