Diaspora communities should be involved in conflict resolution

European societies host a variety of diasporas that can be instrumental in preventing and resolving conflicts in their country of origin. These transnational communities offer unique opportunities for constructive dialogue, opportunities that could be exploited more effectively. But how exactly should the European Union and its Member States go about doing that? This question was at the heart of the INFOCON research project.

Combining the complementary strengths of researchers and civil society organisations (CSOs) in several countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, as well as representing organisations from Kosovo, Serbia, Rwanda-Burundi, Kurdish-Turkey), the INFOCON consortium has produced a concise set of observations and recommendations that provide Europe’s policy making community with some guidance on a matter of broad public concern.

From INFOCON’s perspective, the first thing European policy makers need to understand regarding this subject is the importance of engagement. Europe must “engage diasporas in political means such as debate, advocacy or political mobilisation”, the consortium says, as opportunities for these forms of exchange may not be possible in a transnational community's home country. While many EU citizens may take the modern European standard of political dialogue for granted, the project reminds us how powerful this form of dialogue can be as an instrument for conflict resolution.

INFOCON focused on diasporas representing communities experiencing different types of conflicts in Turkey, Kosovo and the Great Lakes region of Africa. Interviews were carried out with members of those communities both in their country of origin and in various European host cities where they are strongly represented – Amsterdam (Randstad), Berlin, Brussels and London. Thus, the findings are drawn from populations representing a diverse set of regions and issues.

Through these targeted case studies – which incorporated workshops, panels and seminars in Europe and abroad - the consortium identified several common characteristics. Among diaspora groups in European societies, for example, the researchers found a link between maintenance of ongoing conflicts, which are transported to and modified within the host European country, and “feelings of injustice, deprivation and a deficit of integration” in the countries where they live. In order to counter this tendency, policy makers are urged to provide access to citizenship and fight economic deprivation among these populations. Also, noting that conflicts between transnational communities undergo a process of transformation in European societies, the researchers caution against treating them as if they were simply an extension of conflicts back in the country of origin.

With respect to diaspora size and importance, INFOCON found that smaller groups (e.g. Rwandans) can, at times, play a much bigger role in their home conflicts than larger groups (e.g. the Turkish diaspora). While about a third of CSOs representing transnational communities are actively promoting economic development back in their countries of origin, on the whole the project concluded that such CSOs in general “have so far played a limited role in efforts to resolve or prevent conflicts in their homelands”. Indeed, the researchers note that diaspora communities can be “vectors of conflict and conflict resolution at the same time”. In other words, the diasporas are no less complex than the countries and conflicts that have shaped them.

INFOCON explicitly warns the international community to be “wary” of attempts to harness diasporas for conflict mitigation or peace-building, in the sense of instrumentalising them without regard of their inner complexity. While these highly diverse groups may lean toward compromise, the consortium concludes, they may also lean towards radicalism. Nonetheless, the project insists that diasporas (including opposing factions) should still be engaged in dialogue processes that could ultimately contribute to development and conflict resolution.

Surprisingly, given the seriousness of the problem, INFOCON observes that few governments in Europe have developed initiatives to deal with the potential of transported conflicts. The researchers suggest this may be due to the fact that governments underestimate or misunderstand these conflicts or are afraid to be seen as taking sides. Acknowledging the risk of being instrumentalised by transnational communities, the consortium advises policy makers to first gain a thorough knowledge of both home and imported conflicts in view of taking suitable steps to accommodate tensions within and between diasporas, and between them and hosting communities. Guidance for CSOs dealing with diasporic communities will soon be available in the form of a handbook to be published on the INFOCON website and complementing the handbook of another project (DIASPEACE) more geared towards policy makers.

The project collaborated closely with another EC-funded project called DIASPEACE - also covered in this issue - and the two projects held a joint final conference: http://ec.europa.eu/research/social-sciences/events-137_en.html

INFOCON - Involving transnational communities - Civil society forum on conflicts (duration: 1/4/2008 - 31/3/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 4 “Europe and the world”, Research area 4.2 “Conflicts, peace and human rights” (research for the benefit of specific groups).

See: http://www.infocon-project.org/

Contact: Dr. Stephan Kampelmann, stephan@internationalistfoundation.org