Refugees: the new diaspora in Europe Brookings Institution

Mobility is nowadays an important characteristic of globalisation (Hylland 2014, 101). Humans have been moving from one place to another for thousands of years.However it has been since the rise of globalisation that mobility has grown faster and now it represents an important part of our lives. We commute every day to work. We often take a plane that will land just a few hours later in another continent. Nonetheless, in addition to physical mobility, social mobility is another reality that should be taken into consideration.

Refugee, transnational migration, and diaspora are distinct but interrelated concepts. While we cannot analyse them detached from the complexity that globalisation brings to mobility, forms of transnational migration (including the movement of refugees) can be seen as stages towards a diaspora where a hybrid relation between the homeland and the new home cohabit together, and where physical mobility takes place with social mobility.

In today’s world, there are many concepts used to describe human mobility, being economic migrants and refugees two of the most discussed. Both concepts have mobility as the core of their definition, but the reasons behind that mobility are distinct. The war in Syria and the humanitarian crisis in several countries in Africa have increased the flow of people seeking refuge from their home countries, leading to stringent homeland security measures by the host countries. It is this process of globalisation that James refers to. He argues that this is the cause for tensions within cosmopolitan societies (2014, 208), which can be translated into the rise of anti-migration policies.

The ethno-religious discrimination that refugees face can often be seen in other concepts applied to human mobility. Migrants are often not intergrated by their host societies, leaving many in a precariat situation, where they lack labor security (Mosoetsa et al. 2016, 7). In this case, the transnationalism that Portes refers to could be an opportunity to overcome their precariat situation (2001, 188). However, Portes fails to consider the difficulties in contexts, such as the Syrian one, where the homeland is embroiled in war, thus inhibiting refugees from establishing the economic partnerships necessary for transnational enterprises that empower them.

The first generation of refugees to achieve this social mobility could fit into Basch’s definition of transmigrants (Portes 2001, 182). If we take into account the traveling term of diaspora (Clifford 1994, 302), we can compare the current situation of the Syrian refugees in Europe to the situation of the first displacements suffered by Jewish and Armenian communities.

Those now-called diasporic communities fled their homeland due to persecution and genocide centuries ago (Safran 1991, 84). At that time there was no definition of refugee, but today Jews and Armenians would be seen as refugees. However, they were able to achieve social mobility in their host societies, over a transnational community status. Nevertheless, despite being dispersed and far from their homeland, they kept their traditions and allegiance to a place that many might  have never seen (“long-distance nationalism” (Brubaker 2005, 2), but has persisted in the memory through generations via  a “postmemory phenomena” (Hee Chi Kim, 2007, 339).

Despite the fact that diaspora members are seen as “strangers within the gates”, the diaspora communities were able to achieve a hybridity level that allows them to live integrated, but not assimilated, in their new home. The diaspora communities have now an important role in the countries where they are living. It is also a fact that they can be exploited and manipulated by both the home and the host country, as it was the case of the use of American Jews by the US government during President Jimmy Carter to exert pressure on Israel. However, the “triangular relationship” between the diaspora community, the home state and the host state (Safran 1991, 92) can also result in members attaining a level of respected social status similar to native citizens, thus enabling both states to develop stronger economic, political and even cultural ties.

By exploring these three main concepts - refugee, transnational migration and diaspora - we can see that there is a correlation between them. With the right opportunities, and the maintenance of a strong connection to their homeland, current diasporas where refugees once lived in precarity were able to achieve the status of transnational migrants.  After generations without losing their allegiance to their homeland, they have become part of the diaspora, that is now more socially respected.

What started with physical mobility in search of a new home with better conditions, ended as social mobility where refugees achieved a similar social status to the natives, some even reaching the local elites. I argue that European politicians should stop pushing for the assimilation (cultural, political, religious, economic) of new refugees, but instead give them the opportunity to express their own traditions and keep their ties with their homeland. Soon they could become transnational entrepreneurs and the next generations could be seen as an important diaspora community in Europe, capable of influencing and bringing achievements to the old continent as well improvements to their homeland.



Brubaker, R. 2005. “The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(1): 1–19.

Clifford, J. 1994. “Diasporas”. Cultural Anthropology 9(3): 302–338.

Hylland Eriksen, T. 2014. “Globalization: the key concepts”. ‘Mobility’. Bloomsbury.

James, P. 2014. “Faces of globalization and the borders of states: from asylum seekers to citizens”. Citizenship Studies. 18:2. 208-223. DOI: 10.1080/13621025.2014.886440.

Mosoetsa, S., J. Stillerman and C. Tilly. 2016. “Precarious Labor, South and North: an introduction”. Precarious Labor in Global Perspectives - International Labor and Working-Class History. Volume 89. pp. 5-19. Electronic journal UL.

Portes, A. 2001. ‘Introduction: The Debates and Significance of Immigrant Transnationalism’. Global Networks 1 3): 181-193.

Safran, W. 1991. ‘Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return’. Diaspora 1(1): 83–97.

So Hee Chi Kim, S. 2007. ‘Redefining Diaspora through a Phenomenology of Postmemory’. Diaspora 16(3): 337-352.