The Importance of Defending Diaspora Activism for Democracy and Human Rights
Diaspora activism can be impactful. But transnational repression can deter, silence, and punish those who engage in the fight for rights from afar.
Activists in authoritarian states face steep costs in working for democracy and human rights, and for many, their only hope to survive is to escape abroad. When survivors of state violence secure refuge in democracies, they gain the opportunity to continue their activism and express their voices in new ways. Diaspora activists, in turn, play a number of important roles in the global fight for transparency, freedom, and human dignity. As this report details, these roles include spreading awareness about regime abuses, assisting dissidents working on the ground, launching protests, pursuing justice, demanding that their host-country governments pressure sending states on issues of rights and reform, and empowering diaspora communities themselves.
Yet, while diaspora activists—which I define broadly here as any émigré, exile, refugee, or emigrant advocating for social, economic, and political change in their country of origin—are relatively safe compared to those in their home countries, the operation and effects of transnational repression can curb their freedoms, and even threaten their physical safety. As the other authors in this collection elaborate, regimes are in fact widely guilty of repressing their diasporas by kidnapping and assassinating opponents abroad, surveilling and monitoring their activities, withdrawing student scholarships and confiscating their passports, controlling their lawful civic engagement, and punishing their family members at home. So, while diaspora activism can be impactful, all of these tactics can effectively deter, silence, and punish independent voices abroad.
This essay discusses how diaspora activism promotes democracy and human rights, the negative effects of transnational repression on their mobilizations, and the critical need for authorities to protect at-risk communities.
The Roles of Diaspora Activists in Fighting for Democracy and Human Rights
Diaspora activists perform a number of vital roles in the fight for democracy and human rights.1 One of their major contributions is to publicize information that regimes seek to repress. Inspired by the onset of the regional uprising known as the Arab Spring, for instance, diaspora activists from countries such as Libya, Yemen, and Syria undertook a wide range of supportive roles in the uprisings.2 These included holding teach-ins at universities, speaking to the media, and using the internet to document events on the ground.3 This work often takes place in partnership with dissidents working in the home country, who relay information from areas off-limits to foreign journalists to their contacts in the diaspora.4 By connecting dissidents to global media outlets directly, diaspora activists help those under siege to overcome their isolation, inform the global public about events that remain heavily repressed and censored, and provide an alternative to the regime’s monopoly over information.
- 1Steven Vertovec, “The Political Importance of Diasporas,” Migration Policy Institute, June 1, 2005, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/political-importance-diasporas.
- 2Dana M. Moss, “Voice after Exit: Explaining Diaspora Mobilization for the Arab Spring,” Social Forces, June 18, 2019, https://academic.oup.com/sf/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/sf/soz….
- 3“Blood Flows as Libya's Gaddafi Cracks Down on Protest,” TIME, February 17, 2011, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2049945,00.html.
- 4Carmen Cox, “DC Protestors Show Support for Libyans Outside of White House,” ABC News Radio, February 22, 2011, http://abcnewsradioonline.com/national-news/tag/libyan-americans; Carmen Cox, “Libyan-Americans Call For UN Intervention in Libya,” ABC News Radio, February 22, 2011, http://abcnewsradioonline.com/national-news/tag/libyan-americans.
While diaspora activists are relatively safe compared to those in their home countries, the operation and effects of transnational repression can curb their freedoms, and even threaten their physical safety
Another tactic used by diaspora activists to raise awareness is to protest against visiting dignitaries, such as during Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, DC, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s speech in Brussels in 2017.1 Doing so refutes the regimes’ frequent claim that autocrats have the universal support of their people. Protests draw attention to regime repression and crimes against humanity, which calls leaders’ legitimacy into question. Protests also provide a counter-presence to pro-regime demonstrations, which are often coordinated by regimes in advance to create positive publicity and enforce loyalty. From the Libyan regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi to China under Xi Jinping, officials have been known to pay for students to provide an adoring welcome to visiting leaders.2 Accordingly, the physical presence of critical voices on the streets brings visibility to those with rightful grievances against dictatorships.
