Child smuggling from Somali territories is now so widespread that it has become a critical informal institution. The phenomenon is not restricted to privileged or "elite" children - as widely held in the receiving countries - but has become a typical responsibility within the wider Somali family. Those who arrange the transportation of children out of Somalia now consider it a legitimate strategy of survival.3 The more respectable term "agent" is used for smugglers.

"If an agent manages to smuggle five children out in the course of 30 days, he becomes flavour of the month. There will be people queuing outside his offices," said Abdullahe Allas, director of the Dr Ismail Jumaleh Human Rights Organisation in Mogadishu. A common phenomenon in the capital, Abdullahe said child smuggling had become widespread enough for it to enter the conversation of modern Somali society. It is known colloquially as hambaar, which means to ride piggyback. "When someone looks tired, people say: he did not sleep last night; is his daughter hambaar?"

Smuggling practices

There is no precise method of establishing how many children are smuggled out of Somali territories. Immigration figures in European countries show that Somalis are among the largest groups of unaccompanied children, but the data is based only on those children applying for asylum.

Smugglers in Mogadishu told IRIN that some 250 children were being sent out of the capital every month before the 11 September 2001 event, but that increased security at airports worldwide had stemmed the flow considerably - reducing it to about 40 to 60 children successfully delivered to their destinations each month. However, a year later, traffic out of Mogadishu was said to be picking up again with the most resourceful agents opening up different routes. Children are instead being ferried out to midway destinations in South East Asia or previously unexplored countries in the Middle East, with countries only marginally involved in America's "war against terror" most likely to become choice transit points.

Agents in Mogadishu use international carriers, and private airlines operating on a limited regional basis. The tickets are purchased at travel agencies in the country of destination or at a nearby midway point, such as Dubai and Amman. Smugglers say they always use cash.

Prices have doubled since 11 September 2001, with the average transfer up to $7,000 from $3,500, according to research by IRIN in Mogadishu and Hargeysa. Agents have also shied away from smuggling the older teenagers, and tend to limit themselves to transporting no more than two children from the same family. One agent told IRIN that it now cost $10,000 to smuggle older children abroad. With the odds of success slimmer and the cost significantly greater, families involved say the traffickers are now required to return one third to half of the sum in the event of failure. However, agents say that many people are willing to try again if they fail the first time, and that the second attempt is nearly always successful. Final destinations are selected on the basis of the country's welfare policy and the presence of relatives.

The repercussions of failure are generally borne by the children themselves, with the agents abandoning them at the first sign of trouble - even if they have not reached their final destination. According to human rights activist Abdullahe Allas, six children were abandoned at the airport at Istanbul by an agent a few days before his interview with IRIN in June 2002. "It took airport officials a long time to establish where the children were from: they had been ordered [by the smuggler] not to say one word."

3 See definition of trafficking and smuggling in introduction. In the absence of any evidence of "trafficking" from Somali territories, the term smuggling has been used in this chapter - although there is a strong possibility of some of the Somali smugglers being linked to wider international trafficking gangs.

[Somali mother who failed to reach Sweden]

Smuggling - the paperwork

There are many ways to smuggle children abroad; agents operate successfully because of a wily willingness to constantly change strategies and routes. Agents are also a diverse group of people - men and women, young and old - who may be smuggling on top of a regular business or job, or devoting themselves exclusively to this profitable black market trade. Smugglers are well known in Mogadishu and, although not particularly well liked, appear to command a degree of respect for the work they do. Immigration officials in Europe told IRIN that smugglers live in European cities and travelled frequently to places like Nairobi and Addis Ababa to conduct their lucrative business, but that the security and the legal systems are inadequate to deal with them.

Table II: Asylum applications from unaccompanied minors in 26 European countries
Source: UNHCR/Separated Children in Europe Programme
One agent agreed, on the condition of anonymity, to explain to IRIN how he operated from Mogadishu. He said there were five ways of smuggling people into Great Britain, the destination he deals with exclusively. The first, and most common one, involves the use of a legitimate passport issued to a Somali child with British nationality. The agent "borrows" the passport in Britain for about $720 - or 500 pounds sterling - and takes it to Mogadishu. There, he screens children and selects those with vaguely corresponding facial features. Sometimes, boys are passed for girls and vice-versa. "Sometimes what happens is you have a passport for a 15 year old girl, and you have to take out a 13 year old boy," explained one of the staff of an NGO operating in Mogadishu - "the boy has to dress like a girl". Agents confirmed that this has been successful as a strategy.

The second most common method involves filing a claim for a lost passport through the post, but submitting a different - but similar - picture. The request apparently takes only a few weeks to process, with no contact ever taking place between immigration officials and the applicants.

The third, and most risky technique works through a racket inside European immigration offices, the agent said. "Virgin" passports are stolen, photographs attached, necessary stamps added, and then sold to the smugglers. The passports are genuine documents, but the identities they eventually acquire have no legitimacy. When they are put through a computer, the passports will betray the false identity. "I had two girls the other day, and they [immigration officials] did a check on the computer and we had to come back," the agent said. He was evasive when pressed on the fate of the girls.

