Two years have passed since the refugee wave that took European politics by storm. Since then, much of the continent’s leadership has settled on a strategy aimed at managing the incoming migration flow abroad while trying to contain the mounting pressure at home. The public discourse is dominated by two opposing camps: on one side, re-surging ethno nationalist movements argue against the dangers of multicultural society, which is often painted as a driver of security risks and terrorism; on the other, progressive parties that try to balance their sense of humanitarian obligation with the temptation to pander to the masses with equally xenophobic campaigns.
Amid this turmoil, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for policymakers to devise a long-term strategy to deal with the issues deriving from immigration –– let alone harness its potential benefits. An aspect that has been overshadowed by the humanitarian emergency of mass displacements and ungoverned streams is the role immigrant communities can play, often unwillingly, in bilateral relations between countries. First and second-generation immigrants represent more than 7.7% of the EU population, while in 2011 the U.S. Census reported that more than one out of ten Americans is foreign-born. If it’s true that immigration blurs borders and barriers to national identity, this can open new, intriguing, and perhaps confrontational scenarios between Western democracies and authoritarian countries of their immigrant populations’ origin. Such a scenario is not far-fetched: as I will explain later, Erdoğan’s Turkey is one of the countries that have better understood this kind of leverage with Europe. Diaspora communities represent a unique tool to leverage host countries and compromise domestic security, but also a powerful opportunity for democracies to strengthen liberal groups opposing rising and established dictatorships. Host countries nevertheless need to understand a new era of transnational community policing in which malign actors can proliferate and consider a larger strategic outlook when managing immigration.
Reviving Exit, Voice, and Loyalty
Much work has been done to build a unified analytical framework able to capture the complex political identity of foreign-born and second-generation citizens, mostly building upon the theories of German-born Albert O. Hirschman. The naturalized American economist identified migration as a manifestation of political or economic dissent by the population, classifying the immigrant’s responses into three possible options: first –– to voice their dissent and pressure the government to change its policies, second – to remain loyal to the system despite its flaws, and third –– in the most extreme case to exit the domestic “market of ideas.” The concepts of exit, voice, and loyalty have since been expanded to explore numerous possible combinations both by political scientists and sociologists, but much of the studies go in the direction of analyzing how the exit option can wildly vary in its motivations if coupled with protest and loyalty to the government.
The updates made after 1991 were a necessary adjustment to a model which had become too inflexible for a more globalized world Hirschman himself devised the model during a period when many political exiles left the Eastern Bloc to escape communist dictatorships. The psychological literature shows strong empirical evidence on how the response to policy by potential immigrants can be coded on dimensions of activity/passivity and destruction/construction too, adding the intriguing possibility of coupling exit for economic reasons with a general opinion of the government. Interestingly, much of the empirical evidence started with behavioral analyses of romantic relationships, revealing wildly different attitudes for those who chose a constructive exit –– which other authors have codified as exit/loyalty that doesn't lay the blame of emigration on the regime –– and a destructive exit as exit/voice, emigration with expression of particular grievances with the regime. This does justice to the numerous reasons which may lead to the difficult decision of emigrating: an Assyrian woman fleeing a country they don’t believe will ever give her the security she deserves has a very different relation to her origin country than an Uzbek temporary worker in Moscow sending part of his wage back home.
Living outside of the direct control of the state, immigrant communities are free to oppose authoritarian governments from the relative safety of foreign countries, economically supporting the internal opposition and raising awareness to the international public opinion.
Still, in both cases, origin states may have an interest in maintaining a degree of control over their citizen’s life abroad. This is especially true for autocracies, and if neglected, the power of diaspora communities could represent the biggest existential threat to a standing regime. Living outside of the direct control of the state, immigrant communities are free to oppose authoritarian governments from the relative safety of foreign countries, economically supporting the internal opposition and raising awareness to the international public opinion. For instance, the backchannels between Croatian emigrants and the Kohl government in the 1990s ensured a rapid recognition of the newly independent countries; similarly, it’s also thanks to the activities of the diaspora that the Kurdish national cause has rose to prominence in Europe and the U.S. The potential lobbying power of émigrés is painfully known to many regimes around the world, and it’s not surprising that political elites in home countries have adopted strategies to contain their influence. This isn’t exclusive to dictatorships, and many challenge the idea of a binary choice between integration and belonging to a transnational community.
Despite the positive impact institutions like foreign schools can have on bilateral international relations, one needs to recognize the prominent role they could play to co-opt citizens abroad to the benefit of autocratic regimes. Foreign communities are often the most fragile component of a country's social fabric, especially if lacking the special institutional relationship existing between Western countries. Because of this they can be more reactive to the strategies implemented by origin countries: building transnational networks supporting the communities abroad through economic and infrastructural investments, extending citizenship rights and extracting obligations, establishing a supportive public discourse are all policies aiming at “increasing the migrants’ sense of belonging to a transnational community” and thus raising the opportunity costs of political opposition. To ensure migrants are choosing a combination of exit/loyalty rather than exit/voice, autocracies can also count on the important work of intelligence services.
The Turkish Example
The most striking example of such a scenario comes from recent policies of the Turkish government towards the European Turkish community, particularly living in Germany. The current political strife ignited by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strengthening grip on power has deeply divided the German Turkish community. Many politicians from the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) political party have rallied in Germany to gather support for the controversial constitutional referendum strengthening the president’s power. The draconian measures against the domestic opposition worsened after the coup attempt of summer 2016, with an intensification of the aggressive campaign against the Kurdish minority, Gulenists, and civil society. The Turkish secret service Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (MIT) has been nominally placed under the authority of the president’s administration since 1 September 2017, but its activities have been considered problematic for months.
