August 19, 2022
How diasporas can help tackle protracted displacement

The following think-piece shares lessons from the TRAFIG project, a Horizon 2020 research project that concluded in June 2022, of which ICMPD was a partner. Given the relevance of the research for the EUDiF audience, in this guest blog, our ICMPD colleague Caitlin Katsiaficas reflects on how diasporas can help tackle the challenge of protracted displacement.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the global Ukrainian diaspora quickly sprang into action, playing a strong and visible role in supporting their compatriots newly displaced by conflict both inside and outside of the country. Such transnational connections also play a significant role in supporting people facing protracted displacement situations, i.e. when people find themselves in a long-term situation of insecurity, lacking or denied opportunities to rebuild their lives. According to UNHCR, nearly 16 million people find themselves in this situation.

To see how policies and practices can be improved to better address this challenge, the EU-funded Transfigurations of Displacement (TRAFIG) research project investigated the role of networks for people in protracted displacement situations. Over the course of three years, the TRAFIG team conducted over 2,700 interviews with displaced persons, policymakers, and practitioners in 11 countries across East Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. These included a survey of 1,900 displaced persons: Congolese people displaced within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and people who moved from their countries of origin to Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Jordan and Pakistan.

A key conclusion stemming from this research was that transnational networks help shape the lives of displaced persons, meaning that they are vital in the search for solutions. This article shares what role transnational networks play, how diasporas can ramp up support for their displaced compatriots, and what policymakers can do to tap into this valuable resource to expand access to solutions.

What did TRAFIG find?

According to the TRAFIG survey of displaced individuals:

  • 42% maintained contact with at least 1 person in another country, whether in their origin country or a third country, highlighting how embedded displaced people are in transnational networks. How common it was to have transnational connections did vary by country and also by setting: Forced migrants in Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, and Jordan, as well as those living in cities, more often had transnational networks, while those in the DRC and Pakistan or living in camps rarely had such long-distance networks.
  • Overall, 1 in 5 had received financial assistance from a transnational connection, although this form of support was more common for those who lived outside of camps, lived in cities, were male, or had a tertiary education. 8% sustained themselves through this transnational support – though this was much higher in some places (24% in Ethiopia) – highlighting the potential of financial assistance to serve as a lifeline for displaced persons. Additionally, many relied on financial support in combination with other livelihood strategies such as (in)formal jobs and aid. Financial assistance helped displaced people afford food, a place to stay, education, daily costs, and health and other emergencies, and sometimes even enabled their entrepreneurial endeavours.

Additionally, TRAFIG’s qualitative interviews found that:

  • Beyond financial support, transnational contacts provide emotional support, information, and advice, and can sometimes even pave the way to a third country through family reunification, refugee sponsorship, or assistance with an irregular journey.
  • Many displaced persons want to follow their networks, but this is often difficult. Displaced people often face a choice between remaining where they are, even though they remain in a precarious position, or attempting a dangerous, irregular journey onward.

While displaced persons seek to tap into their networks within and across countries, TRAFIG researchers found that the quality of connections, rather than the quantity, was particularly important in shaping the support and opportunities they could or could not provide. Furthermore, while family, relatives, and friends were the most important contacts for displaced persons, organisations have also stepped in to help build and strengthen networks. For instance, migrant-led organisations and religious groups have provided places to network and obtain assistance, and several initiatives support refugee entrepreneurs through mentorship, networking, and other activities. Such activities point to the key roles that both individual diaspora members and diaspora organisations can play in helping those stuck in protracted displacement.

In the words of the interviewees themselves:

“Thanks to God, I also have cousins in Juba, Canada and the US who support my survival and pay my kids’ school fees.” –Eritrean refugee interviewed in Ethiopia

“…my younger brother is also in Pakistan, my brothers in Canada say that they can call only one family to live with them. So, it’s not decided yet whether my family or my younger brother’s family will go to Canada.” –Afghan refugee interviewed in Pakistan

“I am dependent on remittances from my cousins. I opened a bar having saved the small amount of money I periodically receive from them to be at least gradually self-reliant.” –Eritrean refugee interviewed in Ethiopia

The research, however, also uncovered limitations to networks. Displaced persons may be vulnerable to ruptures in their networks, when, for instance, a relative abruptly stops providing financial assistance or an outbreak of violence cuts off communication. Additionally, the quality of support that family and other ties can provide depends on their resources, as well as on government policies that support or restrict refugees’ opportunities. In other words, the presence of networks alone may not be enough to get ahead. Furthermore, there may be divisions within diasporas that limit the desire for action by individuals or organisations in the diaspora, and not everyone may want to engage with diaspora groups or co-nationals.

What does this mean for diasporas?