A fourth method is to assume false paternity or maternity of the children, who are then placed on the "parents'" passport. Finally, another method involves manipulating rights regarding unification of families. Agents of both sexes claim the right to be rejoined with false spouses, and then apply for citizenship.

[Mogadishu agent, on smuggling children abroad]

Table III: Nationalities of unaccompanied child asylum applicants in selected European countries (2000)
CountryNumber of applicants
Sierra Leone973
Sri Lanka287
Source: UNHCR/Separated Children in Europe Programme Countries of asylum: Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, UK>
Immigration rackets

Somali smugglers would not be able to operate so effectively without facilitation by international criminal gangs and internal immigration fraud. Corruption within immigration departments in neighbouring countries is a critical link in the chain.4 Both Kenya and Ethiopia have significant populations of ethnic Somalis, so those fleeing Somali territories can hide among legitimate citizens, obtain national identity papers, and use clan connections with officials. Young Somali adults now living in Europe, who were smuggled out when they were children, told IRIN almost without exception that they were first taken to a Nairobi suburb, Eastleigh, or were dealt with by agents in Addis Ababa.

A British official told IRIN that immigration fraud associated with the Somali exodus to Ethiopia became "more organized" around 1995. As a result, a new policy of DNA testing was introduced by the British embassy in Addis Ababa, specifically for Somali claims. (Prior to that, DNA testing was used voluntarily by an applicant to prove a relationship, but the British government decided to use it in the case of Somalis as a blanket policy to disprove identity claims associated with reunification.) According to the official, this was because there was "a massive problem of identification" with people returning to the embassies with different identities - and the British government was convinced that the cost involved was justified. In the mid 1990s, the British Foreign Office had issued authority to the British embassy to grant visas to Somalis for reunification purposes, based on specific applications by those who had a legitimate status in Great Britain. While it proved extremely difficult to track down the real relatives - as many were dead or missing in the panic exodus - many others presented false identities and documentation in the hope they could secure a way out.

According to the official, this included "a lot of dishonesty over children". There were some genuine cases where a separated child - picked up in Mogadishu or during the exodus - had been brought up by others as their own child, but many cases concerning children were opportunistic and fraudulent. "You could say there was good reason for the lying, there was desperation, and visa officers had some compassion…[but] there were some Somali groups abusing the system, taking money, and becoming organized," the official told IRIN.

Those "working the system" were not only Somalis, however. Former British immigration officials called "immigration consultants" offered advice for a price to those desperate to get out of the region. With their knowledge of immigration procedures, these people could "run rings round lawyers and make a lot money - some even came to Addis Ababa", an official source told IRIN. The source said some of these "consultants" lacked moral scruples and use their specialist knowledge to assist drug and child traffickers. They tend to work on 50 percent immediate payment, and 50 percent on completion. These former officials were particularly successful, said an official source, as "immigration in general is a matter of balance of probabilities rather than proving beyond reasonable doubt." Another group that benefited from the panic exodus were some British Somalis who had turned the plight of their people into a profitable business by the mid 1990s, official sources said.

Deportation practices - using agents

The Somali agent network also exploits the movement of people back to the homelands - sometimes with the complicity of those who condemn the outward traffic. Agents have worked as 'middlemen' for Western governments deporting rejected asylum seekers back to Somali territories, in the absence of recognised authority or official structures. How to return rejected asylum seekers to Somali territories is a contentious and shadowy issue, as deportations and repatriations must, according to international law, follow recognized legal procedures with recognized governments and structures. In practical terms it appears to be left to the Western governments to decide how - if at all - to approach deportations. For example, in the self-declared state of Somaliland - which has been accorded a sort of informal recognition in that international agencies operate through the official structures set up there - there have been recent approaches to the authorities by the British government to start receiving repatriated Somalis from abroad. In the case of Mogadishu, where the partially-recognised Transitional National Government was established in the capital in October 2002, there were reports in British and US newspapers that a group of about 30 Somalis with American citizenship (or who were in the process of applying for it) were deported to Mogadishu after the events of 11 September.

Ethiopia and Kenya shouldered a massive influx of refugees during the collapse of the Somali state, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the peak of the influx in late 1991, Kenya hosted some 300,000 Somalis in refugee camps in its North Eastern and Coastal provinces, while others moved into the capital Nairobi and other urban centres. Ethiopia received and hosted the exodus from northern Somalia - now known as Somaliland - when an estimated 300,000 crossed the border in 1988. Many of those forced to flee tried, at all costs, to avoid getting trapped in the harsh, impoverished environment of the official refugee camps. Getting overseas was pursued with indefatigable determination.
Local Somali officials and individuals complained to IRIN during the course of its research on the child smuggling phenomenon that embassy staff from neighbouring countries employed local agents for deportation cases. According to local authorities in Somaliland, initial deportations by European governments were no more than a dumping exercise from light aircraft on the long runway in the northern port of Berbera.5 In some cases, embassy staff have hired agents operating in Djibouti to receive the deported person, who then arrange the return to Somali territories by air or land. Somali officials also claimed to IRIN that the embassies made deals with local airlines, and arranged the tickets through a third country - like Dubai - to get the deportees brought in like any other passenger. "These cases are arranged informally through the agents [smugglers] without involving transit countries on an official level," complained one Somali official. As a result, some deportees were brought back to the wrong territories, or arrived in a traumatized state, convinced they will be killed at the airport.

