Diasporas- do they make or break the peace?

By: Elsa Lilja (MA International Relations and EU External Relations)

In light of the question, ‘diasporas have been branded as both peace-builders and peace-wreckers –what factors contribute to augmenting the former and diminishing the latter of these assessments?’ the goal of this blog post is to assess some arguments as to why they may be considered ‘peace-wreckers’ by some, and review some ways diaspora have contributed positively to peace processes in their home countries as well as some motivations, opportunities for and obstacles to such activities.

There has been an increasing research interest in diasporas and their influence on conflict in their home countries. Scholars have argued that diasporas emerging from conflict zones are more prone to radical attitudes and behaviours and can escalate conflicts by financing militias, buying weapons, drafting fighters and consequently diminishing potential for resolution of the conflict.[1]Benedict Anderson is frequently cited, arguing that diasporas can constitute ‘long-distance nationalists’, performing irresponsible actions since they cannot be held accountable due to their distance from the conflict.[2]More optimistically, newer research has demonstrated that diasporas can and do take part in peace-making efforts as well.[3]

It is worth acknowledging that diasporas are conceptually difficult to study due to their heterogeneous nature. Can a definition ever be inclusive enough to not exclude those who might fit within it, yet not be overly ambiguous to render the term useless, or even impose it onto those who do not identify with the term? In light of these conceptual problems, I will be using Yossi Shain’s understanding of diaspora as ‘a people with common national origin who reside outside a claimed or an independent home territory.’[4]This may not signify the complexity, hybridity and symbolic meanings that the term ‘diaspora’ often carries. However, in its simplicity and ambiguity, it allows for the inclusion of a multiplicity of people that may fit into the concept of ‘diaspora,’ thus serves the purpose of including a wide array of potential stakeholders. Below I will outline some ways in which diaspora have remained involved in their home countries and assess how they can be constructive or destructive to peace-building.

Intuitively, it may not seem sensible for diaspora to wish to escalate the conflict, consequently both risking the lives of family and friends back home and inhibiting their own prospects for return. However, in some instances, diaspora members have seen armed struggle as necessary to fight against a destructive government, such as when part of the Irish-American diaspora supported the Irish Republican Army armed struggle against the British Army.[5]Similarly, diaspora remittances were the primary source of financial support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who at times engaged in violent actions to promote their cause (and have subsequently been branded as a terrorist organization in some Western states). Some may take this as indication that diasporas are ‘peace wreckers’ by contributing to violence at home.[6]

However, violence-instigating efforts are comparatively low in comparison to peaceful efforts. In the case of Northern Ireland, diaspora support transformed into peaceful efforts when such opportunities arose. Remittances have also provided vital humanitarian aid, such as for the Biafra population during the Nigerian conflict, which was lobbied for by diaspora.[7]Sometimes, within the same conflict, remittances have financed both civilian aid and armed campaigns. Remittances provided crucial social welfare services during the conflict in Kosovo in the 1990s and later supported the armed struggle of the Kosovo Liberation Army.[8]

Advocacy and Lobbying
Their new locations can afford some privileges. Some may have attained influential positions within their host countries and have the opportunity to bring attention to the conflict in their home countries and thereby influence home governments, international organisations, NGOs and other decision-makers to put pressure on groups contributing to violence.[9]For instance, Feargal Cochrane demonstrates how through their credibility, influence and persuasion, the Irish American diaspora played a crucial role in helping secure peace through the Good Friday Agreement (1998). Bringing the issue onto the U.S. policy agenda, diaspora could influence decision makers to put pressure on conflict parties and engage them in a constructive peace-process.[10][11]

Bridging an understanding and speaking out when others cannot
With modern technologies and the Internet, much is known about conflicts globally. But constructive engagement necessitates a complex and detailed understanding of real needs and events on the ground. As many members of the diaspora have experienced the conflict and/or are connected to people ‘at home’, they likely have a better understanding of underlying causes, drivers, actors, development and opportunities for change. With their connections to family and friends, through Internet technology, diaspora can be updated continually on the situation in their home country.[12]In this regard, they can be an important resource in assessing and planning peace-building strategies.

