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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Diaspora: The Darker Side of Human Migration

"Diaspora" is a Greek word meaning "a scattering of people."

It originally referred to a specific historical event. The original source of the term grew out of the exile of the Jews from Israel in 607 B.C. by the Babylonians. During the centuries since, names and places have changed, but the significance of diaspora has not.
Over the last few decades the term “diaspora” has taken on two distinct connotations.
1. For some, its definition has been expanded to such a degree that it is being applied to any and every population group that has moved, for almost any reason at all. While it used to apply to ethnic or religious group migration, it is now connected to any kind of group including gender-based, political ideologies, and occupations.
2. For others, the term has taken a more conservative connotation meaning forced or compulsory displacement. This is the connotation that I feel is more valid.
Twenty years ago, diaspora had a definition that distinguished it from simple migration. It required that a group maintain a collective memory of their homeland and regard this ancestral homeland as their true home. These people are committed to the restoration of the homeland and plan to return there. These people also relate to the homeland to such a degree that it shapes their lives.
Having a continuing fondness for and identification with Ireland, doesn’t indicate that Irish-Americans are planning to return. Today there are almost 90 million people located in English speaking countries around the world who claim Irish ancestry. What percent of them are returning? During the 1800’s, 50 million Europeans left for the Americas - only a small minority could be considered as victims of diaspora.
I don’t believe that this definition alone addresses the most important aspect of diaspora, the cause of the migration. “Forced or compulsory displacement” is closer to the original meaning of the term. People experiencing direct political expulsion from their home country, refugees fleeing a persecuting regime, and slaves taken from their homeland to a new country, more closely match the definition I support.
Citizens who immigrated to a new land for the purpose of colonization cannot be considered a diaspora. Even those who migrated searching for a better life cannot be considered as victims of a diaspora. Religious differences in their home country (the Puritans) or even the presence of famine (Ireland) does not fit the concept of forced or compulsory displacement.
Temporary forced “relocation” does not represent diaspora either. When the Nazis sent people to death camps during the war years, they were there to die. There was no migration. Those sent to work camps were not going to be returned to their homelands after a German victory, they were going to die as well. As tragic as the Holocaust was, it was not an example of diaspora.
So, using my more conservative definition of forced migration, what are some examples of diaspora throughout history?
The largest and most complete example in history was the capture and enslavement of an estimated 10-12 million people from Africa. For 300 years they were brought to colonized areas in the Americas as slaves. At one time or another, the United States and nearly every major European power was engaged in African slave trafficking.
In the United States during the 19th Century, Native American tribes were continually forced to move westward, usually accompanied by soldiers to guarantee their compliance. Their lands were repeatedly confiscated and used for white Americans.
Not all examples of diaspora occurred long ago. The 20th Century has had its share of forced and compulsory displacement.
In 1915, Turkey went through a period of expanding nationalism and took forceful action against its neighbor, Armenia. Although denied by them, the Turks attempted to eradicate the Armenian nation. It is now known as the “Armenian Genocide.” One million Armenians were killed, but another million were dispersed around the world - the Armenian Diaspora.
From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Joseph Stalin sent millions of Soviets to Siberia. Some went as a punishment (not a diaspora) while most people were forced into migration to work to develop this region.
After World War II, when the Iron Curtin descended across Europe, hundreds of thousands of political refugees were compelled to migrate west. About this same time, the Soviets expelled many thousands of ethnic Germans who had been living in eastern Europe for over 200 years. This was in revenge for the slaughter of Russian civilians by the Nazis.
In 1947 the partition of Pakistan and India forced millions to migrate one way or the other. This was accompanied by almost two million fatalities.
With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, neighboring Islamic nations forced one million Jewish people living within their borders to resettle in the new state. At nearly the same time, the first Arab-Israeli War displaced 700,000 Palestinians, many of whom have descendants living in the same refugee camps.
After the communist takeover in Cuba in 1959, more than one million people were compelled to migrate elsewhere.
In the mid-1970’s in Cambodia, The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot expelled 30,000 ethnic French, 364,000 ethnic Chinese, and 244,000 ethnic Vietnamese from the country (then used genocide to eliminate the Muslim Cham people).
In 1972, Uganda expelled 80,000 Asians.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, more than 6 million Afgans were forcefully displaced. This created the largest refugee population in the world.
Not all diaspora results in people migrating outside of a country. During the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983, more than 800,000 internal immigrants were displaced.
The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 forced hundreds of thousands of people into migrating to neighboring countries.
The practice of forced human migration has been around for a long time, and it is still here and will continue. No single nation or group of nations can make a serious attempt to end it. All we can seem to do is care for the refugees it produces.

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