Posted on 2 June 2020 in coronavirus, covid-19, immigration, refugees

The Role of Diasporic Structures in Crisis Governance During the COVID-19 Global Pandemic

Kurdish diaspora associations in European cities have performed a crucial function to mitigate the challenging implications of the coronavirus.


ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2020–21

Main image:
Kurdish diaspora activists demonstrate in front of Downing Street, London. Photograph taken by the author

Earlier versions of this article were published on OpenDemocracy and Jadaliyya.

As the world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, and states attempt to, more or less successfully, navigate through the crisis, stateless diasporasparticularly the case of Kurdshave demonstrated their capacity to respond. Such diaspora, as non-state actors, respond effectively and promptly to the various economic, political, and social implications of the pandemic on their local constituencies in receiving countries, and compatriots in the homeland. Based on cultural, ideological, political, and religious values and common concerns, Kurdish diasporic structures have provided a number of services to their communities. Such services span economic, social, and awareness-raising, as well as relief assistance, to respond to the predicament and vulnerability of their communities caused by COVID-19.

Due to the non-hierarchical, horizontal, network-based, and flexible character of diasporic operations, they have played a crucial role as transnational partners. Diasporic actors have sought to supersede authoritarian governments in countries of origin and aid democratic governments in countries of settlement to respond to the devastating effects of COVID-19. The services of these diaspora organisations have been effective and legitimate given their extensive knowledge, expertise, and accountability. They have clearly identified the demands and challenges of their constituencies, in both receiving cities as well as compatriots in home cities, which have been neglected by authoritarian governments and major international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Historically, following the failure of various models of nation-states to adequately respond to the needs of diasporic and native communities, the legitimacy of diasporic engagement as a mitigating force in times of crisis appears beyond all doubt. This has also been evident when Kurdish constituencies in Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, as well as in other European states, and their compatriots in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, called for the active engagement of diaspora organisations due to their accountability and expertise to meet their needs. Such calls were made in order to survive social, economic, humanitarian, and political crises that were sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.  

Local Kurdish diaspora organizations and networks in European cities have carried out a crucial function to help alleviate the challenging implications of the coronavirus pandemic on their local constituencies and homeland compatriots. For the local constituencies, diaspora organizations have put together crisis management teams to coordinate the activities of local committees. These have consisted of association representatives, experts working in the health sector, and local and national politicians. Digital platforms such as WhatsApp groups and Facebook have also been widely exploited to arrange important tasks.

Kurdish activists distributing food to homeless people in North London
Kurdish activists distributing food to people experiencing homelessness in North London. Image provided by author with permission from the Telgraf in London.

These committees have worked on translating key information, published by official bodies in mainstream languages, into various dialects of Kurdish, as well as Arabic and Turkish languages. They have started disseminating vital information to raise awareness among the Kurdish, Turkish, and Arabic speaking immigrants and refugees, informing of the measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. They have identified undocumented, elderly, and illiterate asylum seekers and refugees in remote areas, provided them with essential needs, and informed them of the importance of the World Health Organisation and national government measures in the fight to contain the coronavirus. This has helped the vulnerable and at risk comply with the requirements of local authorities. 

Local committees of the diaspora organizations have informed individuals about the local contact details of health institutions and offered advice on the necessary steps in case of infection, and who to contact in an emergency. These organisations have also worked to ensure that cafés and bars run by Kurdish owners are closed. Moreover, such organisations have also set up mailing lists and telephone directories, consulting Kurdish refugees and migrants on urgent matters such as the extension of residence permits, appointments with authorities, and other relevant paperwork. Other significant efforts have been to encourage Kurdish shop owners and businesses to make donations to fund essentials for homeless people, Kurdish refugees, and students. These efforts have gone so far as to involve the starkest impact of this pandemic; the burial of corpses. Local committees have ensured that these burials are conducted in accordance with religious rituals and beliefs.  

