A cultural exchange

Dr Khalid Koser

Around one in 35 people in the world today are migrants. While their presence can stir up strong emotions and provide a challenge to deeply held ideas of national identity, diaspora communities have a unique role to play in shaping and bridging the cultures of both their home and their host countries  

Diaspora means different things to different people. Traditionally, the term was used to describe the scattering of a population across the world in response to a catastrophic event – the dispersal of Jews following the destruction of the First Temple, for example, or the 12 million Africans transported overseas as part of the slave trade or, more recently (and controversially, at least in Franco-Turkish relations), the Armenian diaspora. Increasingly, the term has lost its historical connotations, and is now generally used to refer to migrant populations living abroad more or less permanently, but maintaining some contact with their country of origin. Interestingly, research in the UK shows that many migrant communities are also adopting this label for themselves, as it does not (yet) carry the regrettably negative connotations of terms like asylum seeker, migrant or ethnic minority. 

To understand the potential of modern diasporas to connect cultures, it is first necessary to grasp just how large and widely dispersed migrant populations are today. It has been estimated that there are around 220 million international migrants (defined as people living outside their home country for at least one year); this is roughly the equivalent of the population of Indonesia, the fourth most populous country on Earth, and means that one in every 35 people in the world today is a migrant (or, indeed, an Indonesian). 

Every country in the world hosts migrants, but of course their distribution is uneven: the USA is home to the largest number (around 45 million excluding perhaps 12 million irregular migrants), while six of the top ten countries with the largest foreign-born populations are in Europe – France, Germany, the Russian Federation, Spain, Ukraine and the UK. The majority of the world’s migrants live in high-income countries, although migration between lowincome countries is also significant (in 2010, more people applied for asylum in South Africa than across all 27 countries of the European Union). 

In some countries, migrants comprise a very high proportion of the country’s population – over 85 percent in Qatar, for example, and about 40 percent in both Singapore and Israel. In the UK, around 10 percent of residents are foreign-born. Just as the majority of the world’s population now lives in cities, so migration is also increasingly an urban phenomenon. In at least 20 cities around the world, there are over one million foreign-born inhabitants – around one third of London’s population was born outside Britain. 

Migrant populations – especially those that settle more or less permanently overseas – influence and bridge global cultures in three main ways. First, they often comprise a new form of social grouping, sometimes described as transnational communities. These groups live between states, maintaining lives in their home and destination countries, voting and paying taxes in two states at the same time, and in many cases building enterprises between states. They can also develop identities that are distinct from those at home and abroad, a type of hybrid identity that combines elements of both (picture a boy of Bangladeshi origin who wears a Manchester United shirt to his Saturday morning Koranic class). Plainly such people would fail Norman Tebbit’s so-called ‘cricket test’ (the Conservative MP suggested that the national cricket team a minority group cheered for would determine their loyalty and whether they were truly British). However, the same people would probably argue that maintaining a passion about their home country does not undermine their commitment to their destination country. Multiple identities do not have to be competing identities. 

The scale of transnational communities should not be overestimated. While one in 35 people is a migrant, this translates as only 3 percent of the world’s population, and the majority of migrants who settle permanently quickly identify with their host nation. A good example is the way that migrant women adapt to the fertility rates in the country where they settle – in places where infant mortality is not prevalent and where women have access to education and employment, their birth rates decline within a generation. This is one reason why migration is only a partial solution to the demographic crisis currently affecting large parts of Europe (the other is that migrants also get old and stop paying taxes). In addition, second and third generations – the children and grandchildren of migrants – born and bred in their parents’ or grandparents’ adopted country, usually demonstrate less ambiguity over their identity and sense of belonging. 

But the political significance of transnational communities certainly outweighs their numerical significance. It is concerns about identity that lie at the heart of current debates in Europe on the relative merits of assimilation or multiculturalism as the best way to achieve integration (for the record, neither model has worked very well); and many countries still do not permit dual nationality. For some commentators, transnational communities challenge the concept of nation-state sovereignty upon which the international system is built, by floating free of the tethers of states and citizenship. 

The second, and more obvious, way in which migrants influence global cultures is the impact they have on local culture, especially when they settle in large numbers or represent a significant proportion of the total population. Few people reading this article in the UK, for example, will not eat food, listen to music, read a book or follow a sport that does not reflect the enduring impact of migration and migrants on British society and culture. Often this is not simply a matter of a new food or style being ‘bolted on’ (there is almost a pun to be made here about balti food, an Anglo-Bangladeshi dish first cooked up, according to urban myth, in Birmingham). Instead, cultures blend. Think of fusion food, bhangra music and the influence of Asian styles on contemporary haute couture. 

Multiculturalism – in the sense of the coexistence of multiple cultures rather than a political project – is celebrated by some and feared by others. It would be a mistake to discount these fears, and not to understand the concerns of British parents whose children attend classes where many of the pupils don’t speak English as a first language, for example. Indeed, the shrinking space for objective debate about the impact of migration – both positive and negative – in countries like the UK seriously undermines sensible policy. But migrants are here to stay, and almost certainly will continue to arrive in high-income countries in ever greater numbers. If we can’t celebrate that fact, let’s at least get used to them and their cultures. 

A third way in which migrants promote new, or at least bridge existing, culture is through their influence on their country of origin. In this case, their social and cultural impact is largely leveraged by their economic impact. It is estimated that migrants around the world send home at least $400 billion every year (the amount dipped during the global financial crisis but has since rebounded strongly). Around $50 billion dollars flow back to both China and India each year from their overseas migrants; while in Tajikistan, Tonga and Moldova, remittances account for over one third of GDP. 

Financial clout often translates into cultural impact – Mexicans and Central Americans in the USA have built churches, schools, sports stadiums and graveyards, not to mention hospitals and wells, in their hometowns. The Somali diaspora, for example, funded the construction of the University of Hargeisa in Somaliland’s capital. Besides reinforcing culture in this way, diasporas can also use their financial potential to exert change. The concept of social remittances captures the idea that as well as sending home money and goods, migrants can also send fresh perspectives and new codes of conduct. At least in the early years of its independence, for example, the Eritrean state drafted a liberal constitution, introduced laws and policies on gender equality and freed the press, directly in response to pressure from the diaspora. Sadly many of these initiatives have since been reversed, reminding us that diaspora engagement should not be assumed as permanent, and that diasporas can fuel conflict and reinforce undemocratic systems just as much as they can contribute towards development and positive change at home. 

Diasporas are both a consequence and a cause of globalisation. And globalisation – especially the revolutions in communications and transportation – is one of the main explanations for the growing numbers and geographical spread of migration. Equally, an important reason why migrant populations are more influential today than previously is their engagement with modern technologies – satellite TV, mobile phones and the Internet. And through that engagement, diasporas are shaping cultures worldwide: by embodying new and hybrid cultures; by influencing local cultures; and by bridging cultures at home and abroad.

About the author:

Dr Khalid Koser is Academic Dean and Head of the New Issues in Security Programme, Geneva Centre for Security Policy


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