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Examining the transnational political life of refugees

President Jacob Zuma welcomes President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at the Global African Diaspora Summit, Johannesburg, South Africa © CC Flick / Government ZA / 2012
President Jacob Zuma welcomes President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe at the Global African Diaspora Summit, Johannesburg, South Africa

RSC Team: Professor Alexander Betts and Dr Will Jones (now Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Royal Holloway University of London)

This project, which forms part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, explores the political life of refugees. More specifically, it examines how refugee diasporas mobilise to contest authoritarian regimes. The absence of opportunity for political contestation at home often means that the most relevant politics for the homeland state takes place transnationally, and in exile. This project examines the process of political mobilisation. In particular it explores how refugee diasporas come into existence, and develop particular agendas and political strategies, with different degrees of effectiveness. The project examines two cases, both from Africa: Zimbabwe and Rwanda. In both cases, it examines the contemporary transnational history of political mobilisation in exile, both by opposition and pro-government diasporas.

Based on extensive multi-sited fieldwork carried out over two years in South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, the UK, Belgium, and France, the project traces the recent historical evolution of these transnational communities. It shows how, far from being static or permanent, diasporas are inherently political entities that have dynamic ‘lifecycles’: they are born, they live, they die, and they even have afterlives. Their existence and the forms they take are historically and politically contingent. Crucially, these lifecycles, and the durability of the diaspora, are determined not by the inherent qualities of the diaspora but by the role of elite ‘animators’, who make resources available to the diaspora.

Overall, the project takes up the challenge made by other scholars of diasporas. On an empirical level, we contribute two untold and important transnational political histories: of the Rwandan (2003–2013) and Zimbabwean (2001–2013) diasporas. On a theoretical level, the project offers insights into how political science and international relations can better conceptualise transnational politics in the early twenty-first century. The main output of the project is a book entitled Mobilising the Diaspora: How Refugees Challenge Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Selected publications