How can we promote inclusive, equitable, and peaceful societies?

Being defined by past location: displaced communities, conflict memories, and the right to return

Workshop Area A 301 September 6, 2017 11:00 am - 12:30 pm

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Guy Elcheroth1, Esther Surenthiraraj2, Nadine Nibigira3, Sandra Penic1

1University of Lausanne, Switzerland; 2International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka; 3Hope Africa University, Burundi


Collective memories of violent conflict often play a pivotal role in the complex relationships between communities of forcibly displaced people and their host communities. Specific memories that circulate within long-term displaced communities can co-exist, contrast or clash with memories prevailing in different segment of the host communities. They can give rise to a broad spectrum of more or less ambivalent relationships between communities: host communities can function as reservoirs of support and facilitate displaced peoples’ access to ‘voice’ in a broader context, but they can also reactivate painful reminiscences, deny recognition of core historical narratives or uphold a climate of distrust and surveillance toward them. When in the context of protracted conflicts over an extended time period ‘going back’ is not an option, displaced people are at risk of paradoxically becoming frozen in a status meant to be transient, as ‘refugees’ or ‘newcomers’. Being caught in the resulting double binds, long-term displaced individuals and communities are likely to maintain a particular type of relationship to their lost homes, as inaccessible places of attachment. Over time, the right to return, sometimes passed over from one generation to the next, becomes increasingly problematic while the place that had been left behind ceases to exist as a socially meaningful place, as the local community has left, disintegrated or changed.

In the present panel we aim to discuss the complex realities of long-term displacement and unpack the normative concept of right to return on the basis of two case studies, among internally displaced communities in Sri Lanka, and among regional diaspora communities across the Rwandan-Burundian border. Both case studies draw upon testimonies collected within the concerned communities, as part of the Pluralistic Memories Project. The case study presentations will be enriched by showing not only how complex dynamics between ‘host’ and ‘refugee’ communities can be documented by systematic recording of testimonies, but also how new spaces for dialogues between communities and between generations arise when these testimonies are being shared and discussed in facilitative settings created by the research teams. Furthermore, the panel will address the interplay between different scales involved in the circulation of conflict memories across transnational diaspora communities, and present the methodology of a new online survey aiming to study these dynamics within a globalised diaspora community.

While the panel’s main focus is tied to the third conference theme and will stimulate a discussion of the potential and challenges of policies aiming to promote inclusive, equitable, and peaceful societies through implementing displaced peoples’ right to return, the presentation of concrete actions to disseminate research material such as testimonies through community workshops will also provide an opportunity for panellists to engage with the fourth conference theme and address the transformative impact of research partnerships.