How can diasporas contribute to lasting peace? A cross-case analysis with examples from the Sri Lankan, Eritrean, Somaliland and Kurdish diasporas

By: Lauren Benson (MA International Relations)

How can diasporas contribute to lasting peace? A cross-case analysis with examples from the Sri Lankan, Eritrean, Somaliland and Kurdish diasporas



Diasporas can be loosely defined as ‘ethnic minority groups of migrant origins residing and acting in host countries but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin—their homelands’ (Sheffer, 1986:3). The role of diasporas in conflict resolution – and their role as peace-wreckers or peace-builders- is an area of increasing contemporary interest and debate. While much has been written on their role as peace-wreckers, less has been said about their ‘largely untapped potential as peace-builders’ (Orjuela, 2008:437). This essay will suggest, through reference to Sri Lankan, Eritrean, Kurdish and Somaliland diasporas, that a number of factors are central to encouraging diasporas to play a more constructive role in conflict.

The heterogeneity of diasporic identity

Before addressing the ways in which host countries and homelands can support diasporas as peace-builders, it is worth underlining the heterogeneity of diasporic identity. Brinkerhoff has discussed how it is ‘characterized by hybridity: it is neither completely one nor the other’ (2008:68), incorporating aspects of both the country of origin and the host country. A positive sense of identity may encourage constructive engagements with the homeland; a negative one could result in destructive ones. Class, gender, age and education are all important aspects of identity that are key to shaping how individuals relate to their homeland and decide whether or not to engage with it (Orjuela, 2008: 439).

To give an example, different generations within the diaspora may be more or less involved with homeland politics. In the case of the Somaliland diaspora, Hammond suggests that the older generation are more focused on grievances, having experienced oppression themselves, whereas the younger generation are more positive about recent national achievements (2012:176-177). In terms of class and ethnic groups, there can also be important variations- the Sri Lankan diaspora, for example, is made up of both Tamil and Sinhalese groups. These are sometimes treated differently by the host country: Orjuela writes that the Sinhalese are often considered to be better educated, of higher class and more willing to integrate than the Tamil, making them ‘less problematic’ (Orjuela, 2008:442). Whichever identity a diasporic group adopts, the one chosen is likely to be purposefully selected, to afford the group the best opportunities in terms of quality of life and resources (Brinkerhoff, 2008:72).

Opportunities within the host country

There are many economic, political and cultural opportunities within the host country for diasporas to express their identities and build valuable links with their home countries. Economically, many diasporas often make significant post-conflict financial contributions towards reconstruction. Remittances to Sri Lanka, for example, were estimated to be $1.3 billion in 2004 (Orjuela, 2008: 446). Likewise, Hammond (2012:165) estimates that as much as $1billion may be sent annually to Somalia which goes to rural relatives, community development projects and emergency rehabilitation works. Other financial links to the home country include direct investment in businesses and purchasing of homeland products and services. The establishment of the Anglo-Somaliland Chamber of Commerce, for example, is an important indication that Somaliland is open for business to outside investors.

However, such financing is not entirely unproblematic and can lead to a number of unwanted consequences. In the case of the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami, fundraising created further division and mistrust between Sinhalese and Tamil groups and increased nationalist discourse on both sides (Orjuela, 2008:448). Subgroups within a diaspora can also use force or intimidation to extort finance for terrorist purposes, with the LTTE being a significant example. Finally, finance can be unfairly distributed or used to finance migration away from the homeland.

In addition to financial contributions and economic ties, opportunities for cultural and political expression also play a significant role. Many groups, such as the Eritrean diaspora, continue to celebrate public holidays and historical events within their host countries, despite being geographically removed. Orjuela (2008) has emphasized how temples, religious festivals and social groups provide a social environment for the Tamil diaspora. Technology allows diasporas to connect with their home country through media, film and news channels. Furthermore, scholars have argued that more democratic, freer societies in which diasporas reside allow for greater dialogue between different sub-groups. In the safety of the host country, cultural expression can be performed freely, allowing diasporas to engage in discussions about conflict resolution without fear of repercussions. Although Sinhalese and Tamil groups are two distinct polarized groups, organizations such the Australian Friends for Peace in Sri Lanka demonstrate that dialogue and cooperation is possible (Orjuela, 2008:445). Thus, these opportunities for cultural expression can bring together a mix of diasporic identities and foster dialogue between them, promoting greater understanding.

In terms of politics, advocacy work can have a significant impact on homeland politics through establishing legitimacy for political struggles and mobilizing support. The political activities of diasporas from letter-writing to lobbying can influence the military strength of actors, affect peace settlements or result in international intervention. Both the Tamil and Somaliland diasporas have actively promoted their rights to free speech, while the Somaliland Forum has worked to promote a free press. Nevertheless, not all diasporas are able to organize in such effective ways to promote their cause. The Kurdish diaspora, due to its heterogenous nature, has been unable to mobilize as a collective whole. Natali has attributed this to differing interests, ranging from securing their status in the homeland to Kurdish autonomy. Thus, although host countries can offer opportunities for political self-expression, a lack of organization can also inhibit this.

Host country government policies

While the above opportunities are driven by the desires of the diasporas themselves, host country government policies can increase the capacity of diasporas to intervene in a given conflict. Host countries typically see large diasporas as opportunities for block votes (Orjuela, 2008: 443). For example, members of the Sri Lankan diaspora have been known to support certain American politicians in order to win their favour. Alternatively, members of the diaspora may become part of the political elite in the host country in order to influence home politics (Cochrane, 2009: 696). Although such close links can have positive consequences for peace-building, it shall be argued that host country governments, more broadly, should seek to recognize, encourage and reward peace-seeking elements within the diaspora.

