The triad of transnationalism, legal recognition, and local community: shaping political space for the Burmese refugees in Japan.

Author:Banki, Susan


Refugee participation in transnational acts--from advocating for regime change in home countries to strengthening modes of sale passage for friends and family to host countries--is only as effective as the ability of refugees to organize, collaborate with one another, and develop strong communication links between communities in the home and host countries. While many assume that legal status improves the ability of refugees to engage in political transformation, research on the Burmese refugees living in Japan reveals that the application and provision of legal status can have the opposite effect, weakening fragile community structures, stemming advocacy efforts, and discouraging communication between divided political and ethnic groups. I argue that transnational acts form a three-way relationship with legal recognition and local community, and that, because of conflictual relationships among local refugee communities, refugees from Burma with higher degrees of legal recognition in Japan do not necessarily expand transnational space.


La participation des refugies aux lois transnationales--depuis leur plaidoyer en faveur d'un changement de regime dans les pays d'origine au renforcement des modes de passage securitaire pour les amis et la famille vers les pays hotes--est aussi efficace que leur capacite a organiser, a collaborer entre eux et a etablir des liens etroits de communication entre les pays d'origine et d'accueil. Bien qu'il soit admis que la situation juridique ameliore la capacite des refugies a envisager une transformation politique, des recherches menees aupres des refugies birmans qui resident au lapon revelent que l'application et la disposition de la situation juridique peut avoir l'effet inverse et fragiliser les structures communautaires, interrompre les tentatives de plaidoyer et decourager la communication entre les groupes politiques et ethniques deja divises. L'article defend la these que les lois transnationales forment une relation a trois avec la reconnaissance juridique et la communaute locale et que, a cause de relations conflictuelles parmi les communautes locales de refugies, les refugies de Birmanie dotes d'un fort taux de reconnaissance juridique au Japon n'elargissent pas necessairement l'espace transnational.


Refugees who have fled protracted conflict find various means of advocating for change in their countries of origin. They assemble to discuss the political and economic situation in their region of origin, they share news and dismiss rumours through social networks, they distribute information through media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and they demonstrate and organize protests in order to call attention to the conditions in their home country.

These acts of communication and coordination hot only cross borders, but in generating new strategies and resources to mobilize internal and exiled populations, they transcend them. Such political actions take place "over and beyond" the borders of home and host countries, and thus lie in the transnational realm. (1)

Refugees have varying degrees of legal recognition in their host country, ranging from official "refugee" status to temporary status to special residence permits to entirely illegal. Regardless of the specific terminology of each country, it is believed that the possession of legal status expands transnational political space. (2) That is, there is an underlying assumption that migrants and refugees with legal recognition are better able, and more likely, to engage in political advocacy than those who are illegal.

In studying the particularities of the Burmese refugee community in Japan, this paper challenges that unidirectional assumption and complicates the relationship between legal status and transnationalism. Rather, transnational acts are part of a three-way relationship including legal recognition and local community. The development and maintenance of local refugee communities in Japan influence and are influenced by both legal status and transnational political acts, often in surprising ways. Despite the fact that legal recognition is thought to provide greater freedom of expression and movement and thus more opportunities to engage in advocacy efforts, in the Burmese refugee community in Japan, conflict arises from the application and provision of legal status, and transnational space is often diminished as a result.

I begin the paper by considering the transnational components and nature of refugee advocacy movements. Next, drawing from the literatures on transnationalism and diaspora, I describe the elements of the three-way relationship between transnational acts, legal status, and local community. Two months of field research in Japan--documentation, direct observation, and interviews--illuminate the remaining sections. First, I review the legal and factual circumstances surrounding the Burmese refugees in Japan. Second, I map the Burmese refugee community by ethnicity and political groups, comparing those with and without legal status. I conclude by specifying the connections between transnationalism, legal recognition, and local community.

Transnational Actors

Transnationalism is neither the unique domain of individuals nor of networks created by individuals. The ability of corporations, NGOs, liberation movements, cultural groups, and other non-state actors to partake in transnational acts has been noted by many. (3) In the migration literature, however, transnational action has moved to the forefront, as authors appropriately focus on the ways in which migrants and refugees are able to use transnational space in order to promote their agendas or agitate against undesirable policies.

Particularly, there is a value in understanding how refugees engage in transnational acts, and how they are able to define and refine their identities beyond the restrictive boundaries of a hostile home country and an (often) unwelcoming host country. Political action is particularly meaningful for refugees who have presumably fled from a government of persecution and discrimination. This paper, then, focuses on the specifics of refugee transnationalism in its political form. (4)

Transnational Action (and Emotion)

The topic of transnationalism has been bandied around just long enough that it is perhaps no longer accurate to call it a vogue topic (although it is certainly not yet retro). The field's numerous commentators draw from, among other disciplines, anthropology, cultural studies, political science, sociology, and migration. (5) Nevertheless, the discourse on transnationalism continues to play a salient role in the literature, reflecting its substantial significance in reality.

Transnationalism in all its forms--from developing transborder social networks to strengthening modes of safe passage to host countries to sending remittances home--is indeed a relevant phenomenon. Technological advances have facilitated the transfer of information and money, and superior methods of transportation have eased the ability of migrants and refugees to move physically from one country to another. (6)

Specifically, transnational political action utilizes these exchanges in order to effect political change in the home country, and transnational space is the arena in which these efforts are made. (7) Adamson lists three ways political entrepreneurs advocate for changes at home: (1) using exiled voices to challenge the discourse of the home country; (2) raising international awareness through local NGOs and state actors; and (3) sending resources to local actors in the home country. (8)

Van Hear has identified "movements or exchanges of people, money, and information" as the building blocks of transnational action. (9) However, while individuals hope to accomplish concrete political action, the nature of their exchanges need not be concrete; Van Hear's three fundamental items can be supplemented by less tangible, but equally important, elements. In addition to the movement of people, money, and information, transnational space allows for the exchange of questions, ideas, strategies, and decisions. This differentiation is necessary because information is traded; ideas are created. Transnational ties, true to their meaning, transcend a simple international exchange of "things" in order to produce knowledge, awareness, and a sense of identity. Likewise, ignorance, indifference, and alienation can occupy transnational space as well.

As the examination of community and its relationship to transnationalism will show further on, sentiment and sensation also move through transnational lines: trust (and distrust), conviction (and doubt), and hope (and despair). Because transnationalism is intricately linked with the ability to establish community networks between those "at home" and those abroad, the positive and negative emotions that accompany such relationships are a critical, although, I argue, underexamined aspect of transnational ties. (10)

Indeed, ignorance, indifference, alienation, distrust, doubt, and despair are as likely to exist as elements of transnational space as are their positive counterparts, and this observation highlights what several authors have noted. Transnational forces are not always positive. Migrants may be motivated to participate in transnational political networks for purely nationalistic purposes or purely egotistical ones. Prestige and status ma), drive individuals to transnationalism, as can social pressure, family influence, and guilt. (11)

Finally, migrants and refugees are capable of using their cross-continental connections not only to foster peaceful solutions but to foment violent revolution. (12) In studying this question, academics as well as policy makers are drawn to ask: "Can (or should) policies be devised which enhance the positive outcomes of transnational networks, while discouraging transnational activities which fuel or sustain...

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