In-depth: Separated Somali Children

SOMALIA: Chapter 1: Unaccompanied Somali children: the push factor

"She will miss her parents because she is young, but it cannot be avoided - there is no education here" - Arriving in the children's house, Carlslund Refugee Centre, Sweden
NAIROBI, 6 January 2003 (IRIN) - Introduction

Children are sent out of Somali territories because of a chronic social emergency after a decade of destruction and international neglect. Many of the separated Somali children arriving in Europe are coming from areas affected by insecurity or actual conflict in southern Somalia and Mogadishu, but children are also sent from the more peaceful post-conflict areas.

Loss of livelihood, continued conflict, and the absence of basic services - particularly education and health - has meant there is a general lack of faith in the future. Sending teenagers and young children abroad has become a widespread economic strategy, in the hope that the child will eventually be in the position to regularly send money home.

[Background 15]

Extreme conditions, desperate solutions

According to Amina Haji Elmi, founder and director of the Institute for the Education and Development of Women in Mogadishu, Somalis will go to extremes to try and send their children abroad. "Parents are selling their houses and moving in with relatives to send their children…I think it's a combination of fear and lack of educational opportunities." Where there are six or more children, the parents try to send at least two, generally the older ones, Amina told IRIN. "Everything has collapsed here: they say, how can I keep my children here?" She believes the only way to stop the practice is to have "schools, hospitals, disarmament, peace, a government and more".

Others emphasise the economic strategy. "The point is that the child, once sent abroad, becomes a source of income," Abdirashid Haji Nur of Concern, Mogadishu, told IRIN. For many, it is the income a child will provide once on welfare in the host country that appears to determine the decision to send them abroad rather than quality of education.

One Somali humanitarian worker in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, described the desire to get a visa as a national obsession. "Each person here would sell their soul to get a visa - they would sell their house, their camels, their possessions, their gold. They are happy to pay up to US $10,000 to an agent and take a gamble to get someone abroad." Although Somaliland is relatively secure and peaceful, residents say the absence of decent education facilities, and hospitals, and a poor, limited economy still encourage families to send children overseas.

In Mogadishu, many parents who have sent children abroad said they planned to join them once their youngest children were safely out of Somalia. However, over time, the children and the parents become culturally estranged. Parents and the extended family have to reconcile themselves to the fact that their children will shed much of their cultural identity, abandon their language and become lax in the practice of their Islamic religion. One mother, Fatum Muhammad Ali, 43, said when she eventually saw her oldest son again, he barely stayed two weeks in Mogadishu. "He came and asked to leave immediately," she told IRIN - but said she did not regret sending him away, despite being hurt by his behaviour. "I suppose it would be sad if these were different circumstances, but as it is, we have bigger problems - our main problem is the war."

Those interviewed in Mogadishu pointed out that many of the families who sent children overseas were wealthy enough to afford to protect their children, either by keeping them safe in their guarded compounds or providing them with armed escorts. But as such an existence is stressful and expensive, many prefer to find a way to get the children into a productive and secure environment overseas that will benefit both the child and the family. These families can afford to pay for education in Mogadishu's private schools or hire individual tutors, but prefer to accumulate a much larger sum of money to smuggle them abroad. "My children are my assets", one woman who had sent four children to Sweden and UK stated bluntly.

[Relative in Hargeysa, on decision to send 14-year-old girl overseas alone 17]

Photo: IRIN/Jenny Matthews-Network
Girls are considered a better investment - An increasing number of Somali girls are being sent abroad
Adapting traditions

Somalis are ready to take the risk of sending unaccompanied children away partly because it is "not an entirely alien concept", one Somali aid worker explained to IRIN. Traditionally, Somali society is nomadic, with families depending on the clan network as they move around geographically - often covering great distances and moving across national borders and ethnic boundaries. Before the collapse of the Somali state, it was normal to send young children away to stay for long periods with grandparents and close relatives. However, with the collapse of the state and the resulting exodus, this tradition has been distorted: young children are being sent away to alien cultures for indefinite periods without the support of close relatives.

Initially, more boys were sent abroad than girls. According to figures from immigration sources in Europe, more Somali boys were arriving in Europe in the early to mid 1990s. Families sent them away in the early stage of the war, fearing they would get caught up with the "morians" - young armed militia - either as fighters, or as targeted victims of the clan-based war. This was coupled with the fact that tradition favoured education privileges going to the older male siblings. However, by the late 1990s, there was a demonstrable change in the trend, with an increasing number of unaccompanied girls being sent abroad. In Sweden, immigration figures show of 461 unaccompanied children arriving in 2001, 48 are Somali, of whom 29 are girls. Somalis were the second largest group after Iraqi Kurds - 186 of whom only 20 were girls.

Investing in girls

Research by IRIN in Somali territories showed that girls were now often considered a better investment. Somalis said they had learnt that girls were "more trusted" and "more productive" overseas, while boys were more likely to slip into criminal behaviour and fail to send money home. This is likely to be related to the particular difficulties many Somali boys and men have when in the Western culture they lose their traditional role and authority, exacerbated by unemployment. Women, on the other hand, say they find their role is elevated in countries - like Britain - where the female head of household claims and collects state benefits. In Somaliland - a highly conservative society - this shift towards girls is a recognized social phenomenon. Recent plays and poems have reflected the relative merits of sending girls abroad, and the problems the young boys and men face in the West.

But the breakdown of traditional family structures has exposed these young separated Somali girls to particular vulnerabilities. Formerly there were strict rules governing the identities of the relatives who could be trusted to look after a daughter. One mother explained how it used to work: "I would trust my sister with my child, but not my brother, because he would be married to another woman, who would be looking after the children. My husband's sister I can trust, but not my husband's brother. But if my brother or my husband's brother is a bachelor, I can trust him." Under the present social emergency, Somali families have become willing to send children away to very distant relatives. Moreover, relatives who might be traditionally entrusted with the care of children may prove to be highly unsuitable as guardians in a Western environment. "Parents here don't realize that an uncle has changed dramatically in the Western environment, and now drinks, and is jobless, and has no one to look after the house, and can barely afford to look after himself," one "returnee" from Britain said to IRIN.

Yet Somali families remaining in the home country are unwilling to acknowledge how difficult it is for relatives abroad to look after unaccompanied children; the perspective is that anything abroad must be better than home. "We are willing to take more risks, because we believe that anyone living abroad must be living in luxury," said one mother. Because of the strong oral tradition of Somali culture, the extent of communication - particularly through telephone and Internet - maintained between relatives abroad and at home is unusual, compared with other diaspora and refugee groups. It has had the effect of encouraging families to send young children overseas, in the sometimes misguided belief that the clan network continues to work as effectively abroad.

As a result, some adamantly refuse to believe that a child can end up living a lonely existence in a hostel. "I don't believe our children are ever alone, because every child has their lineage they can always find a relative - maybe they get called 'unaccompanied' because the relatives are afraid to come forward to the authorities," stated one Somali. Few realize just how enormous the gap is between the dream and the reality.
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A Gap in their Hearts - the experience of separated Somali children
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