Diaspora engagement in war-torn societies

 Project Description

Mass refugee movements induced by conflict have contributed to the transformation of global society, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Substantial new diasporas have consolidated from these movements: the new social formations appear to be enduring and have undertaken a variety of forms of transnational activity, shaping both the societies in which diasporas find themselves and their home communities and societies.

While the role of diaspora in development has stimulated much debate over the last decade or so, it is only relatively recently that attention has turned to the influence of diasporas in war-torn societies. There has been a general shift in perception from ascribing diasporas a negative influence in fomenting and supporting conflict (as ‘war mongers’ or ‘peace-wreckers’) to the more positive view that they can assist with relief, peace-building, recovery and post-conflict reconstruction (as ‘peace-makers’ or ‘peace-builders’). As is often the case, the reality is between the two, and the balance of forms of engagement shifts over time and according to circumstances. This project explored the kind of community and society that may emerge from diaspora formation and engagement in conflict and post conflict settings. 

 Key research questions

The project traced the emergence of diasporas formed as a result of flight from conflict in terms of their socio-economic make-up, cohort/time of arrival, immigration status, and class, ethnic, generational, gender and other social cleavages, all of which shape diaspora members’ capacity for engagement. Read more….

More broadly the project considered:

  • the kind of social change diaspora engagement sets in motion
  • the kind of society that emerges as a result of such engagement
  • the conditions under which diasporas constitute a conservative or a transformational force
  • the place of diasporas in the reconfiguration of the global political economy

The nature and possibilities for recovery and development in conflict settings are contested. For some, recovery in the aftermath of conflict is seen in terms of the restoration of what existed before; for others it presents the opportunity for social and economic transformation. By providing transnational social security – through remittances and help for communities, for example – diasporas may help to sustain communities in conflict settings. By investing resources and different kinds of capital they may help to transform such communities economically and politically: such transformations may be towards democracy and equity, or they may bolster division and sectional interests. Thus there is a range of possible outcomes of diaspora engagement from sustaining/conserving to transforming societies and communities that have experienced war. Moreover diaspora engagement is of course set in a broader context: the kinds of society that come about in the aftermath of conflict are the subject of differing visions and purposes of governments, international humanitarian and development agencies, international and national capital, and local communities – whose interests sometimes converge and sometimes conflict with those of diasporas. 

The research focused on Sri Lanka, the Somali regions and Afghanistan and the analysis was structured around key post-conflict transitions in each of the cases:

  • Shifts in the forms of diaspora engagement after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009
  • Diaspora engagement in the campaign to maintain remittance flows in 2013-14, against the background of the re-establishment of government and a degree of stability in south-central Somalia from 2012
  • Diaspora engagement against the background of the Western military wind-down in Afghanistan from 2011

Theoretically, the research touched on, among other things, the relationship between structure and agency; between force and choice in migration; between the local and global, the translocal and the transnational; and between material life and identity politics. It drew on debates on livelihoods in conflict, on networks, social capital and class, on social transformation, and on how power shifts and travels through local and global dispensations.    

 Methodology and approach

The project drew principally on data gathered over the last 15 years on the cases selected. It also involved limited data gathering among Sri Lankans, Somalis, and Afghans in various diaspora locations (e.g. UK, Canada, and continental Europe). Research methods included interviews among extended families and communities in the diaspora to capture the range of forms and densities of linkages, as well as interpretation of statistical and other quantitative data. Diaspora communities were profiled to establish and map their socio-economic conditions, experiences of conflict, linkages with home communities, and perceptions and engagement with home country in the past and currently.

Tamil demonstration at Trafalgar Square, London. Photograph: Nicholas Van Hear

'Somalilanders in London celebrate 23 years of independence. Photo: Kate Stanworth

Project lead

Nicholas Van Hear, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society

Other researcher

Giulia Liberatore, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society

Project-related outputs

> Books and chapters
> Journal articles
> Photo essays
> Blog posts and other briefings