At what point do people start identifying themselves as refugees? What are the differences between refugee and migrant diasporas? Should we even make a distinction? Use of the terms “refugee diasporas” and “migrant diasporas” is shaped by various academic, funding and political issues. In academia, we investigate the different linkages between diaspora populations and their homelands in order to provide more context-specific and nuanced insights. The next question is, how far do labels help or hinder these groups?
To look in-depth at the role of “Refugee Diasporas in Development”, Maastricht University co-hosted a seminar in Brussels on 18 March 2014. Held in partnership with the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the event followed a round-table with various NGOs on the same subject.
Cindy Horst from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, shared her work on the differences between refugee and migrant diasporas. This includes the often politicized issue of identity, relationships with home countries, and the everyday experiences of being a refugee. Horst said that we – in the North – want refugee diasporas to be involved in development, but not to be political. Yet their objectives are inherently political due to their situations of being in exile.
“Meet the Somalis”, based on the work of Horst, is an excellent depiction of the challenges of being a refugee in Europe. The project shows the challenges faced by Somali youth in different cities across Europe, such as discrimination, post-traumatic stress, and deciding their religious beliefs. Clearly, there are big differences between refugee and migrant diasporas, at least in terms of self-perception and how their experiences shape their engagement with both the country of origin and destination. The question is, should these differences matter to NGOs and donors?
The seminar focused time and again on the importance of “context” – in terms of donor funding and the composition of diasporas. This is a key question for the Danish Refugee Council, among many others. DRC works exclusively with refugees, so their programmes focus on the diasporas of Somalia and Afghanistan, countries where it also has operations on the ground.
The political context in Denmark is generally “friendly” towards refugees. In some ways it’s unique, as there are few other opportunities for refugee diaspora organisations when seeking funding. The DRC programme in particular enables refugee diasporas to run projects with local communities in their countries of origin. These are projects that are both sustainable and meaningful to humanitarian development.
Comic Relief, Britain’s second largest development funder, finances several diaspora organisations and large-scale NGOs. Its delegate, Rupal Mistry, said that migrant organisations in the UK don’t want to be labelled “diaspora organisations”. This reflects a very different political environment in the UK that has been quite negative towards refugees and migrants.
Mistry added that separate funding streams would not benefit diaspora organisations over the long-term as funding in the UK is so competitive. To gain long-term funding, diaspora organisations need to be able to compete with other development actors. Comic Relief therefore has the same application process for all development organisations, but does offer special support to diaspora organisations during the application process.
Both Comic Relief and DRC are working to empower these groups through their funding streams. But above all they are listening to the people they work with. Listening to the migrants themselves, and how they want to be identified, is a key step toward changing perceptions and helping them shape their own future.
UN Photo / I.Billy