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  • Writer's pictureYing-Yu, Chen (Alicia)

The Social Remittances that Educated Youth Refugees in Europe Send Back to their Home Country

A Syrian poet (left) and a Syrian filmmaker (second from the right) joined a panel on the World Refugee Day in Malta. Photo credit: Ying-Yu, Chen

Since 2015, the emergence of tension towards the refugees and migrants fleeing their countries via Turkey or across the Mediterranean to Europe quickly became the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’, or what some call the ‘migrant crisis’. The spread of xenophobia and socially conservative attitudes towards this mixed migration significantly raises the political temperature across Europe. ‘They are milking the system’, ‘stealing the job opportunities,’ and ‘invading the local culture’ became mainstream opinions towards this crisis. The relatively narrow view of refugee and migrant’s that the mainstream media portrays, triggers further hate and discrimination and stereotypes the diverse individuals among the migrant community. The fear of living with non-white migrants and refugees has dramatically emerged, which further isolates migrants, creating a parallel society. Several European governments have started to tighten their immigration rules and close their borders in response to this popular fear. 

However, it’s undeniable that Europe has experienced migration for hundreds of years and has largely benefited from it. The continuous debates between positive migration and negative migration are mostly focused on economic perspectives, while dismissing their social influence. Since 2016, I have been reporting on the European refugee issue and encountered some educated refugees living in Europe. This group of educated refugees (including those who have the status of Subsidiary Protection) have created considerable social impact, by helping those who suffered from similar situations or from the same backgrounds to integrate into the new society, and others by participating in political and social events of their home country. They remitted social influence on their own people and both countries, which mostly, is not considered as valuable as their economic remittances. Thus, I focus on the social remittances that the educated youth refugees in Europe transmit as a form of development for their home country. 

Peggy Levitt defined the social remittances as the “ideas, behaviors, identities, and social capitals that migrants bring from host- to sending-country communities” and how they are transformed in the host country such as challenging the lives of those who left behind. She describes how some migrants ‘keep their feet in both worlds,’ which means they can commit to both countries, by promoting immigrant entrepreneurship or community development, as well as increasingly participating in political and social events of their home country. Differing from economic perspectives on how much they contribute to the country economies, social remittances emphasize the social influence that migrants create for their homelands and people. Although the definition of refugees and migrants are different, we can still see the essence of her statement reflected in the multitude of stories of refugee entrepreneurs highlighted below. 

Albaaga is from Libya and fled to Malta in 2014. At the age of 23, he was already a refugee entrepreneur who founded an NGO called ‘Spark15’ with the other 14 refugee youths in Malta. He is also a Global Youth Ambassador of The UN Refugee Agency Malta, sometimes assigned to attend the UNHCR joint conferences. Albaaga also works for HSBC, a very high-level job for a refugee to get. 

“I took a flight from Libya to Malta, I thought it was time to leave but I didn’t know it was this tough to integrate into the Maltese society. After experiencing the difficult situations, I decided to cofound ‘Spark15’ to help refugees, like me, to get access to information and opportunities for integration. I know their feelings and struggles, that’s why I want to do something for ‘us.’” - Albaaga

In Europe, there is a group of active and talented youth refugees like Albaaga who want to make a positive change in and outside of their country, generally, for their people. A Syrian filmmaker made movies to advocate for refugees’ daily struggles in neighbouring host countries; a Ghanaian chef ran a Western African restaurant in order to provide a space for other newcomers to build a sense of belonging; a Somali graphic designer decided to go back home to start a printing business; a Syrian female doctor went back to her country to use her medical skills to help the injured and sick; a Somali journalist reported the difficulties that refugees face in Malta; a former Eritrean school teacher coordinated a self-support group to help Eritrean refugees to fight for their rights; a Sudanese bar owner created a hang-out space for African migrants and refugees to socialize after work. These are all examples of the young and educated refugees I have interviewed or talked to during my project.

However, since xenophobia overshadows most other discussions around migrants and refugees, the social contribution of these inspiring and talented refugees to both host and home countries has continued to be overlooked. Furthermore, some of them have largely influenced the society but are still struggling with staying in the host country as a result of their difficulty in finding a suitable job. 