Taking on an intermediary role can also augment diaspora’s motivations for engaging in peace-making efforts and utilise their potential. For instance, Nigerian diaspora in London demonstrated day-to-day experiences of people ‘at home’ in the Delta village through art and cultural expressions. This allowed them to establish a connection between those at home and the international community and calling attention to the issues that concern them.[13]Brinkerhoff notes that there is a psychological dimension to the ability to affect change.[14]The opportunity to utilise their talents and to influence people in their host-countries or internationally- is another factor that can increase diaspora motivation to contribute to peaceful change.

In some cases, former ‘adversaries’ at home are now friends and neighbours abroad. For instance, there are examples of Greek and Turkish Cypriot diaspora living peacefully in London.[15]Such circumstances may motivate Diaspora to take part in improving relations at home. In fact, as Wolfram Zunzer demonstrates, Cypriot diaspora have lobbied extensively in the interest of peace in Cyprus. Yet, we must acknowledge that not all diaspora members behave in the same way.  For instance, some Greek Cypriots in Greece are against a peace agreement, serving instead to maintain the status quo.[16]Of course, as this demonstrates, any notion of diaspora cannot be considered entirely representative and they might behave in quite dissimilar ways. But their potential as a resource in facilitating dialogue and bringing concerns to the international community, NGOs or their host governments, is worth paying attention to.

From brain drain to brain gain
Authors have noted that exodus sparked by conflicts, resulting in departure of much needed expertise and qualifications weakens the capacity to improve political institutions. [17]Some have attempted to re-frame this issue of ‘brain drain’ into a more constructive ‘brain gain.’  Opportunity to acquire useful skills abroad or become informed about alternative institutional frameworks can motivate diaspora to engage in efforts for change ‘at home.’

The Government of Kosovo has recently initiated a national ‘brain-gain’ campaign that aims to motivate professionals and educated members of diaspora to return and take part in development of Kosovo.[18]How successful this will be remains to be seen, but it is indicative of an increasing optimism for the role of diasporas in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.

Settling in countries with stronger institutions and governance and consequently acquiring higher standards for political accountability at home may motivate diaspora members to advocate for improving conditions for their friends and families. This could be for instance by working towards a climate conducive to investments, entrepreneurship and self-fulfilment and possibly their own prospective return. Of course, it is by no means a given that exposure to stronger institutions and higher political accountability will inspire such action, but growing up in more democratic conditions is a factor that more likely diminishes the likelihood that diaspora members will seek efforts to further escalate violence or destabilise conditions at home. Of course, motivations to do so might be stronger among those with intentions of return, which would be an interesting topic for further research.

It is important to acknowledge factors that influence diaspora capacities to contribute to peace-building, such as levels of integration and ability to organise in their host countries, distance to the conflict and overestimation of capabilities. Policies of integration in the host country matter, not only for realising diasporas potential as an agent for change,[19]but also to avoid the risk that diaspora become isolated and vulnerable to radicalisation. Experiencing xenophobia or isolation may lead to feelings of resentment towards their host countries. Diaspora may mobilise in response to perceived threat to ‘their’ group (both physical and ideological), for instance feelings of resentment and negativity towards specific diaspora groups. Brinkerhoff argues that this mobilisation traditionally takes a more ‘defensive,’ form, producing rapid and aggressive actions,[20]even if the goal is peace.

Another consideration is their distance, both in time and space, from the conflict, which may decrease their understanding of needs ‘at home.’ Their views may become antiquated and, as Kevin Clements argues, be blurred by nostalgic views of the past or conflated by influences in their host countries.[21]

It is important also to acknowledge that diaspora are not automatically a resource. Western or post-graduate education does not automatically lead to a better capacity to deal with problems in their home countries. Assuming that skills acquired in host countries will be an asset desirable to their home countries, is not without merits, but overestimating these qualifications may inadvertently lead to negatively impacting peace processes.[22]

Conclusion- Opportunities, risks and the discourse of crisis
Diasporas can be a resource in peace-building, through remittances, advocacy, lobbying, bridging an understanding of issues ‘at home’ and speaking up for those who cannot. With some examples, this paper argues that diaspora motivation, opportunities and past efforts for contributing to peace-building efforts exceed their participation in conflict-escalating activities. There are many areas that would benefit from more research, for instance, how the existence of frameworks and networks that facilitate diaspora activism impacts their levels of engagement in peace-building efforts. And- where instances of ‘peace-wrecking’ occurs- whether there are patterns of conditions that facilitate such outcomes.