Diaspora activists also play an integral role in the pursuit of justice. By taking their claims to court, diaspora activists lead initiatives to prosecute torturers and war criminals. As scholar Claire Beaugrand writes, “in October 2014, a Bahraini who was granted asylum in the United Kingdom obtained a court decision stating that the son of the King of Bahrain, educated in Sandhurst and frequently traveling to the UK, did not enjoy state immunity from prosecution over a torture claim. This established that even an offense committed outside of the country can still be prosecuted in the UK.”3 Syrian refugees in Germany are likewise providing key testimony to prosecute members of the Assad regime for mass torture.4 The ability of these dissidents and survivors to pursue justice is critical for upholding the rule of law and human rights norms. It also signals to abusers that they are not untouchable.
Diaspora activists also play a key role in demanding that host-country governments implement democratic and human rights reforms. Diaspora testimony from the Uyghur community, for instance, undergirded a widely supported resolution in the European Parliament (2019/2945[RSP]) on abuses by the Chinese regime, which
"...expressed deep concern over reports of harassment of Uyghurs abroad by the Chinese authorities in order to force them to act as informants against other Uyghurs, return to Xinjiang or remain silent about the situation there, sometimes by detaining their family members. The resolution calls on the EU to step up its efforts to protect Uyghur residents and EU citizens in member states from harassment and intimidation by the Chinese authorities."5
Diaspora associations and organizations additionally address suffering in their places of origin. Syrian diaspora organizations have been working tirelessly to deliver ambulances and medicine and perform trauma surgeries in the country’s liberated zones, improve sanitation and water-delivery systems, staff and fund schools, and provide shelter and generators to refugees.6 This is especially important because the Assad regime has hampered delivery by the International Red Crescent, preventing aid from being delivered to civilians in so-called enemy zones.7 As regulated not-for-profit organizations, diaspora groups help to fill in this gap, both by channeling donations to emergency responders and working directly on the ground to assist survivors. Diaspora remittances therefore can provide literal lifelines for people suffering in their homelands and in refugee camps.
Diaspora organizations, in turn, empower the diaspora itself. The Syrian American Council, for instance, trains its members in how to lobby their elected representatives and encourages Syrian Americans to register to vote. A Saudi organization called ALQST, founded by regime defector Yahya Assiri, conducts seminars aimed at educating fellow Saudis about their human rights. Their websites also provide the confidential means for Saudis residing anywhere in the world to report regime abuses and receive help. Diaspora activists from places like Eritrea also run their own media campaigns on cable television or social media.8 It comes as no surprise that diaspora organizations can facilitate the engagement of their members with democratic norms, endowing “immigrants with a renewed sense of efficacy and self-worth that facilitates their integration into the political institutions of their new country,” as migration scholars Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, Alejandro Portes, and William Haller argue.9
- 1“'Erdoğan's bodyguards' in violent clash with protesters in Washington DC,” The Guardian, May 17, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/17/erdogans-bodyguards-in-vi…; JAMBO Asbl, “#KagameGetOut: Large protest against Paul Kagame in Brussels,” video, June 27, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tS4tVppOTvM.
- 2Evan Hill, “Libyans in US allege coercion,” Al Jazeera, February 17, 2011, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/02/%202011217184949502493.ht…; Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “China’s Long Arm Reaches Into American Campuses,” Foreign Policy, March 7, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/07/chinas-long-arm-reaches-into-ameri….
- 3Claire Beaugrand, “Activism and Nationalism among the Third Bahraini Wave of Exile,” Mashriq & Mahjar 3, no. 2, April 1, 2016: 98, https://lebanesestudies.ojs.chass.ncsu.edu/index.php/mashriq/article/vi….
- 4Deborah Amos, Noel King, Patrick Kroker, and Wafa Mustapha, “Syrian War Crimes Trial Resumes In Germany,” Morning Edition, May 21, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/05/21/859991380/syrian-war-crimes-trial-resume….
- 5Amnesty International, “China: Uyghurs Abroad Living in Fear,” February 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2020/02/china-uyghurs-abroad….
