(Ukrainian) diaspora can play an important role during and after the conflict

Ukraine has fallen victim to Russia's destructive attack. This has led 6 million (by 11.5.2022) Ukrainians fleeing the country in search of safety, adding up to the already-existing Ukrainian diaspora in Europe. Although for most this might be a temporary move, the Ukrainian diaspora can play a significant role in the country’s reconstruction after the war.

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Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash
Lukuaika: 4 min.

Authors: Élise Féron & Mari Toivanen

Over three months have passed since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. These months have included heart-breaking destruction, the extent of which the outside world is gradually starting to grasp. Russia’s military bombardments have hit both the military and civilian targets, including attacks on the infrastructure such as power plants, airports and train stations but also schools, theatres, hospitals, administration buildings and building blocks. 

The material reconstruction of the country will take years after the war. The war leaves deep scars on the people and those will take even longer to heal. Beyond physical recovery, people will need psychological assistance and help dealing with trauma. This is particularly the case of children, of those who have been sexually abused, and of those who have been trapped for days or weeks in basements and shelters. 

References to the reconstruction of Ukraine have started to multiply. Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy has called on G7 countries to support the rebuilding of the country. Some politicians have suggested using the seized Russian assets to cover the costs of rebuilding. The post-war reconstruction of Ukraine will certainly draw from prior experiences from other conflict-ridden societies (Becker et al. 2022). Similarly, examples from other conflict areas across the world show that diasporas can play multiple roles during and after the conflict, in helping the country back to its feet.

Lessons learnt from other conflict areas: during the conflict

Diasporas are usually sidelined in peace negotiations and post-conflict reconstruction. However, they can play a central role during the conflict. For instance, the pre-existing Ukrainian diaspora in Europe has mobilised in the form of solidarity networks with local actors to host, provide material assistance and to help the newly arrived refugees with practicalities related to bureaucracy.

Another way for the diasporas to play a role during the conflict is to influence the international public opinion, build political support and raise awareness of the situation in their home country. This can take place via advocacy, media campaigns, petitions, lobbying, petitions and demonstrations. For instance, the Ukrainian diaspora has organized numerous street demonstrations and awareness-raising events all over the world. Similar mobilisation was seen, for example, by the Kurdish diaspora communities during the siege of the small city of Kobane in Syria by ISIS in 2014. 

Diaspora members also often send money to their families during conflicts, which can help sustain livelihoods for those who are directly affected by the conflict – particularly when it persists. For instance, this was the case in Somalia in the 1990s, where diaspora members sustained family members’ and communities’ livelihoods during the two decades of conflict, famine and floods. The money sent back home by diaspora members was a lifeline to the country and helped keep it afloat. Other similar examples from Afghanistan, Somalia and Northern Ireland show that diasporas have taken part in philanthropic activities during the homeland conflict and raised humanitarian assistance for local populations in need.

Diasporas can help in many ways after the conflict is over

Even if the fighting continues, the gaze will gradually move towards post-war reconstruction (Becker et al. 2022). Diasporas from war-ridden societies have played an important role in such reconstruction efforts, in the form of economic remittances, investments, knowledge transfer, philanthropic work and so forth. 

Post-conflict rebuilding is often a good time for diasporas to invest heavily in their homelands. Such investment can revive business confidence and boost the economy. We know that diasporas often make investments and practice entrepreneurship towards the homeland, as was the case in Sri Lanka. They can also participate in development projects and provide assistance to foreign donors, as they did in Rwanda.

The support that diasporas can offer after the conflict can also be non-material and take the shape of knowledge transfer and of capacity-building. Through their advocacy work, they can help maintain the international community’s support for the country once the conflict has ended. In some cases, including in South Africa, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, diasporas have also lobbied for reconciliation and justice-seeking efforts, to foster healing between different communities torn apart by the war (Brinkerhoff 2011, 120-123).

Diaspora’s role depends on the stage of the conflict and how it finally ends

The role played by the diasporas depends on several factors and it has not been the same in all conflict areas mentioned above. Similarities exist in the role played by other diasporas and the Ukrainian diaspora concerning the ongoing conflict. However, it is still difficult to predict with certainty what role the Ukrainian diaspora will play after the war. 

One thing we do know from previous studies is the way the conflict ends will shape the diaspora’s engagement. If the war ends in a stalemate or in a defeat, the diaspora’s political advocacy and mobilization are likely to continue. If, however, the war is perceived as ending in a victory, then the diaspora’s energies are likely to be mostly focused on reconstruction, recovery and reconciliation (Østergaard-Nielsen 2006).

The Ukrainian diaspora will most likely witness a permanent growth as result of the current conflict. At the same time, as is often the case with refugees, most Ukrainians certainly aspire to return to Ukraine afterwards, depending on how long the conflict persists. However, what can be said with certainty is that the Ukrainian diaspora and its networks across Europe and beyond are forever changed by the ongoing war. How the role of this new Ukrainian diaspora shapes out to be in the post-war reconstruction remains still an open question. 

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Mari Toivanen (VTT) is a researcher at the University of Helsinki, Swedish School of Social Sciences. Her research expertise areas include diaspora politics, second generation, identity and ethnicity.

Élise Féron is a Docent and a Senior Research Fellow at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (Tampere University, Finland). Her main research interests include conflict-generated diaspora politics, gender and conflicts, as well as the multiple entanglements between conflict, violence and peace. She is currently in charge of the Academy of Finland Project “Diasporas and Transportation of Homeland Conflicts: Inter-group Dynamics and Host Country Responses” (2019-2023). 

References

Becker, T., B. Eichengreen, Y. Gorodnichenko, S. Guriev, S. Johnson, T. Mylovanov, K. Rogoff, and B. Weder di Mauro (2022). A Blueprint for the Reconstruction of Ukraine, CEPR Press. <https://voxeu.org/article/blueprint-reconstruction-ukraine>

Brinkerhoff, J. M. (2011). ”Diasporas and conflict societies: conflict entrepreneurs, competing interests or contributors to stability and development?”. Conflict, Security & Development, 11, 2, 115-143.

Toivanen, M. & Baser, B. (2019). Diaspora’s multiple roles in peace and conflict: A review of current debates. Migration Letters, 17, 1, 47-57. 

Østergaard-Nielsen, E. (2006). “Diasporas and Conflict Resolution – Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?” (Copenhagen, Danish Institute for International Studies Brief).