Dealing with Contested Identities and Dynamics of Belonging: A Multidimensional Analysis of Belonging among Ethiopian Migrants in Switzerland in the Context of the Tigray Conflict.

Project Description

Ethiopia has been undergoing a complicated political transition since 2018 under the leadership of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Initially, Abiy's leadership was relieved to bring about real political change in the country. He promised to transform the country into a unified federal structure and unite the deeply divided society by abolishing ethnic federalism and ethnic identity politics through a constitutional amendment. At the same time, the government faced fierce resistance from ethnic federalists who supported the status quo - ethnic identity politics and ethnic federalism. In particular, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) withdrew entirely to Tigray region - its political base after leading Ethiopia for three decades (Woldeyesus & Endris, 2021) - and formed its regional militia, which later became the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). The mistrust and conflict of interest between the federal government and the leaders of the Tigray ruling party TPLF later (2020) led to armed conflict in Tigray regional state.

During and after the Tigray war, ethnic divisions have emerged and persist not only in Ethiopia but also among Ethiopian migrant communities abroad. Political actors use ethnic identity politics at home and abroad as a tool to foment ethnic grievances. The political power struggle at home is fuelled by narratives that demean certain ethnic groups, fictional and authentic historical records, and hysteria about ethnic minorities - which also has an impact on the diaspora community. Even the Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the diaspora are divided over the church leadership's stance on the Tigray war. Church leaders in Ethiopia supported the government's action against the TPLF, which disappointed Tigrayan communities at home and abroad and divided people in the diaspora within the same religion. Although the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF agreed to end the two-year war in November 2022 through a peace agreement mediated by the African Union (AU), the war left irreparable harms on the various communities in Ethiopia and abroad in the diaspora. Indeed, the Tigray conflict has posed complex challenges to Ethiopian migrants' perceptions and narratives about their identity and sense of belonging within the diaspora community and towards their homeland country. Evolving identity narratives and changing dynamics related to ethnicity, religion and national belonging are important aspects of their experiences. Understanding the multidimensional factors that shape these narratives is crucial, especially to explore how the Tigray conflict influences identity negotiations and broader societal impacts on the Ethiopian diaspora in Switzerland. According to the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), there are around 3000 Ethiopian migrants living in Switzerland. The statistics of the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) also show that a considerable number of Ethiopians live in Switzerland (SEM, 2023).

My research project therefore examines on the one hand, how the war affected ethnic, national, and religious belongings and how belonging evolve during and after the conflict through a careful analysis of the causes. On the other hand, it examines how the diaspora has influenced the conflict in Ethiopia by supporting the warring parties back home and what role it can play in transitional justice, reconciliation, and healing processes in Ethiopia and in the diaspora community. Furthermore, the study aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of how contested identities affect the dynamics of belonging both in the diaspora and towards the homeland. The main research questions are the following: 1) How do Ethiopian migrants perceive their ethnic, religious, and national identity and belonging, and how is this perception influenced by the Tigrayan conflict? Furthermore, 2) how do they negotiate their contested ethnic and national identities and what role does religion play in negotiating conflicts? Using a multidimensional approach, the study aims to uncover the complicated dynamics of perceptions of ethnic, religious, and national belonging before, during and after the Tigray conflict (northern Ethiopia war) using qualitative and quantitative research methodology. I believe that the experiences and narratives of Ethiopian migrants about the northern Ethiopia, Tigray conflict can potentially contribute to reconciliation, transitional justice and healing in Ethiopia and influence broader social dynamics both in the host country and the home country.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Andreas Heuser

Co-Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Elisio Macamo


Berihun Wagaw was born and raised in northern Ethiopia. In 2011, he earned his BA in Civics and Ethics from the University of Mekelle, Tigray, Ethiopia. In 2017, he completed his MA in Political, Legal and Economic Philosophy from the University of Bern, Switzerland. From October 2018 to June 2023, Mr. Wagaw was employed at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) as an intern and later as a research assistant. His work at FHNW included participation in several research projects and activities related to migration, refugees, asylum, integration, neighbourhoods, social spaces, and community development.

Areas of research/ research focus

My research areas focus on African studies, political and legal philosophy, ethics, religion, identity, conflict and belonging, migration, refuge, asylum, integration, community development, Diaspora, and transnational diaspora politics and activism.

List of publications

Negash, S., Wagaw, B., & Drilling, M. (2023). Soziale Arbeit mit Geflüchteten im Kontext von Quartier und Nachbarschaft: in der Soziale Arbeit und Integrationspolitik in der Schweiz. Professionelle Positionsbestimmungen, Seismo Verlag, Zürich.


Dittmann, J., Drilling, M., Wagaw, B., Negash, S., & Käser, N. (2023). Die Nachbarschaft als Türöffnerin. Sozialwirtschaft, 33(6), 16–18.

Dittmann, J., Drilling, M., Negash, S., Wagaw, B., & Käser, N. (2023). Geflüchtete im Spiegel der Integrationsagenda. Zeitschrift für Sozialhilfe ZESO. 4 September 2023. Nr. 3, S. 32–34. Verfügbar unter:


Wagaw, B., Negash, S., & Drilling, M. (2023). Nachbarschaft: Eine unterschätzte Gelegenheitsstruktur der Integration. In SozialAktuell, August 2023. content/uploads/2023/08/SA_06_23_004_004_Inhaltsverzeichnis__nur_PRINT_low-1.pdf


Drilling, M., Negash, S., & Wagaw, B. (2021). Housing and the Social Investment State: An Underestimated Relationship. In Special Issue: Social Policy and Housing: Insights from Europe and Greece. Κοινωνική Πολιτική, 14(0), 35–49.


Wagaw, B., Drilling, M., & Negash, S. (2020). Youth Transition Regime in Switzerland, Social Investment and Youth Oriented Social Policies: In Youth-oriented policies beyond ideal – typical welfare regimes in Europe: Situation and initiatives from the perspective of youth transitions regimes.


Drilling, M., Negash, S., Wagaw, B., Brugger, C., & Esteves Flores, C. (2022). Intergrationszentrum Kanton Aargau. Grobkonzept “Integration und städtischer Raum”. Hochschule für Soziale Arbeit FHNW, Institut Sozialplanung, Organisationaler Wandel und Stadtentwicklung.


Drilling, M., Brugger, C., Wagaw, B., & Negash, S. (2022). Integrationszentrum Kanton Aargau. Grobkonzept “Integration und städtischer Raum”. Teilbericht I: Akteursbefragung und Akteursworkshop. Hochschule für Soziale Arbeit FHNW, Institut Sozialplanung, Organisationaler Wandel und Stadtentwicklung.


Drilling, M., Brugger, C., Wagaw, B., Negash, S., & Esteves Flores, C. (2022). Grobkonzept «Integration und städtischer Raum». Teilbericht II: Bewohnende der kantonalen Unterkünfte - Befragung und Workshops. Hochschule für Soziale Arbeit FHNW, Institut Sozialplanung, Organisationaler Wandel und Stadtentwicklung.

Berihun Wagaw

Centre for African Studies

Rheinsprung 21

4051 Basel