Another important consideration is how the current political climate, specifically relating to discourse on migration flows, may influence diaspora engagement. Many of the examples above rely on perceptions, how to motivate and frame the potential of diasporas as peace-builders. Terms such as ‘refugee crisis’, the framing of migrants as a security threat, discussed elsewhere[23]may risk alienating new diasporas-in-the-making from identifying creative peace-building efforts. Asking, as Brinkerhoff does, ‘Can they really be like us?’ suggests migrants should be passive consumers of culture and values of the host country. In addition to devaluating their potential as agents of change, this may alienate those who have difficulties integrating into their host society. According to Brinkerhoff, research has indicated that ‘feelings of marginalization and social exclusion have been shown to lead to violent behaviour and exacerbate existing conflict.’[24]While migrants, refugees and diaspora are not necessarily synonymous, perceptions of people moving into countries framed as a security risk and how it may impact diaspora engagement in peace-building (and peace-wrecking), would be a valuable area for future research. If host countries are to augment diaspora potentials to be peace-makers and diminish risks of contributing to inhibiting peace processes or escalating the conflict, it is important to take this discourse seriously.



[1]Maria Koinova; Four Types of Diaspora Mobilization: Albanian Diaspora Activism For Kosovo Independence in the US and the UK, Foreign Policy Analysis, Volume 9, Issue 4, 1 October 2013: 433-436
[2]Koinova, 435
[3]Koinova, 433; he US and the UK, Foreign Policy Analysis, Volume 9, Issue 4, 1 October 2013: 433
[4]Shain, Yossi, “Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 109, No 5, Winter 1994-1995, pp. 811-841. p. 813.
[5]Cochrane (2007), 216
[6]Zunzer, W. ‘Diaspora Communities and Civil Conflict Transformation’ Berghof Occasional PaperNo.26, ppp.27
[7]Newland, Kathleen.”Voice After Exit: Diaspora Advocacy – Migrationpolicy.org.”Diasporas & Development Policy Project. November 2010. Accessed October 15, 2018. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/diasporas-advocacy.pdf.p. 13
[8] Berdal, 695
[9]Terence Lyons & Peter Mandaville, ‘Global Migration and Transnational Politics: A Conceptual Framework’ George Mason University: 2-3
[10]Cochrane, F. ‘Irish-America, the End of the IRA’s Armed Struggle and the Utility of “Soft Power”’ Journal of Peace Research, 2007 Vol.44. (2): 217
[11]Cochrane, F. B. Baser, & A. Swain, ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad: Diasporas and Peace-Building in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka’ Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, August 2009:696
[12]Cochrane, Baser and Swain, 693
[13]Terence Lyons & Peter Mandaville, ‘Global Migration and Transnational Politics: A Conceptual Framework’ George Mason University: 5
[14]Brinkerhoff, 77
[15]Zunzer, W. (2004). Diaspora Communities and Civil Conflict Transformation. Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management. Berghof Occasional Paper No. 26: 31-32
[16]Zunzer, 32
[17]Batista, Catia, and Pedro C. Vicente. “Do Migrants Improve Governance at Home? Evidence from a voting experiment” Open Knowledge. May 12, 2011. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/13465/wber_25_1_77.pdf;sequence=1.p. 172
[19]Zunzer, 9
[20]Brinkerhoff, 78
[21]”Expert Forum Capacity Building for Peace and Development: Roles of Diaspora Final Report.” United Nations Institute for Training and Research. October 2006. Accessed October 10, 2018. http://www.unitar.org/ny/sites/unitar.org.ny/files/UPEACE Report.pdf.p.14
[22]”Expert Forum Capacity Building for Peace and Development: Roles of Diaspora Final Report.” United Nations Institute for Training and Research. October 2006. Accessed October 10, 2018. http://www.unitar.org/ny/sites/unitar.org.ny/files/UPEACE Report.pdf.p.14
[23]Krzyżanowski, M., A. Triandafyllidou and R. Wodak (2018) ‘The Mediatization and the Politicization of the “Refugee Crisis” in Europe’, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 16(1-2): 1-14.
[24]Brinkerhoff, 66