Page last updated at 08:47 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

Exiles wielding power from the UK

L-R: Kurdish women at the Western Kurdistan Association; young Tamil girl dancer; cafe owner in Edmonton Somali cafe

People fleeing conflict and persecution in Sri Lanka, Turkey and Somalia have found refuge in Britain since the 1980s. In the first of a series of articles, the BBC's Samanthi Dissanayake examines the power these diasporas are exerting on their homelands.

Edmonton doesn't look like a centre of power - but at a recently-opened cafe in a dilapidated corner of this north London suburb, politicians, journalists, army generals and activists who fled civil war in the 1990s meet to plot the "resurrection" of Somalia.

Around the corner, Somalis transfer money to relatives who run businesses and who need simply to survive the dangers of life in their bullet-scarred capital, Mogadishu. Remittances from the diaspora are what enable Somalia to function at all.

"People may live here physically, but their minds are always fixed in Mogadishu," says Somali journalist Mohamed 'Ingiriis' Haji.

A similar emotion runs through East Ham, whose vibrant High Street resembles one that might have been found in northern Sri Lanka before a bitter war broke out in the 1980s.

Vegetable stall in East Ham, London
Almost anything you can buy in Sri Lanka, you can buy in East Ham

Many of the Tamil refugees who fled to the UK settled quickly and were soon investing in charities, humanitarian projects and institutions based back in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

These are some of the ways refugees who felt powerless and victimised in their countries of origin have found of making a mark on their homelands.

Funding war

They might live in Britain, but the hearts and minds of many refugees remain in the homelands they fled. What influence do they have back home and what does it mean for their lives in this country?

But some of their activities stray into controversial territory, leading some to ask what the impact could be on their lives in Britain.

The Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill unveiled in yesterday's Queen's Speech introduces the idea of "earned citizenship" for foreigners who want to become British.

Those who make no effort to integrate will face a longer wait to become a UK citizen. Refugee groups have expressed concern about adding hurdles to the path to citizenship. But the identity of new arrivals is coming under increasing scrutiny.

"They all forget they've got a British passport," says one Tamil businessman who asked not to be identified.

"They need to cling to something. There is nationalism and there is an identity crisis."

Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka have derived a large part of their funding from parts of the diaspora Tamil community, according to analysts.

The diaspora should get out on to the streets and protest
Tamil shopkeeper
And a Somali community worker, Mohammed Abdullahi, says they too have "big problems in the UK - we need to unite and play a positive role".

Mr Abdullahi believes some elements in the British Somali community are providing support to the banned Islamist group al-Shabab and other incendiary forces in Somalia.

Moral support

Turkish Kurds in the UK, meanwhile, are open about their support for the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

What motivates these exiles is the ebb and flow of politics back home - Islamist groups might be gaining ground in Somalia, the PKK continues to launch operations in Turkey, and Tamil Tigers are ceding ground to the Sri Lankan army. The diaspora responds through political lobbying, organisational capacity and sheer financial muscle.

"We provide moral support for the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] because they are the only organisation out there fighting for the Tamil cause," said one Tamil shopkeeper who wished to remain anonymous.

Last summer I went to my home town and came face-to-face with the guy who killed my mother
Jean-Louis Mazimpaka

"The diaspora should get out on to the streets and protest."

Nick van Hear, of the Centre for Migration, Policy and Society at the University of Oxford, has examined the impact of diasporas in host and home countries.

He points out that while they sometimes support insurgencies and sustain conflicts, at other times they will provide relief for populations suffering under conflict and can help with post-conflict reconstruction.

Rwandan Tutsi Jean-Louis Mazimpaka runs the Hope Foundation for genocide survivors and has mixed feelings when he visits Rwanda.

"Last summer I went to my home town and came face-to-face with the guy who killed my mother," he says.

"If I lived in Rwanda, meeting this person would be hard. He might try to kill me as I could accuse him in court."

Vasuki Muruhathas

Our families are all over the world, Canada, Europe - we can never be united

Vasuki Muruhathas

A small community of Rwandan Hutus believed to have been involved in the 1994 genocide is also in the UK.

"I hear about them trying to get involved with politics," Mr Mazimpaka says. "They deny the genocide."

Four men suspected of involvement in the genocide, one a doctor with British citizenship, are currently battling extradition to Rwanda.

Having their minds and hearts trained on their homelands can be as heavy a burden for communities as it is a symbol of their new-found liberty.

Vasuki Muruhathas, who was 18 when she came to the UK from Sri Lanka, says: "I feel at the end of things. Our families are all over the world, Canada, Europe - we can never be united."

She worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken until she decided to become a lawyer to represent failed Tamil asylum seekers facing deportation.


Dr van Hear says: "There is a four-way pulling of loyalties to immediate family, wider community, community back home and to other people in the diaspora."

The Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, based at London's City University's, has been examining the rights and responsibilities of refugees in the UK.

Its report, due out this month, concludes that they are at the centre of a difficult and complex web of responsibilities, with obligations to their immediate family but also their own community, UK society, the wider diaspora as well as various economic and legal pressures.

Community leaders stress the importance of engaging with the political process in the UK.

Turkish Kurds settled in Britain travel back to Turkey to lobby and campaign in elections there - but running for local office in the UK is seen as equally important, and there are many Kurdish and Tamil councillors in London.

Alexander Litvinenko
Alexander Litvinenko died from a massive dose of Polonium 210

Then there is the risk of neglecting younger generations. The children of refugees are often told their stay in Britain will be short - but as the years go by, so the generation gap widens.

Historically many communities have found in Britain the freedom to mobilise and campaign. Palestinians in the UK set the tone in the 1980s and remain vocal through marches and petitions.

Joseph Conrad immortalised late 19th Century Britain as a haven for exiles and revolutionaries in his novel The Secret Agent, depicting a London brimming with Russian dissidents.

In 2006 this vision of "Londongrad" returned with the death of Alexander Litvinenko from a massive dose of the hazardous radioactive material Polonium 210.

Suddenly the British public were brought face-to-face with the potentially appalling consequences of confrontation between a dissident community and forces back at home. UK investigators suspect a former KGB agent of the murder but have so far failed to extradite him from Russia.

Wealthy Russian dissidents are a far cry from Kurdish, Tamil and Somali refugees - but these communities who arrived with nothing but fear now have the means to exert real power on distant shores.

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