Note: Samantha Zalewska, a student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, recently interned with the Civil Society Innovation program at Rights CoLab. She produced the following research to support the launch of our new initiative to support diaspora organizing by exiled human rights activists. We are happy to publish her analysis and key findings. Thanks, Samantha!

Diasporas in Focus

In times of war, political turmoil, and other forms of conflict, members of civil society face severe challenges. Funding evaporates, coalition building falters, and activists face threats to their physical security and that of their families. When faced with unrest in their home countries, members of civil society are often forced to move abroad to flee oppression.

Members of diaspora communities continue to be critical members of civil society after they have left their homelands. Even while abroad, members of diaspora communities organize to advocate for and support civil society in their home countries. By maintaining relationships with compatriots at home and drawing the attention to key issues, civil society members in exile can continue to support the causes they care about from a more secure position.

An examination of the experiences of the Belarusian, Burmese, Somali, and Assyrian diasporas shows just how powerful, valuable, and creative diaspora organizing can be in furthering civil society objectives. This research introduces the work of these diaspora communities, outlines their methods of organizing, and discusses key issues and areas of need. 


In Belarus, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the passing of the Constitution of Belarus in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko assumed the office of President, a position he has occupied ever since. An authoritarian leader with strong ties to Russia, Lukashenko has referred to himself as the “last dictator” in Europe.1 Lukashenko’s regime restricts the actions of the media and represses opponents and those who speak out against him. After 26 years of his rule, a breaking point came in 2020 when, for the sixth time, he was declared the winner of the Presidential Election, which was unilaterally criticized by international monitors as not being fair and free.2 The opposition candidate, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, claimed to have won a majority and refused to accept the Election Commission’s falsified result. Protests in response to the election were met with a wave of repression, which included mass arrests, torture of those in detention, and forced disappearances.3 Thousands of Belarusians left the country, including Tsikhanouskaya, who became the de-facto leader of the Belarusian diaspora. Approximately 450,000 Belarusians live abroad, many in Poland, Israel, the U.S., Latvia, and Lithuania.4


In 2021, a coup d’etat brought the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar under military rule. In response to poor performance by the military’s proxy political party – the Union Solidarity and Development Party – in Myanmar’s 2020 elections, the military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, ousted the civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, charged her with corruption and other crimes, and placed her and leaders from her party under house arrest. The people of Myanmar were outraged, with thousands participating in a peaceful civil disobedience movement, refusing to work until the elected government was returned to power. The military engaged in widespread repression, killing over 4,000 people and arresting over 25,000.5 Approximately two million Myanmar nationals live in neighboring Thailand, with approximately 500,000 in Malaysia and 200,000 each in Singapore, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia.6 The events of 2021 drew in this diaspora, motivating them to take action. 


For decades, Somalia has endured a civil war. Following the fall of General Said Barre’s dictatorship in 1991, nationalist and Islamic groups, warlords, clan and sub-clan militias, and other actors have been competing for power. Between 1990 and 2015, the total number of Somali people living abroad more than doubled, from 850,000 to 2 million.7 Two thirds of the Somali diaspora live in neighboring African countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen.8 Among Western countries, the US has the largest population of Somalis with 150,000; an estimated 280,000 Somali immigrants live in the EU, Norway, and Switzerland.9 


The indigenous Assyrian ancestral homeland is within the borders of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and northeastern Syria. It roughly corresponds to the location of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Assyria, which existed from the 21st century BC to the 7th century BC. Assyrians represent one of the few ancient Semitic ethnicities who resisted Arabization, Turkification, Persianization, and Islamization and who remain predominantly Christian. Prior to the Assyrian genocide during World War I, the Assyrian people were largely unmoved from their native homeland. After the genocide, during which nearly half the pre-war population was killed, many Assyrians emigrated, a trend that continues into present day as Assyrians flee to escape the violence of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, persecution under Ba’athist Iraw, and genocide by the Islamic State and other Sunni Islamist groups. Assyrians, those still living on their ancestral land as well as those living abroad, work together to advocate for their land rights and against the oppression of their people.

Comparing Modes of Diaspora Organizing

For diaspora members, organizing beyond the borders of their home countries requires flexibility and creativity in how they establish their networks, mobilize support, and maintain connections with civil society back home. 

Diaspora organizing is largely at the grassroots level. In response to events back home, coalitions of concerned diaspora members come together to raise awareness and advocate on behalf of those back home. Grassroots organizations often focus on specific issues or groups of people. In the case of Myanmar, for example, organizations like the Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN) focus on supporting refugees while other organizations, like the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, focus on advocating for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar. 