The role that diasporas can play in providing aid in various forms, such as leading advocacy campaigns, sending money and goods, or volunteering, is well documented. Both EUDiF’s research on diaspora humanitarian response and TRAFIG’s research findings underscore the importance of keeping people connected and highlight that diasporas can be important players in networking. In this regard, TRAFIG highlights two other ways that diasporas can support those in long-term situations of displacement:

Supporting livelihoods. Diaspora members and organisations can support displaced persons’ livelihoods in a myriad of ways. For instance, the team saw many instances in Greece and Italy in which co-nationals helped newcomers to find jobs, whether this meant offering them advice, acting as intermediaries, or hiring them directly. For displaced entrepreneurs, financial assistance can constitute a vital source of start-up capital, as the TRAFIG team saw in Ethiopia and Tanzania. Moreover, the diaspora can provide a ready customer base, as was the case for refugee-led businesses in Tanzania exporting Congolese and Tanzanian clothing and food to the Congolese diaspora in the United States. Transnational networks can also create business opportunities for those displaced to neighbouring host countries such as Tanzania, where some Congolese refugees earn a living by importing food, jewellery, and purses from their origin country. Broadly speaking, diasporas can scale up livelihood support by helping newcomers to find employment, hiring compatriots, providing financial and technical assistance for (prospective) entrepreneurs, encouraging financial assistance for the purpose of business building, or frequenting businesses owned by their fellow diaspora members, among other activities.

Facilitating mobility. Another way the diaspora has played an important role is by using legal migration channels to bring displaced compatriots to a place where they have better prospects and the ability to secure a sustainable solution. Family reunification is the most obvious way for displaced persons to tap into their ties in Europe and elsewhere. Researchers in Germany spoke with many refugees who arrived via family reunification, as well as through the country’s humanitarian admissions programmes, which also rely on family ties. Overall, however, such opportunities are scarce and could be expanded –  a potential area for diaspora advocacy efforts. Increasing momentum behind community/private sponsorship is also something that the diaspora could explore to translate ties into migration pathways – particularly if sponsors are able to name the person they wish to sponsor, as is the case with Canada’s programme. Through these initiatives, diasporas could play a larger role in helping people arrive as well as settle in (including supporting their labour market integration, as mentioned above).

How can policymakers help?

Over the years, diasporas have come to be recognised as a powerful force. It is clear that diaspora engagement is an important opportunity to support aid and sustainable development and that diasporas contribute valuable knowledge, resources, and networks. These are also vital for expanding solutions to global displacement. Policymakers should acknowledge the importance of transnational networks for solutions to (protracted) displacement, whether displaced persons remain in their country of origin, in the neighbouring region, or farther away. Governments should embrace diaspora participation and create an enabling environment for them to amplify and complement government efforts. They can do this by:

Supporting diasporas. Policymakers can support and fund efforts to build connections among diaspora members and organisations, as well as across diasporas. Reinforcing and diversifying such connections facilitates the sharing of ideas, strengthening of coordination, and building of capacity to scale up much-needed support. Additionally, policymakers can allocate or increase funding for technical assistance, knowledge exchange, and other capacity-building support for diaspora-, refugee-, and migrant-led groups, especially those from newer or less represented communities.

Tapping into diaspora expertise. The above activities can support diasporas in more systematically injecting their knowledge, helping to ensure that policies and programmes impacting displaced persons are well informed. Policymakers should actively seek diaspora input on issues such as solutions to displacement (whether in origin countries, countries of first asylum, or third countries), as well as humanitarian, development, and integration activities. This includes connecting diasporas with humanitarian, development, and integration agencies to seek input and to fund diaspora activities in these areas. There should be appropriate compensation in this regard, also to enable those with fewer resources to participate.

Leveraging diaspora ties. Broadening and speeding up family reunification is one way that policymakers can leverage personal ties to increase opportunities for displaced persons. Implementing or expanding community sponsorship schemes, especially those that allow sponsors to name who they wish to bring, can help people bring more distant relatives and other diaspora members – and help these (and other) newcomers to settle in.

Achieving greater impact

An increasingly globalised world offers many forms of connectivity, also after displacement. Policies that neglect the importance of transnational ties for displaced people miss out on important opportunities to find sustainable solutions to displacement. In this context, diasporas can play a larger role in supporting their displaced compatriots, whether they have moved to the same country or remain in a different one. Policymakers are well advised to recognise this and to proactively reach out to diasporas as well-placed intermediaries.

Further reading

Policy brief – Creating a way out of the maze: Supporting sustainable futures for displaced persons, 2022

Policy handbook – Strengthening policy responses to protracted displacement, 2022

Synthesis report – Nothing is more permanent than the temporary: Understanding protracted displacement and people’s own responses, 2022

Commentary – Connecting the dots: Understanding community sponsorship as a network, 2021

Policy brief – Networks and mobility: A case for complementary pathways, 2021

Policy brief – Starting up and starting over: How networking can enable refugee entrepreneurs to regain livelihoods in East Africa, 2021

The TRAFIG project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant No. 822453.

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