- 6Eva Svoboda and Sara Pantuliano, “International and Local/Diaspora Actors in the Syria Response,” Humanitarian Policy Group, March 2015, https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opin….
- 7Emma Beals and Nick Hopkins, “Aid groups suspend cooperation with UN in Syria because of Assad ‘influence,’” The Guardian, September 8, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/08/aid-groups-un-syria-conce….
- 8Abraham T. Zere, “The Eritrean Diaspora is Unsettling its Autocratic Regime through Social Media,” Toward Freedom, April 9, 2019, https://towardfreedom.org/story/archives/africa-archives/the-eritrean-d….
- 9Luis Eduardo Guarnizo, Alejandro Portes, and William Haller, "Assimilation and Transnationalism: Determinants of Transnational Political Action among Contemporary Migrants," American Journal of Sociology 108, no. 6, May 2003: 1239, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/375195.
The Effects of Transnational Repression on Diaspora Activism
Despite the seeming prevalence of diaspora activism, however, my and others’ research demonstrates that transnational repression simultaneously erects a barrier to engaging lawful activism.1 As discussed above by other authors in this collection, tactics used by foreign governments to repress their critics abroad—including assassinations, the proxy punishment of family members, surveillance on- and offline, death and rape threats, and slander, among other means—cast a long shadow over diaspora communities. While some are willing to risk or endure these costs, activists also report that many of their co-nationals are too fearful to risk retribution.
Identifying exactly what percentage of a given diaspora is effectively cowed into silence is a major challenge. Transnational repression can pressure diaspora members into appearing “as if” they are loyal to regimes, to borrow Professor Lisa Wedeen’s phrasing.2 As a 2020 Amnesty International report details, “Uyghurs living in [the] diaspora overseas have generally been very reluctant to talk about their detained or missing relatives in Xinjiang, fearing possible retaliation against either themselves or other relatives in Xinjiang. About two-thirds of those who spoke to Amnesty International requested anonymity, citing fear of reprisals from the authorities.” Accordingly, fear of reporting one’s true opinions—even to outside researchers touting anonymous surveys—can prevent diaspora members from revealing critical and nuanced views.
When fears of transnational repression are widely pervasive, activists report that their co-nationals become reluctant to join organizations promoting progressive change. After the initial founding of the Syrian American Council in 2005, for example, activists reported that recruiting Syrian Americans into the organization was virtually impossible. As a California-based organizer said in an interview,
I tried contacting a few people to encourage them to be part of it. Not a single person that I know who I contacted agreed to. . . . Every time they talked to people, people didn’t want to do it because they understood . . . the consequence would’ve been very severe if you were visiting Syria or [the Syrian Intelligence] might visit your family members in Syria.3
Transnational repression also perpetuates mistrust between diaspora members because individuals worry about being subjected to surveillance. Mounting evidence demonstrates that individuals from China have indeed been coerced into spying on their co-nationals.4 As Amnesty International reports, “Not knowing who among them might be reporting back to Chinese security agents plants seeds of suspicion and mistrust that take root and further feed the sense of isolation and fear.”5 This curbs the practice of free assembly and association, and the circulation of ideas between diaspora members, severely inhibiting their potential to act as a collective force for democracy and human rights.
It is no wonder that diaspora members report engaging in self-censorship.6 Tragically, this can lead victims of transnational repression to purposefully avoid alerting local law enforcement about threats to their personal safety. One such Syrian living in Sweden told the newspaper Dagens Nyheter that “she knows of 17 other people who have received threats. All of them suspect that the Syrian regime is behind them but few have dared to report the incidents to the Swedish authorities.”7 Transnational repression also impacts the ability of diaspora members to engage in independent journalism. One Toronto-based journalist for a Chinese-language newspaper, for instance, reported that her parents in China were harassed for her work, and that “I don’t feel there is free speech here. I can’t report freely.”8
Regime threats also curb the ability of foreign universities to serve as places of free thought and independent learning. In Australia, Chinese-born lecturers and students have suffered repercussions because of comments they made in classrooms, and in the United States, a graduating senior named Yang Shuping was harassed for praising the University of Maryland in College Park for teaching her about “free speech.”9 As a Foreign Policy report recently revealed, staff at the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, praised a group of students from the local regime-approved student group for censuring Shuping.10 All of the students who spoke to Foreign Policy about state interference on university campuses requested anonymity out of concern for themselves and their families.
