On 14-15 May a Diaspora Forum conference was held in Fitzpatrick’s Hotel in Dublin. It aimed to celebrate migration, migrants and the contribution the diaspora makes to home countries. Keynote speaker, the Economist business editor Robert Guest celebrated mass migration, which, he said, makes the world brainier. If a century ago, migrants crossed the ocean and never saw their homeland again, today they phone or Skype home the moment their plane lands. Thanks to cheap travel and easy communications, immigrants stay in contact with home, creating powerful cross-border networks that create wealth, spread ideas and foster innovation.
Diaspora, contributors to the conference emphasised, is mostly about economics: through remittances, philanthropy and direct diaspora investment, members of the diaspora are primarily seen as alumni who their original state needs to touch for contributions – a discourse all too familiar to anyone working in today’s neoliberal universities. Workshops debated the role of governments in engaging their diasporas across multiple sectors and constructing strategies aimed to create partnerships between government and diaspora. To copper fasten such engagements, the conference also discussed the payback in terms of granting migrants voting rights, and working for ‘host country integration and return migration platforms’.
I have to confess that as a migrant and daughter of migrants, and as a supporter of migrant rights in Ireland, I have several problems with this diaspora-as- resource discourse. Firstly, seeing diaspora mostly as potential economic contribution regards migrants as privileged and ignores the millions of forced migrants, many of whom languish in asylum and detention centres, or segregated in low paid employment sectors, hovering between legality and illegality, not being able to afford Skype yet sending their meagre earnings to support destitute families back home.
Secondly, the discourse of diaspora as part of the nation is divisive and exclusive. Though the Irish diaspora, as we have been repeatedly told since President Mary Robinson lit the diaspora candle in Aras an Uchterain, are us, the diaspora discourse opens the way to blood-based citizenship. Thus Ireland grants automatic citizenship to third and fourth generation emigrants who have never set foot in Ireland, but not – since the 2004 Citizenship referendum – to children of migrants actually born in the Island of Ireland. Equally, diaspora Jews with a Jewish mother have automatic right to Israeli citizenship, while Palestinian refugees born on the land do not have a right of return.
The conference also included the CEO of the Zionist organisation ‘Birthright Israel’ which runs free trips for young Jewish people to Israel – to date some 300,000 youngsters from 59 countries have participated. The objective is to diminish the division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to Jewish history and culture.
I want to argue that Israel and Ireland are both blood-based ‘diaspora nations’. In both while maintaining the diaspora discourse is mostly economic, the ultimate objective is the consolidation of bloodline nationalism which racialises migrants and indigenous others as not part of the potentially net contributor diaspora. A demonstration of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign outside the conference venue included Palestinian West Bank activist Moussa Abu Maria whose banner read ‘I am Palestinian – what about our birthright?’ The Palestinian diaspora can also potentially make a huge contribution to Palestine if allowed to return, just as the members of the various diasporas currently residing in Ireland can make to their home countries. But we need to re-think the unproblematic diaspora discourse and move away from seeing all emigrants merely as alumni.