While diasporic structures have played a crucial role at the local level, they have played an even more vital role by minimising the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic on their compatriots in Turkey, Syria, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This has had a significant impact, as most of these regimes and local governments are authoritarian, lack transparency, and discriminate against Kurdish citizens, political rivals, and other ethnic and religious minorities. Such regimes fail to provide adequate services and meet the basic needs of the Kurdish population.

On the other hand, diaspora structures such as the Kurdish Red Crescent, local associations, and social media have managed a coordinated, comprehensive, and swift response to the dreadful conditions of their compatriots. Such pre-established structures and networks have used their knowledge, expertise, and contacts to assist their brethren in need. They have collaborated with legal and civil society organisations in Turkey to identify vulnerable families who have become unemployed, failed to pay rent or were denied access to basic governmental services. Similarly, diasporic structures have coordinated with the local authorities in Rojava (northern and eastern Syria) for equipment and medicine aid, while the World Health Organisation, the United Nations, and the Syrian regime refuse to provide Rojava’s local authorities with such essentials as coronavirus test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE). The World Health Organisation has argued that Rojava is not a state and therefore it cannot directly cooperate with it.

Moreover, Kurdish diaspora structures mounted a solidarity campaign for Kurdish expatriates in Maxmur Refugee Camp, which is under an embargo of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). As such, Kurdish refugees are unable to enter the major Kurdish cities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to seek medical aid and treatment. In responding to the essential needs of Kurdish compatriots in Turkey, Syria, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the Kurdish diaspora organisations launched a fundraising campaign, “Let’s twin up with a family in need in Kurdistan,” and approached Kurdish shop owners and businesses in European countries to participate in it. The diaspora campaigners did not only aim to collect donations for their compatriots in home countries, but also aimed to build social relationships between donors and recipients so that these families have the chance to deepen and extend their contacts and future interactions. Owing to inexpensive digital media, they were able to disseminate vital information amongst their family members and compatriots in home countries.

Diaspora structures have performed crucial activities under the coronavirus pandemic, complementing governmental efforts in countries of settlement to meet the needs of their constituencies. Bureaucratic procedures and structural challenges complicate the ability of government agencies to act promptly. In contrast, diasporas are flexible, well organised, and serve vulnerable people such as asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants who are unable to acquire relief to cope with the global pandemic or natural disasters without unnecessary bureaucracy. Diasporic organisations have also provided necessary services in local areas in the countries of origin of their compatriots, where local and national authoritarian governments are unwilling or incapable of meeting the needs of the ethnic and political Kurdish groups and rivals respectively. The World Health Organisation and the United Nations have similarly refused to operate in these areas, justifying their inaction through the question of legitimacy and the absence of sovereign statehood.

See also: Dr Illan rua Wall on the Legal/Constitutional Response to COVID-19 in the UK

In contrast, stateless diasporas, as non-state actors, seek to provide “governmentability,” without competing with governments over political and economic fields for power, resources, and loyalty. They act to complement those governments that fail to understand and meet the demands of their diverse citizens. Moreover, diasporic engagements and services are celebrated and trusted by vulnerable refugees, their local constituencies, and remote compatriots. This suggests a legitimacy of diasporic structures and their operations. Such legitimacy should not be questioned, particularly when authoritarian governments discriminate against diverse ethnic, religious, racial, and political citizens, and international organizations neglect the provision of required services to discriminated communities. However, stateless diasporas have committed to contributing to the social and economic well-being of homeland citizens who are suffering under inequality and miserable conditions.

As such, diaspora services are vital, serving as the economic, political, and cultural backbone of local constituencies and remote communities in authoritarian countries. These diasporas should be recognised as “legitimate” actors due to their accountability, expertise, as well as public demand and calls for the provision of direct assistance, services for overcoming the pandemic, and various crises. Therefore, partnering with and empowering diasporas can be an efficient policy approach for governments, especially in times of crises, and not only at the local level in countries of settlement, but also at the transnational level in the countries of origin.


ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow

Veysi Dag is an ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow based in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London and examines refugee governance from below. In 2017, he completed his PhD on the transnational activism of stateless Kurdish diasporas in Berlin, London and Stockholm at the Free University of Berlin.

Twitter: @dagweysi

Veysi Dag