Like India, Syria has a large diaspora (With stories on Syrian president’s visit)

June 18th, 2008 - 2:21 pm ICT by IANS  

By Shubha Singh
New Delhi, June 18 (IANS) Like India, Syria has a large diaspora - there are 15 million people of Syrian descent living abroad compared to a population of 20 million living in the country. Tourism and remittances from expatriates are the two main foreign exchange earners for Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, arrived here Tuesday evening on a five-day visit. Just as the Indian government has reached out to its 22 million strong diaspora, Syria is seeking to connect with ethnic Syrians living abroad.

Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s Minister for Expatriate Affairs, who is in New Delhi in connection with the visit of the Syrian president, has discovered many similarities between Syria’s and India’s engagement with their overseas community.

The Syrian government set up the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs in April 2002 with the aim of encouraging Syrians to return to their homeland and to establish links with Syrian associations all over the world. The Indian Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs was established in May 2004 to engage with the Indian diaspora. (Syria does not use the term diaspora because of its linkage with Israel and the Jewish community.)

The economic reforms initiated by the Syrian government has helped create the conditions for Syrians to return home and invest money and human capital in the Syrian economy.

According to Shaaban, her ministry’s job is to “work to build trust between the expatriate community and the country”. It is a huge human resource that can be tapped to help Syrian society and the economy and the ministry is encouraging doctors and scholars to come to Syria for short periods to hold seminars and workshops to share their expertise with people living in the home country.

Shaaban said it was also necessary to create awareness within the country about the importance of the expatriate Syrian community and how they could be of help to Syria even while living in foreign countries.

There was a need to dispel the notion that expatriates were people who had left Syria and forsaken their responsibility to the country. In the same way, she has to make an effort to ensure that the interests of the expatriates are kept in mind when the government takes important decisions.

The Syrian government under Assad, who has himself lived abroad for several years, has brought in new laws to make it easier for the expatriates to visit home. Syria has a two-year compulsory military service and many young Syrians were afraid to visit Syria for fear of being drafted into it.

New regulations provide for sons of Syrian citizens, who are born and brought up abroad, to pay $500 in lieu of the mandatory military service. A tax of $100 per year levied on expatriates at the time of renewal of their Syrian passports has also been done away with, the minister said.

According to Shaaban, the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist strikes in America made many expatriate Syrians uncomfortable in the US and European countries because of the suspicion with which Muslims were perceived in these countries. Many expatriates wanted to come back home to raise their children in their own culture.

The Syrians abroad are not a worker community. They are very successful professionals - doctors, professors and entrepreneurs. Syria receives remittances worth about $1 billion through the official channels and it is estimated that a similar amount reaches Syria through informal channels - from Syrians returning home, sending gifts and money to relatives.

While there are no specific figures on Syrian expatriates returning home, the summer months show an increased inflow of expatriates on holiday, a greater number of weddings with expatriate participation. Many of them come to visit parents and even look for a Syrian bride.

Just as the movement of a sizeable number of Indians to foreign lands began in the 19th century - Indians were taken to the Mauritius, Africa and the Caribbean to work on the plantations in the new colonies, the emigration from Syria was also a late 19th century phenomenon. Regular advertisements by the governments of Argentina and Brazil invited people to come and settle on the vast open plains of the continent.

Syria was then under Ottoman rule and hundreds of Syrians migrated to the Latin American countries and now there are fifth generation Syrian descendants of those early migrants living in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Paraguay, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

A second round of migration began in the early 20th century to North America and Europe and the oil boom in the 1970s took many Syrians to the Gulf countries. It is these later migrants to the West and the Gulf who send remittances back home to Syria.

As Shaaban said, her ministry provided a point of reference for all Syrian expatriates, from those planning to visit to investors finding their way through the Syrian bureaucracy. For the older migrants, it helps fulfill the desire to connect with their roots, its traditions, language and culture.

(Shubha Singh can be reached at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

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