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The Political Lives of Refugees

Refugees are not passive, apolitical victims, say Oxford University’s Alexander Betts and Will Jones in their new book ‘Mobilising the Diaspora.’ In an extract, they examine the political lives of exiles and how they are often shaped by the ambivalent role of outsiders.

Written by Alexander Betts and Will Jones Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Zimbabwean refugees stage a protest in South Africa.AP/Boxer Ngwenya

The majority of the world’s population lives in authoritarian regimes. From North Korea to Syria, autocratic governments suppress political engagement. Deprived of fundamental rights and the ability to engage meaningfully in political life, many flee across international borders. Yet far from the common portrayal of refugees as passive, apolitical victims, exiled populations sometimes mobilize transnationally to contest the politics of the homeland state.

Authoritarianism leads to a geographical relocation of political life. Effective autocracy rarely extinguishes political life. But it generally means that the only viable space for opposition politics may be outside the territory and jurisdiction of that state. When political opponents, dissidents and activists are unable to operate within the country of origin, the most significant politics for a state is likely to take place transnationally, across states and among dispersed national communities.

It is becoming increasingly obvious from work on a range of diasporic populations, from Armenians to Zimbabweans, that the diasporas have a politics of their own which extends beyond the particular place in which these populations live, and which is taken extremely seriously, not least by the governments of the homeland.

The challenge is to understand that politics and in particular the process of transnational political mobilization. How and why do exiles mobilize politically? What organizational forms does transnational mobilization take and how do the resulting networks evolve over time? What do such transnational networks do once they come into being? Under what conditions do they develop formal organizational structures or remain informal networks? When and why do such networks self-identify as “diasporas” as opposed to alternative forms of self-representation such as “exiles” or “refugees”, and with what consequences? How do their agendas form and their strategies and tactics emerge? What impact do they have back home?

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing recognition of the role of transnationalism. A vast literature already exists on diasporas – often defined as communities that are transnationally dispersed, resist assimilation and have an ongoing homeland orientation. For us, one of the defining features of diasporas, as distinct from other groups of migrants, is that it is an inherently political stance; it is to have political business with the homeland. Much of the existing work has traditionally been sociological and anthropological in orientation, examining the cultural practices and social interactions of particular diasporas. An increasing body, though, engages with the role of diasporas in world politics, drawing upon the tools and concepts of political science and international relations. It is important to explore how refugee diasporas mobilize to contest authoritarian states. We argue that diasporas are created and sustained by elites whom we call “animators.”

The starting point for our analysis is a simple observation. We began our research by looking at the Zimbabwean diaspora. In the context of authoritarian ZANU-PF rule under Robert Mugabe, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans left the country around the turn of the millennium. They fled to South Africa, the United Kingdom and other countries. In exile, political mobilization took place, including through the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). A literature emerged proclaiming Zimbabweans to be an archetype of the “New Diaspora,” and it was heralded as one of Africa’s most significant and politically engaged diasporas.

The recent political history of the Zimbabwean diaspora highlights an interesting pattern. The diaspora emerged and become extremely politically active between 2003 and 2008. This was partly correlated with the support of diasporic activity by a range of outsiders, including donor states and predominantly white human rights activists external to the diaspora. Yet, from around 2008, with the negotiation of the Global Power-Sharing Agreement and the subsequent Government of National Unity within Zimbabwe, the levels and intensity of Zimbabwean diasporic activity began to dissipate, as international support for the diaspora waned.

Rather than being permanent, the Zimbabwean diaspora – or at least its substantive political activity – exhibited a life cycle. It was born, it lived and then it began to die. Furthermore, it even exhibited what might be thought of as an afterlife – with residual political activity remaining long after substantive organizational structures had been dismantled or returned to Zimbabwe. This observation posed a paradox for us. It showed that one of Africa’s putatively most significant diasporas was in fact historically and politically contingent. It emerged at a particular moment and then largely disappeared at a subsequent point in time.

It also appeared that a significant part of its mobilization was contingent on the role of external actors – interested governments and activists – deploying resources to bring it to life. Yet once the external resources being put into the diaspora from outside waned, so diasporic activity began to disappear, and the diasporic life cycle came to an end.

Looking across the universe of cases of diasporic engagement, relatively few are permanent and enduring. The Jewish diaspora, on which a significant amount of the early diaspora literature is based, is a rare example of an enduring and quasi-permanent diaspora. Others, such as the Armenian diaspora, have undergone periods of activity and periods of latency.

Along the same lines, not all groups of exiles or migrants that leave a country adopt a diasporic stance as a mode of political representation. For example, Uganda, Sudan and China have significant numbers of extra-territorial citizens but little politicized diaspora. While some groups of extra-territorial citizens adopt a diasporic stance, others may not, instead adopting other forms of representation and self-representation, including as “exiles”, “refugees” or “migrants”, for example.

There is recognition that significant variation exists in terms of the degree and durability of diasporic mobilization. This begs the question how do diasporas mobilize to contest authoritarianism?

How does diasporic consciousness take hold? How are particular activities and organizational types adopted? And, crucially, what factors determine the conditions under which they endure and have impact?

Our premise is that diaspora mobilization is an inherently political process – it has an underlying political economy. Diaspora mobilization is not a given but is based upon an underlying set of interests and power relations. The nature of those underlying interests and power relations determines the character and viability of the resulting diaspora.

Embarking on an overtly political analysis of the process of diaspora mobilization enables us to move beyond romanticizing the diaspora. It also mitigates the risk of assuming diasporas to be static, uniform or even internally coherent entities.

We regard “diaspora” as a potential source of political mobilization that is constructed and is brought into existence for political purposes. Reflecting this view of diaspora, we seek to explain the “life cycle” of the diaspora; in other words, the birth, life, death and afterlife of a diaspora.

We suggest that underlying this life cycle is a process that we call “animation.” Central to animation is the role of animators – actors who strategically allocate resources. These animators are generally elites who, through deploying money, networks or ideas to bring diasporas into existence, thereby serve particular interests.

In some cases, diasporas may be primarily internally animated from within the community, in ways that create longevity and sustainability. However, this underlying view of internally animated and enduring diasporas does not travel easily to the African context. Far from being internally animated, we argue that many African diasporas are significantly externally animated, by elites who are not part of the exiled population. These elites may be governments, private foundations or activists with political agendas. This role played by external animators is one that is frequently neglected within the existing literature.

If the currents which brought such activity into being dissipate, diasporic political mobilization will cease to have content, but organizations may nevertheless continue to stagger on, displaying much of the infrastructure of diasporic self-representation but without substantive political content or activity. Whilst it may remain in everyone’s interests to pretend the diaspora still exists, the emperor may have no – or very few – clothes.

This is an edited extracted from Mobilising the Diaspora: How Refugees Challenge Authoritarianism, published by Cambridge University Press. The book provides an original account of how diasporas become politically mobilized against authoritarian states, a detailed narrative of the Rwandan and Zimbabwean diasporas, and provides a new analysis of how outsiders affect diasporas.

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