Grassroots organization can be highly fractionalized and dispersed. Especially so is the case with the Somalia diaspora. Deeply entrenched ethnic and tribal divisions at home have carried over to the Somali diaspora, creating a preference for smaller as opposed to larger organizations. Within the Somali diaspora, larger organizations increase the potential for internal conflict and mistrust.10 

Other diasporas, however, benefit from the coalition-building that larger organizations provide. In the case of the Burmese diaspora, large membership-based organizations like the United States Campaign for Burma (USCB) work to empower grassroots activists in all corners of the globe. The USCB is U.S.-based and has a board and staff comprised of human rights advocates, former Congressional staff, as well as former Burmese political prisoners. USCB establishes partnerships with and lends support to thousands of Burmese dissidents-in-exile. Smaller diaspora organizations find it beneficial to partner with a larger, U.S.-based organizations like USCB for the purposes of launching reports, providing interviews, and, generally, increasing the impact of their work by utilizing the resources these larger organizations can offer. 

Similar to the Burmese diaspora, the Assyrian diaspora relies on the coordination and organization of larger, more-established organizations. Organizations like the Shlama Foundation, based in Iraq, the Assyrian Cultural Foundation, based in Illinois, and the Assyrian Aid Society, based in California, work to not only advocate for Assyrians to be able live peacefully on their ancestral homelands, but also to promote Assyrian culture and heritage among diaspora members. These organizations often coordinate with one another, and, because of their formal organization, are able to solicit donations from large donors connected to the diaspora.

As compared to the Burmese, Somali, and Assyrian diasporas, the Belarusian diaspora, while still largely reliant on grassroots networks, has the added benefit of being organized around an individual leader – Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s challenger in the 2020 Presidential Election acknowledged by many to be the democratically elected President of Belarus. Tsikhanouskaya leads Belarus’ government in exile, which is headquartered in Lithuania. The government-in-exile has established institutional structures that include the Coordination Council and the National Anti-Crisis Management, which seek to manage the process of overcoming Belarus’ political crisis. Tsikhanouskaya has a great deal of international visibility and credibility, as she regularly visits and meets with leaders of other countries and engages actively with leaders of diaspora organizations, establishing herself as the figurehead of Belarusians who live abroad and are in opposition to the Lukashenko regime. 

Despite the formality of the government-in-exile, much of the Belarusian diaspora still operates in a grassroots manner, with many diaspora groups dispersed among the countries to which Belarusians have emigrated. In an effort to coordinate the activities of the many Belarusian diaspora groups around the globe, Tsikhanouskaya initiated a Conference of the Belarusian Diaspora, which met for the first time in September 2021 and again, most recently, in April 2023. The Conference of the Belarusian Diaspora, held in Vilnius, offered representatives of 40 Belarusian diaspora organizations from 26 countries the opportunity to come together and coordinate their structures and initiatives. Daniil Garkavy, the dedicated Diaspora Coordinator within Tsikhanouskaya’s office said of the importance of the Conference, “By holding this conference, we respond to the diaspora’s request to discuss pressing issues… it is important for all of us to listen to and hear each other.”11

Unlocking Diaspora Activism: Funding and Security

While the difficulty of in-country civil society organizing is, in large part, an impetus for the organization of civil society activities amongst diaspora members, diaspora organization does have its own risks. When evaluating opportunities for diaspora engagement, strong diaspora organization, secure and effective communication channels, and measures to ensure activist safety are key enablers of effective civil society in exile

Security and safety are among the biggest challenges for members of diaspora civil society organizations. Many civil society activists chose to flee their home countries because they were on the receiving end of physical, legal, online, and/or economic threats. These activists are rightfully concerned about these threats following them abroad. It is for this reason that smaller organizations, like many of those led by the Burmese diaspora, find it beneficial to partner with larger organizations like the United States Campaign for Burma, who have more resources to establish secure channels and operations. Similarly, members of the Assyrian diaspora utilize the diaspora network to defend advocates and dissidents who have been imprisoned in Iraq. Belarusian diaspora members in pre-war Ukraine, concerned about security, prioritized establishing contacts with local NGOs who could help with enhancing their personal security.12

From both a security perspective as well as an organizational effectiveness perspective, safe and accessible communication channels are key for sharing information between grassroots networks and countering misinformation that is being shared by the home country regime. Belarusian activists, for example, have found it beneficial to use Telegram channels for coordination actions and collecting information about circumstances on the ground. The most popular Telegram channel, NEXTA, has over 2 million subscribers and is operated from Warsaw, Poland.13 The Burmese diaspora likewise utilizes platforms such as Telegram and Signal to communicate with one another and with their counterparts back home.14 While Telegram is a commonly used communications platform, it is important to note that communications and security experts warn of the platform’s purported lack of integrity, with reports indicating that Russia has compromised the platform to monitor the activities of anti-war activists.15 Diaspora civil society members must weigh the risks of using such platforms so as to minimize exposing themselves and their in-country counterparts to harmful surveillance. 