One way in which host country governments can support diasporas is through policies which improve the economic situation of immigrants. Brinkerhoff (2008) has discussed how, when policy-makers strive to improve the quality of life for the diaspora, the stakes for turning destructive increase. A stable economic situation has been shown to prevent social marginalization and isolation, reducing the risk of destructive tendencies. Examples of such policies could include access to higher education, homeownership loans or business incentives. For the Eritrean diaspora, employment within the host country allowed them to contribute 2% of their salary to reconstruction in the homeland, a policy introduced by the Eritrean government. By contrast, an insecure legal status or limitations on free movement constrain the financial security of individuals and make it hard to earn enough to pay remittances. Taking the example of the Somalian diaspora, the fact that many have dual residency rights in two countries, means that they can maximize economic opportunities in both places. In this way, their economic situation and financial security is significantly improved, and this has resulting implications for the homeland.

A second important aspect of host country government policy relates to the sensitive application of labels to diasporic groups. It has been argued that a threat to group identity can enhance solidarity, and potentially lead to destructive ends. Privileging one dimension of a diaspora over another can reduce their capacity to organize along collective lines. As previously discussed, diasporic identity is a negotiated result and being outside of the homeland should offer much potential to transcend conflicting ethnic or national identities and adopt shared identities (Orjuela,2008:450). By allowing such hybrid identities to evolve and avoiding forced assimilation, the fundamental psychological needs of individual and collective identity can be met (Brinkerhoff, 2008:86).

One way of doing this is to endorse hyphenisation. Shain (cited in Brinkerhoff, 2008:71) has suggested that American tolerance for hyphenisation (e.g. African-American) offers the opportunity to pursue cultural identity within the context of a new host country self. At the same time, Natali has argued that governments should distinguish more carefully between the Kurdish diaspora as a whole, and categorization according to state origin e.g. Turkish Kurds. Finally, governments should be wary of labelling groups as ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ as this can result in increased division and instability. The decision by many Western countries and the European Union to label the LTTE as a terrorist organization has resulted in discrimination against the Tamil people, while being an enormous political achievement for the Sri Lankan government (Vimalarajah, 2010:26). At the same time, labelling the Tamil diaspora as a ‘victim diaspora’ has real consequences for the extent to which the host country is able to meet the needs of the Sinhalese diaspora (Cohen, cited in Orjuela, 2008:440). Therefore, host country governments should pay particular attention to identity recognition as part of their policy-making.

Another government policy host countries could endorse is greater involvement of the diaspora in politics. Hammond discusses the historical links between the UK and Somaliland which has resulted in extensive political cooperation. The UK has an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Somaliland which has a mandate to promote understanding of developing democratic structures (Hammond, 2012:160). Parliamentarians from both the UK and Somaliland visit each other’s countries, offering support and guidance (Hammond, 2012:161). Such transnational political engagement can have positive implications for peacebuilding efforts.

A last crucial aspect of host country government policy relates to the groups it chooses to include and exclude from political processes. The attitudes powerful governments, such as the United States, take towards a diaspora can have implications for their role as peace-builders or peace-wreckers. In her analysis of the Iraqi Kurds’ involvement in the United States’ campaign in Iraq, Natali describes how the US government chose to recognise the Iraqi Kurds as legitimate in exchange for their support during the conflict. The Iraqi Kurds in turn saw this as an opportunity to further their cause for a federal system in Iraq, although this meant alienating the rest of the Kurdish diaspora who sought an alternative outcome. The choice made by the US government to exclude the wider Kurdish diaspora from political processes, particularly the large group of Turkish Kurds, contributed to their transformation into peace-wreckers. As a result of their exclusion, the wider Kurdish diaspora mobilised against the government and were later joined by the Iraqi Kurds when they were subsequently excluded from decision-making processes. Therefore, the example of the Unites States’ treatment of the Kurdish diaspora shows how host country foreign policy can have a significant impact on how diasporas behave in conflict situations.

Homeland government policies

Finally, it is worth considering the role homeland governments can play in ensuring that diasporas play a positive role in peacebuilding. In addition to the voluntary contributions scheme previously mentioned, the Eritrean government also involved the diaspora in the drafting of the constitution, giving them guaranteed voting rights and representation. Similarly, in Somaliland, the government and diasporas are intimately connected, as the leadership is extensively drawn from diaspora communities (Hammond, 2012:165). These examples demonstrate some of the ways in which homeland governments can play an active role in giving diasporas an economic or political stake in their home countries.

Obstacles to peacebuilding

Despite the potential for diasporas to become peace-builders, it is important to recognize a number of factors preventing this. Although diasporas may have the capacity to intervene in a conflict, not all will have the desire, and this may be dependent on personal as well as contextual circumstances. As previously discussed, diasporic identity is heterogenous and it cannot be assumed that all needs and interests, as well as perceptions of a conflict, are the same. Furthermore, there may be an imbalance of power between subgroups and some may resort to terrorism or other forms of violence to achieve their aims. Different stages of the conflict can also result in different levels and kinds of involvement. While this essay has explored some of the ways in which diasporas can be supported in becoming peace-builders, it also recognises many of the challenges faced.


From this analysis of various factors that contribute to the constructive role of diasporas in peace-building, it is clear to see that a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of diasporic identity is central to the process. As discussed, there are numerous opportunities for political, economic and cultural self-expression in the host country which can increase dialogue and help with post-conflict reconstruction. These can be reinforced further through host country government policies which improve the economic situation of the diaspora, respect hybrid identities, encourage political engagement with the homeland and try to be as inclusive as possible. Finally, homelands can also engage with their diaspora in various ways. While there are many challenges to be faced, further understanding of diasporic identities, as well as their interests and needs, may result in positive, constructive contributions to peace-building.



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