Kurdish Diasporas: A Comparative Study of Kurdish Refugee Communities

Kurdish Diasporas: A Comparative Study of Kurdish Refugee Communities

Griffiths, David

Kurdish Diasporas: a Comparative Study of Kurdish Refugee Communities. By Osten Wahlbeck. London: Macmillan Press, 1999. Pp. 219.


Open University Bristol

This well-researched and tightly argued book divides neatly into two halves. In chapter one conventional notions of ethnic community and integration are questioned for suggesting bounded social forms and identities. A revised account of integration is used to refer to refugees’ participation in the structures of the host society and in transnational networks (p. 30). In this context, the concept of diaspora is developed as an analytical tool which describes not only consciousness and identity but also transnational features of social organization (p. 35). ‘Culturalist’ explanations of diaspora are criticized for neglecting the structural aspects of exclusion and discrimination experienced by refugees. Chapters two and three provide good background coverage of the political situation in Kurdistan and the resettlement policies of Finland and the UK, respectively. An effective contrast is drawn between the `nordic welfare state model’ in Finland and the multicultural resettlement model in the UK, with the implications for refugee settlement drawn out in either case.

Chapters four to six are based upon fieldwork in Finland and England. It is here that the author’s claims become more contentious. The fieldwork develops key themes: alienation, loss and the wish to return are the dominant concerns for Kurds in both Finland and England according to Wahlbeck. The author notes that a desire to integrate is coupled with the wish to return home but more could have been made of the ambivalence of the relation to home. Phrases like `all Kurdish refugees’ are misleading in relation to the small sample size and the difficulty in locating the non-political or dissenting Kurds who precisely may not define themselves as `Kurdish.’

The main conceptual issues raised by the book concern the role of cultural processes and the nature of integration. While Wahlbeck argues that “the (fieldwork) results suggest that the Kurdish refugees have a diasporic consciousness” (p. 121), there is a significant lack of attention to the internal nuances of Kurdish identity or to the ways in which the political leadership may be active in constructing a unitary sense of national identity. There is only a passing acknowledgement of diasporas as `imagined communities’ held together through representations, imagined bonds and the active construction of communal identities. Although integration is `rethought’ within the context of transnationalism, phrases like `positive integration’ and `well-functioning’ networks suggest an implicit model of social groups as cohesive wholes which is strongly reminiscent of structural functionalism. In chapter five, Wahlbeck boldly claims (p. 139) that the way in which refugees integrate depends on the structures of the receiving society rather than on factors within the refugee community. It could equally be argued that integration is blocked both by the structures of the receiving society and (to varying degrees) by the `diaspora consciousness’ of the individuals concerned. Overall, the emphasis on integration downplays the alternative ‘acculturation’ strategies often adopted by refugees, for example of assimilation or separation.

Despite these caveats the book is to be recommended as an original contribution to the comparative literature on diasporas and to the field of refugee studies.

Copyright Center for Migration Studies Summer 2001

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