Laotian Transnational Spaces. From Laos to East and West Germany

This comparative project focuses on the ‘pathways of integration’ of Laotian migrants in East and West Germany and on the increasing number of repatriates in Laos. It explores the conditions of arrival, the specific migration histories, and the larger structural conditions provided by the state, in which the construction of identity and difference takes place. Starting from a historical perspective, I want to examine the link between transnational spaces of belonging, networks and forms of social capital, and their role for processes of incorporation and conflict.

I will focus on Laotian migrants in East and West Germany before and after the German reunification (1978-present). Although Laotians are a rather small migrant group in Germany, their migration trajectories to East and West Germany offer a unique comparative potential: they arrived in the same period in the two culturally similar, but politically very different host countries. After the end of the Vietnam War and the Lao communist revolution of 1975, Laotian refugees fled their country and found asylum in the FRG. Simultaneously, the GDR – supporting the new communist regime – started to train contract workers from Laos. Their biographical backgrounds, motives for migrating, conditions of living, and the state policies surrounding their arrival and life in the two countries were radically different. In the FRG, they were assigned host families, received extensive social support, and could found Buddhist temples. They had a right to a German passport enabling them to maintain family networks with relatives in France and the US. The GDR also officially welcomed a heavily pre-selected group of Laotians, usually coming without their families. In practice, the state segregated them in specific living quarters, limited the exchange with Germans outside the working context, and discouraged religious practices.

Despite these differences, they were, in both countries, seen as strangers and they were frequently exposed to racism, discrimination, and exclusion. These negative interactions are also seen as crucial for the formation of identity. Taking a more contemporary perspective, the project also examines the life worlds of Laotian repatriates. Especially after the German reunification and the ‘welcome exiles policy’ of the Laotian government after 1992, many migrants are now returning to Laos. Here another (re-)integration process takes place that can reveal important dynamics in regard to the construction of identity. Despite the increased national and transnational mobility of Laotian migrants and an expansion of networks in post-reunification Germany, it is crucial here to note that Laotians from East and West Germany have kept a certain distance. This is rooted in mistrust of the ‘political other’ (Laos remains officially communist) and in over 25 years of spatial and ideological division.

My project is situated in the field of the anthropology of migration with a focus on contemporary history and transnationalism. Transnational spaces are here understood as historically evolving fields in which processes of integration and conflict take place. The strategies of incorporation in specific locations, processes of identity building, and the boundaries of ethnic groups will be approached through concepts such as ‘host society’ and ‘spaces of belonging’. These are also related to the differing ‘politics of recognition’ with respect to the situation in East and West Germany. Educational and socio-economic backgrounds will be examined with regard to the notion of social capital, which can also be used to understand the position of Laotian migrants in the economic field. Building on a former research project about migration and memory among a Laotian group in West Germany, I expect that ‘virtual spaces of belonging’ also play a role in relation to identity building. Therefore, the creation of transnational spaces and the borders of inclusion and exclusion will also be understood as being rooted in an ‘ethnic cyberspace’.

Working Bibliography

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