Diaspora Engagement in War-Torn Societies January 2011 – December 2015


Part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, this project explores the kind of community and society that may emerge from diaspora formation and engagement in conflict and post conflict settings. It traces the emergence of diasporas formed as a result of flight from conflict in Sri Lanka, the Somali regions and Afghanistan, investigating their socio-economic make-up, cohort and time of arrival, immigration status, and class, ethnic, generational, gender and other social cleavages, all of which shape diasporas’ capacity for engagement.

Mass refugee movements induced by conflict have contributed to the transformation of global society, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Substantial new diasporas have consolidated from these movements: the new social formations appear to be enduring and have undertaken a variety of forms of transnational activity, shaping both the societies in which diasporas find themselves and their home communities and societies.

While the role of diaspora in development has stimulated much debate over the last decade or so, it is only relatively recently that attention has turned to the influence of diasporas in war-torn societies. There has been a general shift in perception from ascribing diasporas a negative influence in fomenting and supporting conflict (as ‘war mongers’ or ‘peace-wreckers’) to the more positive view that they can assist with relief, peace-building, recovery and post-conflict reconstruction (as ‘peace-makers’ or ‘peace-builders’).  As is often the case, the reality is between the two, and the balance of forms of engagement shifts over time and according to circumstances.

Principal Investigator

Nicholas Van Hear


Giulia Liberatore (2014)
Leslie Fesenmyer (2013)


The Leverhulme Trust

Professionals' Advisory Group

The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Colombo, Sri Lanka


DiasporaNetworksTransnationalismWar and conflict


AfricaAsiaEuropeThe Americas


Having established the contours of diaspora formation in the three settings, the project traces three spheres of diaspora engagement, which range from the private to the increasingly public:

  • the largely private household and the extended family sphere, engagement in which is the most sustained of the three.  The most common and tangible form of engagement is sending money – remittances – and other resources to assist extended family members to survive, cope or recover in conflict settings.  Besides such transfers in cash and kind, diaspora members participate in life course events such as weddings and funerals either ‘virtually’ or in person. Such engagement may involve visits and other physical encounters, but online communication often replaces face-to-face physical connection.
  • the more public sphere of the ‘known community’, by which is meant collectivities of people that know or know of each other.  This is the realm of associational life: home town, home village and old school associations, faith groups, welfare organisations, and other community-based and civil society organizations, which can help war-torn communities to recover by providing public goods. Such activities can help repair the social fabric shredded by years of conflict, not least by helping to re-establish social linkages ruptured during war and re-building trust and confidence.
  • the largely public sphere of the ‘imagined community’, including ethnic, national and other collectivities to which one has an affinity without necessarily knowing their members personally. Engagement here includes involvement in and support for political parties and movements, insurgent or oppositional groups, participation in demonstrations and lobbying, and political, social or cultural debate in cyberspace. This sphere is usually the most volatile of the three and the least pervasive in terms of sustained participation: greater degrees of social mobilisation are required than for the more routine activities of the other spheres.

There is of course interplay among these different spheres, so that for example what happens in the imagined community sphere may shape what is possible in the community and household spheres. There are also tensions among the different spheres – diaspora members may find themselves pulled among obligations to their own family in the host country, to their own community in the host country, to those in the wider diaspora, to those left in the conflict-ridden homeland, and to the wider political struggle in the homeland.  Their capacity to meet these different calls varies according to their resources and social position, and may shift over time.

Theoretically, the research touches on the relationship between structure and agency; between force and choice in migration; between the local and global, the translocal and the transnational; and between material life and identity politics. It also contributes to debates on livelihoods in conflict, on networks, social capital and class, on social transformation, and on how power shifts and travels through local and global dispensations.


The project draws principally on data gathered over the last 15 years on the cases selected, supplemented by fresh data-gathering among Sri Lankans, Somalis and Afghans in various diaspora locations (principally the UK, Canada and continental Europe). Research methods include interviews among extended families and communities in the diaspora to capture the forms and range of transnational linkages, and interpretation of statistical and other quantitative data. Diaspora communities have been profiled to map their socio-economic conditions, experiences of conflict, linkages with home communities, and perceptions and engagement with home country in the past and currently.


Research findings in the three settings point to the kinds of community and society that emerge from diaspora formation and engagement in conflict and post-conflict settings.


Project findings will help inform wider understanding of the kind of community and society that may emerge from diaspora formation and engagement in conflict and post-conflict settings.