Incredible claims have been floating around the media space for weeks: the MIT would have not only carried out illegal surveillance operations against Kurdish politicians on German soil, but also maintained lists of possible assassination targets including against Cem Ozdemir, leader of the German Green Party and staunch Erdoğan critic. Reports also indicate the Turkish diplomatic staff may be involved in a sizeable social media campaign defaming and violently attacking prominent German politicians and opposition members, as well as journalists jailed for their critical stance against the regime. Propaganda activities peaked in the weeks preceding the federal elections, but there are reasons to believe the initiative is part of a long-time strategy endorsed by the Turkish embassy in Berlin. This is not the only activity that has seen the pursuit of a political agenda by parts of the diaspora institutions: numerous government organizations employ officials working abroad with prominent roles in the migrant community. A controversial example would be the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, of which 20 members have been arrested for alleged espionage activities.
These activities put the entire European Community in a difficult position. For instance, data estimates that almost 3 million people of Turkish descent currently reside in Germany, with a considerable portion eligible to vote in Turkish elections. Despite the virulent opposition of much of the group’s civil society against the government’s line, some Turkish interest groups in Germany aren’t used to participating in the politics of their origin country. Mr. Cihan Sinanoğlu, spokesperson of Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland e.V. (TGD), an advocacy group, explained to me that the group is very focused on German society and politics. “For us, an ethnic focus is very short-sighted. Our projects first and foremost try to foster the development [in the federal republic] of an immigration society, free from any systematic racism towards ‘people of color’.” Lobbying activity specific to the Turkish people mainly revolves around problems specific to the community’s perceived political weakness, like for the xenophobic murder spree committed by members of the Nationalsozialistische Untergrund (NSU) movement between 2000 and 2006.
It’s a strategic response to a demographic trend that aims at extending the command and control structure of the security apparatus to a decisive portion of society, one with access to foreign authorities, funds and the political opportunity to damage the regime.
While TGD often looks for points of contact with federal and state politicians to promote programs of social inclusion, it has a strict policy of avoiding contacts with Ankara. “As a rule of thumb, we don’t participate in Turkish politics. In the last few months many exceptional cases have however emerged which required us to take a clear stance in favor of the secular and liberal values we represent.” This isn’t to say the TGD has never taken a stance on controversial topics: the accession bid to the EU and the recognition of the Armenian genocide are as much Turkish as well as European political topics. Nevertheless, it’s clear that overreach from Turkey can activate even those independent advocacy groups with a scope limited to host politics. To avoid complications, Ankara has attempted to terrorize the opposition residing in Germany and increase the cost of people with Turkish heritage to engage in criticism that may even find powerful allies in the host's legislative branch.
There also seems to be strong indications that the regime has embraced the idea of transforming the diaspora, or at least part of it, in an active component of the security apparatus. Further claims that the MIT may have tried to infiltrate German counterintelligence services have been neither been confirmed nor denied by the federal government on the grounds of national security, but media reports estimate that the Turkish agency has at least 6000 active informants on the territory of the federal republic. This goes far beyond normal attempts to exercise political control over a segment of the population: it’s the acceptance that policy-shaping activity is a centerpiece of the communal life of migrant communities. It’s a strategic response to a demographic trend that aims at extending the command and control structure of the security apparatus to a decisive portion of society, one with access to foreign authorities, funds and the political opportunity to damage the regime.
Conclusion: Devising a Strategic Response
Political communities have long transcended the boundaries of nation-states. Many states around the world are actively investing in institutions aimed at preserving the bond between emigrants and their home country, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Pluralistic societies, both in host and origin countries, can only benefit from the political participation of their migrant populations. Diaspora institutions are precious assets that can provide necessary resources to communities that are often victims of inexistent social mobility and sometimes even excluded from regular channels of political participations. It should, however, be clear that autocratic states have a vested interest in trying to pilot these communities with no respect for pluralism whatsoever. Democracies not only have a responsibility to protect the liberal voices of these communities, but also to understand that a new theater of confrontation is opening. Just as digital disruption has added a new ambiguous domain in between military and political warfare, the weaponization of migration is becoming leverage by dictatorships and it’s increasingly difficult to ignore.
Instead of knee-jerk reactions to appease nationalistic voters, policy makers need to act before this strategy becomes a breeding ground for populist rhetoric. They can do this by adopting a strategic framework, which includes sober and principled policies. They should start from recognizing that immigration always entails a peculiar political attitude by the migrants towards the origin country, be it one of loyalty or voice, and that domestic struggles spilling over to communities abroad poses a danger to national security. Based on this, Western countries will need policies that go beyond managing the flow of people and economic integration of minorities. Encouraging political participation could do much more to build resilience against authoritarian intrusion and decrease the costs of engagement for migrants looking to reform their origin countries. An ad-hoc emergency response approach simply won’t be enough to manage the realm of transnational communities, which have shifted from being a novelty to being the norm.
Michelangelo Freyrie is chief editor at Aleph - Analisi Strategiche, a student think-tank focused on international relations and defense at Bocconi University. He’s an undergraduate student in International Politics and Government.
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Header image: A German-born Turkish man protests.