Some migrants and refugees gathering at the African bar in Malta opened by a Sudanese refugee youth. Photo credit: Ying-Yu, Chen

Who Are Educated Your Refugees

Before looking into their social remittances, we have to understand who educated youth refugees are, and why do their influences matter? 

First, the refugees I interviewed are able to pay the extremely high moving cost to reach Europe, approximately $1500-$4000 per person by boat or by plane, and most of them came from more upper-class backgrounds than ordinary refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDP). Not surprisingly, in terms of their family backgrounds, most of them have higher levels of education and speak some English, compared to IDPs, or non-hosted-by-Europe refugees.

Another fundamental perspective is their privileged access to accurate information and a wide network. Without internet and robust social networks, it’s very difficult to know the whole picture of the immigration process, such as necessary guidelines and processes of movement, smugglers’ contacts, and information on different migration routes. In addition, some of their family members are already in Europe or the USA, which can help them escape the country in safer ways. Their easier access to information and networks largely encourages them to flee their countries to Europe. To a broader extent, access to international news and information also helps them understand the current situation and problems in both countries at large.  

The last and surprising factor is the refugee selection missions conducted by host Western countries. Regarding the UNHCR resettlement programmes, although most of the eligible refugees must have been recognized by the UNHCR as beneficiaries of international protection, host governments have the power to make the final decision of who they want to host. They list the additional eligibility criteria, such as ‘integration potential’ determined by level of school, work experience, and language skills. Similarly, the needed time to become ‘self-sufficient’ is also taken into consideration. In terms of this policy, those who have been resettled are ‘nominated’ and ‘measured’ as ‘eligible’ refugees.

Sadly, after the ‘overwhelming’ volume of refugee issues, ‘managed migration’ became a compromise approach. It seems heartbreaking that western countries started selecting ‘better’ refugees and leaving the rest for their neighbouring countries, and only nominally ‘support’ the neighbouring countries to host the majority of ‘ineligible’ refugees. Although not all my interviewees experienced this selection process, some of them mentioned it and were frustrated with the system. Reasonably, but also arbitrarily, these privileged, educated refugees in Europe seemingly gain more resources than those of others in terms of their higher economic potential, and are hence able to contribute more productively in their host countries. 

A Sudanese bar owner Photo credit: Ying-Yu, Chen

Social Remittances

Instead of criticizing this system, I want to focus on the social remittances the selected refugees generate after they arrive in Europe. First, they might integrate faster into the communities and start pouring their financial and social contribution into where they settle by using their skills and know-how. Even further, they might help more marginalized refugees to have better integration through their networks and capabilities. In addition, the experiences and knowledge that educated refugees learn in the host countries could shape what they send back home. For example, this group of refugees is especially active on social media, they share and criticize the news and information related to their home country’s issues which could influence their circles. This position simultaneously forms the social relations between two countries and might positively scale up from personal impact to affect regional and national change.

From the identity sphere, they might also develop stronger national identities after their escape and arrival in receiving countries, which could reinforce their positive social remittances in the foreseeable future. In other words, experiencing social and political dynamics when moving from one place to another fosters their sensitivity to their roles and influences, which generates their empathy and awareness to fight for refugees’ rights. These inherent identities could trigger enormous power to take certain actions towards change for not only host countries but more importantly, for their home countries. 

It’s true that social remittances that educated refugees can bring back to their homeland are subtle and hard to measure, but it doesn’t mean we should overlook them. To some extent, it is already happening. Through the spread of the influences of these educated refugees on social media, an increasing number of voluntary returns from Germany to Syria might stimulate the potential social remittances. Some of them decided to go back to work as independent journalists, social workers, doctors, practitioners etc., even though the conditions there might risk their safety. They are citizens who hope to see their country progress. 

While the refugee selection missions perpetuate the inequality of opportunities due to the prioritization for those wanted refugees, it is still important to view these youth refugees’ social contribution to both the host and home countries. They carry ideas, knowledge, experiences, and narratives which enable mobility and various forms of positive influence in both worlds. However, their social remittances are rarely discussed in media coverage, particularly how these are transmitted in sending communities. The actions of these educated refugees who escaped persecution and conflict proved that the power of social remittances might be subtle but fundamental for seek a change in their countries.

A version of this article appears on Developing Perspectives

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