Funding is yet another area of concern for diaspora civil society activists. Largely unable to raise funds from sympathizers at home, many diaspora organizers rely on crowdfunding as well as on support from cooperating NGOs in the countries in which they now live. In Belarus, after the government disabled popular crowdfunding platforms Ulej and MolaMola, diaspora members raised over 2 million euros in private donations to support those who were repressed and injured during the country’s post-election protests.16 In addition to utilizing crowdfunding platforms, Burmese diaspora organizations also host community events such as dinners and religious services, where church collection plate takings are donated to civil society activities.17 A sample of 30 Burmese diaspora organizations are estimated to have raised over $3 million USD in response to the 2021 crisis.18

For the Somali diaspora, financial support of organizations and individuals back home is one of their primary methods of engagement. Members of the Somali diaspora send approximately $1.3 billion annually to friends and relatives in Somalia.19 Securely wiring money to Somalia is an issue, as Somalia does not have a banking system that is linked with international financial institutions, and international regulators, including in the U.S., are making it increasingly difficult for money transfer operators to access bank accounts. The Somali diaspora community is organizing to make the case to authorities that cutting off remittances threatens to exacerbate the human rights situation in Somalia.20


The experiences of the Belarusian, Burmese, Somali, and Assyrian diasporas show the power and ability of diaspora members to organize concerned members of their communities in order to advocate for change back home. While diaspora methods of advocacy and engagement are most often indirect – they mainly focus on generating awareness, sharing information, and raising money – the impact of diaspora organizing cannot be understated. Complicated, difficult, and sometimes risky, diaspora organizing has been effective in helping to bring international attention to issues that might not have otherwise been generating concern and outrage, and it has materially benefitted the activities of activists and members of civil society still operating on the front lines. 

Members of other diaspora communities might take inspiration from the work of the Belarusian, Burmese, Somali, and Assyrian communities. While there is much to glean from the experiences of these groups, it is important to recognize that methods that are effective in one context may be wholly ineffective in another. Diaspora members looking to organize their communities in support of change back home should assess the risks and uncertainties that their situations entail and strategize pathways for organizing that maintain the security and confidence of everyone involved. 

  1. Reuters, Belarus President Lukashenko in his own words, November 27, 2012. ↩︎
  2. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, OSCE Rapporteur’s Report under the Moscow Mechanism on Alleged Human Rights
    Violations related to the Presidential Elections of 9 August 2020 in Belarus
    , November 5, 2020.
  3. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN human rights experts: Belarus must stop torturing protesters and prevent enforced disappearances, September 1, 2020. ↩︎
  4. Migration Policy Centre, Migration Profile: Belarus, June 2013. ↩︎
  5. Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) ↩︎
  6. Diaspora Emergency Action & Coordination Initiative (DEMAC), Diaspora Organizations and their Humanitarian Response in Myanmar, February 21, 2022. ↩︎
  7. Pew Research Center, 5 facts about the global Somali diaspora, June 1, 2016. ↩︎
  8. Ibid. ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
  10. Rift Valley Institute, Global Connections: Somali Diaspora Practices and their Effects, 2022. ↩︎
  11. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Diaspora conference is the platform for Belarusians abroad and political organizations to discuss pressing issues, April 7, 2023. ↩︎
  12. ConnectBY – Belarusian civil society in diaspora, Voices of Belarusian diaspora:
    challenges and opportunities of Belarusian civic activists abroad
  13. Alevtina Snihir, The Belarusian Diaspora Awakens, GMF. ↩︎
  14. Diaspora Emergency Action & Coordination Initiative (DEMAC), Diaspora Organizations and their Humanitarian Response in Myanmar, February 21, 2022. ↩︎
  15. Forbes, Ukraine Warned Over Danger Of Russian Spying On Telegram, February 25, 2022. ↩︎
  16. Alevtina Snihir, The Belarusian Diaspora Awakens, GMF. ↩︎
  17. Diaspora Emergency Action & Coordination Initiative (DEMAC), Diaspora Organizations and their Humanitarian Response in Myanmar, February 21, 2022. ↩︎
  18. Ibid. ↩︎
  19. Oxfam, Remittances to Somalia. ↩︎
  20. Ibid. ↩︎
Photo by Norbu GYACHUNG on Unsplash