"The way they do it contravenes all proper procedures and laws regarding deportation - the deportee finds himself on the way back, in the hands of agents, and asking: Am I safe? What clan is controlling the airport? Am I going to die?" said one Somali official. "Western governments refuse to recognize Somaliland, or the government in Mogadishu, but are happy to deal with any authority - or none at all - in order to send Somalis back."

[Somali boy, on traveling with agents]

4 For example, Kenyan newspapers carried numerous articles in 2002 on corruption scandals in the immigration department. See Daily Nation, 30 August 2002 "Travellers detained over forged papers" and Nation expose of immigration rackets in a series of articles in February 2002.
5 Such cases took place around 1996-8, according to sources in Berbera and Hargeysa

International criminal networks

There is a paucity of hard information on child smuggling and trafficking. An official of Interpol told IRIN that that while there were major investigations carried out on prostitution rings, pornography and international criminal cartels, relatively little was known about the international child trafficking networks. Authorities in European countries admit that in many cases they never get to see a child as it transits illegally through from one destination to another. Sometimes the children end up being left for long periods of time in "middle countries" before arriving at the intended destination. In a minority of cases, international criminal gangs snatch or recruit the children. For example, a group of Tanzanian girls in Sweden described to psychiatrists how an African woman came to their parents and offered girls "educational opportunities" abroad. The girls were taken to Sweden by the woman, kept in her house and shown sex videos - for "technique" - and then put on the streets as prostitutes.

[Somali father, on sending his first child away]

In 2001, 87 unaccompanied minors in Sweden went 'missing' - meaning they arrived, were registered or accommodated by the authorities, but then disappeared to an unknown destination. There is speculation that international organized crime accounts for a small number of these 'missing' children.

All professionals working with unaccompanied children agree that the children have become more vulnerable as communication technology becomes more sophisticated. According to staff in the Carlslund refugee centre in Stockholm, almost every child gets a mobile phone three or four days after arrival - "we don't know from where, or how". There is a debate in Sweden on how far the refugee child's liberties should be restricted in the interest of safety.

The main refugee centre is an open unit, and the children travel freely to town. They also have access to the Internet in the centre's library. The majority of 'missing' children are believed to have been moved on to another country by relatives, or gone "underground" if the asylum process is "not going their way". But one social worker told IRIN that "even if we lost one child to the international gangs, and didn't know about it, that is a huge scandal". She also pointed out that according to the principles of the UN Children's Convention7, no separated minor should be put in the position where they lose faith in the official process.

At the open refugee unit in Sweden, the police are concerned about the ease with which some people can come and contact the children without having to give any details about themselves. The children in Carlslund know one such person as the "mobile phone man", a police source told IRIN. While there is no hard evidence that unaccompanied children in Carlslund are being used by organized crime for child pornography and prostitution, the police source said, "I'm sure it has happened and might happen again, we just don't have the evidence."

An international police source agreed that there was little information on missing unaccompanied children, and said that the special vulnerability of these children was a relatively recent problem. The source pointed out that in Sweden, there is no available legislation8 on trafficking or smuggling, and the police must use the penal code until new legislation is adopted.

[United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child]

More resources were also needed to investigate child trafficking, including tracking down missing children, the source said. Canada, for example, compiles a missing children's list; and the United States has recently injected more funding into investigating Internet paedophile rings. In Europe, human rights and humanitarian organizations have called for greater efforts to be made to protect unaccompanied children, both in terms of appropriate legislation and resources available for investigating the trafficking networks.

The unique situation in Somali territories means that child smuggling is a growing industry, in an environment that facilitates smugglers and international criminal networks. Continuing international isolation and a general absence of development or emergency assistance encourage this.

In Mogadishu, the centre for child smuggling in Somalia, there are no functioning security organs or institutions with the capacity to challenge the trade, let alone work to halt it. Where a functioning authority exists, moreover, there is no inclination to stop a trade that has to all intents and purposes become an accepted means of survival - smuggling a child abroad accrues no social shame in a society where the future is so bleak and circumstances so extreme. Even in a relatively successful post-conflict society like Somaliland, children continue to be sent overseas because of the on going socio-economic emergency - specifically, the lack of education and health facilities.

But as a strategy of survival the cost is high. All the evidence suggests that the effect on the generation of children being shipped out of the country will be a traumatic legacy for Somali society.

[Comments on a missing Somali girl, February 2002]

7 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly 20 November 1989 Resolution 44/25
8 Concerns over legislation were voiced by Swedish police at the time of the interview February 2002

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