Multiple Homes and Parallel Civil Societies: Refugee Diasporas and Transnationalism

Article excerpt

Asylum seekers and refugees have been key players in the making of diasporas and transnational communities. The human rights approach to asylum seekers and refugees which appeared to be the hall mark of western states during the cold war era has disappeared. This "disappearance" has been clearly marked particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. Asylum is now increasingly perceived through the lens of migration and security issues. A pervasive national security oriented discourse advances the sacrifice of fundamental rights and freedoms not only for local populations but very systematically and effectively for refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants. Border controls, confinement and encampment of refugees, interdiction policies, "destitution as a threat to asylum seekers" and deportation are all mechanisms by which North America and "Fortress Europe", steadfastly attempt to prevent refugees and asylum seekers from reaching their shores.

These special issues of Refuge, the current one and the following one, dealing with refugee diasporas and transnationalism, are being published in this context. (1) Transnationalism as a phenomenon incorporates the economic, cultural and political practices of migrants, including refugees, who traverse several national borders. The terms diaspora and transnational have simultaneously become metaphors and categories that include various communities of displaced people, circulating migrants and people in limbo. While theorizing diaspora has a longer history, the "displacement" of the study of diaspora from history to area studies, cultural and literary studies and geography is relatively new. The conflation of studies in diaspora and transnationalism in the past decade has a symbolic representation in the title of a journal: "Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies". While this conflation opens up new and challenging areas for research enquiry, it also creates some conceptual confusion and at times, uncritical interchangeability of diaspora and the transnational in a simplified manner.

The proliferation of diasporic categories such as "labour diaspora", "asylum diaspora", "victim diaspora", "feminist diaspora", "military diaspora" and "refugee diasporas" underscores a crucial element in the nature of the diaspora: ambiguity. However, we need to be cautious in not eliminating the historical specificity of these diasporas. While there is certainly a convergence between diaspora and transnational communities, it is critically important to maintain a conceptual and analytical distinction between them. The term diaspora has historically been used to describe the experience of forced displacement and to analyze the social, cultural and political formations that result from this forced displacement. Transnational communities can be generally defined as communities living or belonging to more than one "national" space. The condition of forced migration is not necessarily a component of transnational communities. However, the distinction between diaspora and transnational is not always clear in social science literature. While some scholars have argued in favor of identifying a closed set of attributes and have been only minimally concerned with the actual conditions of diasporic existence, (2) others have preferred to use the term in the broader sense of human dispersal. (3)

The traditional naming and meaning of diasporas can be expanded to include several communities that express new identities and cultural practices as the result of displacement, hybridity and transnationality and mediated through economic transnationalism in the context of globalization. While recognizing that diasporas can eventually evolve into powerful transnational communities, it is sufficient to say that multiple and simultaneous ways of belonging and multiple ways of incorporation in the "home" and "host" countries is the one key theme that is common for both. This is the most important theme that animates the dynamics of transnational groups in the contemporary age. …