Lastly, transnational repression makes attending even the most banal public demonstration a potentially high-risk activity. In Washington, DC, Kurdish protesters and local police were violently attacked by Erdoğan’s Turkish bodyguards during the president’s visit in May 2017. Some demonstrators require police protection just to hold silent vigils. In one of many cases, Abdurehim Gheni, a well-known Uyghur activist in the Netherlands, has been physically harassed and received death threats from persons suspected of working with the Chinese intelligence services.11
Threats against the exercise of basic rights and freedoms not only harm individuals but effectively force the majority of a diaspora into silence. This places the burden of diaspora activism on the shoulders of an exiled minority. It also limits activism by making their organizations less representative of the diverse opinions present within a diaspora community. So, while diaspora activism has the potential to flourish in democracies, transnational repression can suppress the ability for an anti-regime community to work as a force for change.
- 1Dana M. Moss, “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization, and the Case of The Arab Spring,” Social Problems 63, no. 4, November 2016, https://academic.oup.com/socpro/article/63/4/480/2402855.
- 2Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, And Symbols In Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo22776830.html
- 3Personal interview with the author, August 2014.
- 4Uyghur Human Rights Project, “UHRP REPORT: Repression Across Borders: The CCP’s Illegal Harassment and Coercion of Uyghur Americans,” August 28, 2019, https://uhrp.org/press-release/new-uyghur-human-rights-project-uhrp-rep….
- 5Amnesty International, “China: Uyghurs Abroad Living in Fear,” February 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2020/02/china-uyghurs-abroad….
- 6Kenneth Roth, “China’s Global Threat to Human Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/china-global-threat-to-human-righ….
- 7Amnesty International, “Syria: The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat: Violence and Harassment against Syrians Abroad and Their Relatives Back Home,” October 3, 2011, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/MDE24/057/2011/en/.
- 8Kenneth Roth, “China’s Global Threat to Human Rights,” Human Rights Watch, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/china-global-threat-to-human-righ….
- 9John Garnaut, “Chinese Spies at Sydney University,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 21, 2014, https://www.smh.com.au/national/chinese-spies-at-sydney-university-2014…; Simon Denyer and Congcong Zhang, “A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash,” The Washington Post, May 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/05/23/a-chinese-….
- 10Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “China’s Long Arm Reaches into American Campuses,” Foreign Policy, March 7, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/07/chinas-long-arm-reaches-into-ameri….
- 11Amnesty International, “China: Uyghurs Abroad Living in Fear,” February 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2020/02/china-uyghurs-abroad….
The Need for Protection
Taken together, diaspora activism plays a critically important role in promoting democracy and human rights. However, transnational repression not only threatens diaspora members’ legal rights and civil liberties but also the rule of law, state sovereignty, and international human rights norms. It is therefore vital for host-country governments to recognize the elevated threats and risks associated with diaspora activism so that they can proactively support and protect these communities. Local and national enforcement agencies need to be made aware of the potential threats against diaspora organizations and activists, and communicate with community leaders about how to lodge complaints. Governments must also provide the fullest possible protections to diaspora activists and their organizations through legislation, which is needed to sanction regimes for atrocities and protect diaspora communities from threats and interference. Universities, which often depend financially on international students, must be vigilant in ensuring that student groups follow the law and that students at risk for harassment are protected. Because diaspora activists are essential actors in the global struggle for democracy and human rights, protecting their civil liberties remains a central responsibility of authorities today and in the future.
About the author:
Dana M. Moss is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana USA.
This essay is a part of the collection entitled "Perspectives on “Everyday” Transnational Repression in an Age of Globalization." Download the complete PDF for the full collection.