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Portrait image © Maria Koinova | Image: Što Te Nema? nomadic monument, July 2015, Geneva, Switzerland © Dženeta Karabegović


When war displaces large populations, refugees and their descendants form diasporas. They are far from home and spread across countries, but many remain involved in homeland politics. In a comparative study of diasporas and contested sovereignty from the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, EU researchers reveal how diasporas can both mitigate and aggravate conflicts.

The news is heavy with reports of the refugee crisis in Europe. Migrants from war-torn areas are reaching Europe in record numbers, having fled conflict in their homelands. As they settle across Europe, displaced peoples and their descendants form diasporas. They retain a sense of national identity and often keep strong links with their countries of origin. EU-funded research is now revealing how this strong sense of identity and involvement often leads to diasporas engaging in homeland conflict and post-conflict reconstruction.

“We compare systematically when and how diasporas in Europe can both mitigate and aggravate conflicts when they are mobilised to get involved. We analyse how contexts shape this activism and look at the links diasporas have with their home states, host states, supranational institutions, and different global localities,” says Prof. Maria Koinova, who leads the DIASPORACONTEST project.

The crucial question is: what motivates diasporas to take action transnationally? Prof. Koinova explains how the project systematically studies how diasporas link to different types of conflict-ridden states. “The Kurdish diaspora is stateless,” she notes, “but those from Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Palestine are linked to de facto states with local governance, but no international sovereignty; diasporas identifying with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, are linked to internationally recognised states, but with weak or unstable governments due to ethno-nationalist or sectarian divisions. These contexts, and a variety of others to which diasporas are durably linked across the globe, shape their transnational activism.”

Understanding diasporas

The DIASPORACONTEST research team collects comparative qualitative data through interviews and focus groups with diaspora activists in five European countries. When completed in 2017, the project will have insight also into the attitudes of non-activist diaspora individuals, obtained through a unique cross-national survey. Prof. Koinova explained that “this large amount of data will help us understand crosscountry and intra-country variations that members of diaspora groups hold towards their homelands.”

Early analysis is beginning to reveal the complex interplay between homeland links, context and individual attitudes. The mobilisation of diasporas to ‘a cause’ is influenced by how they become empowered from the position they occupy in a global geographic location, their socio-economic status and their links to a variety of networks both locally and transnationally. The researchers also warn host-states, which want to resolve conflicts abroad, that part of the solution is to look into bettering relationships with diasporas on their own territories. Much of diaspora activism is sustained by sense of injustice performed by a host-state recently or in the distant past, whether by being a colonial power, or having engaged in atrocities and military interventions in the diasporas’ original homelands.

Diaspora influence on state-building

The research shows that home states also involve diasporas in their strategies. De facto states, aspiring to statehood, may actively seek diaspora support for external financing of businesses, cultural reproduction and public diplomacy; they may push diasporas toward activism. Sovereign states with significant internal conflicts and divisions may be less active, but still call on diasporas to engage in transitional justice processes and aspects of statebuilding.

The project DIASPORACONTEST has already produced over 10 peer-reviewed publications, with many more in the pipeline, and eight short videos. The project is the subject of two journal special issues and a book manuscript in preparation. Public engagement has included a film-screening and public discussions held during the centenary commemoration of the Armenian genocide and the 20-year anniversary of the Dayton peace agreement.

A round-table discussion with policy-makers is planned in Brussels in March 2017 to ensure that project findings support new policy developments. “DIASPORACONTEST could have a huge impact on policy,” Prof. Koinova concludes. “In the current crisis, it is important to think about refugees whose lives are on hold, without documents to work or study, and how this affects prospects for long-term diaspora activism. Also, diasporas could act as public diplomats for their countries of origin, but host states and international organisations should be cautious not to delegate too many responsibilities to them. Diasporas activists may pursue institutional interest, but more often they believe in a particular cause and seek to change the world, some in more peaceful and constructive ways than others.”

Maria Koinova is Reader in International Relations. Before joining the University of Warwick (United Kingdom) in 2012, she held research positions at Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C., and faculty positions at the University of Amsterdam and the American University of Beirut. Since 2006 she has worked on topics related to diasporas, conflicts, post-conflict reconstruction and democratization, and has conducted multi-sited fieldwork among the Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Croatian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Serbian, and Ukrainian diasporas in the US and in Europe.