Unaccompanied children live in a shadowy land of false identity and isolation. Once a separated child has been given asylum on the basis of the story they give at the port of entry, they must stick to that story - or face the threat of deportation. Asylum status can be revoked if there is any evidence that it was gained on pretence. In the case of separated children, who are frequently forced to give a false identity, this has serious implications. It means they must, as teenagers and adults, continue to live with it. "We need a new word for 'lying'", asserts psychologist Marie Hessle, who works with unaccompanied children in Sweden. Hessle and other professionals suggest that separated children need a legal and psychological mechanism that allows them to "confess" their real identity.

Relatives - sometimes distant or exploitative - are frequently unable to cope with the multitude of behavioral and social problems associated with separated children. Normal adolescent identity issues become distorted. "Such a child needs a lot of tolerance, especially in the adolescent stage… I think only the biological parents can really take those kind of ups and downs with children", one member of the Somali diaspora said. Somali educational specialist, Hussein Hassan puts it more bluntly: "our children who come here suffer from an identity crisis. They have a gap in their hearts."

Detention and institutionalisation

Lack of appropriate support means that many separated children end up in correctional institutions. Social workers, police personnel, immigration officials, psychiatrists and members of government said during the course of research that there were a high number of Somali children in juvenile detention, psychiatric units and correctional homes.21

In Sweden, the director of a juvenile correctional institution said that while the teenage search for identity can lead to criminality and depression, refugee children are more likely to end up in the criminal system: "foreign-born children are strongly over-represented in the juvenile institutions." A police source agreed that the number of foreign-born children in juvenile centres was high, with more than 80% in some institutions. According to the source, children with identity and separation problems find it particularly difficult to establish a trusting relationship with adults, or figures of authority.

[Director of a Swedish juvenile centre, on separated children]

Ilhan, now a young adult, arrived in Stockholm when she was 15. She told IRIN that she had a difficult time adapting at first, and now tries to help other unaccompanied children through her work in a women's group. Many suffer from confusion and depression over their identity, and are preoccupied with issues of integration and "belonging", she said. One of a group of 15 separated children in the refugee centre when she first arrived in Sweden, Ilhan has kept in touch with most of them. She told IRIN only two of the original group managed to successfully get through the Swedish education system. "Some got pregnant, some became alcoholics, some are on drugs, and some ended up in juvenile centers. Some are on their own in apartments and ostracized by the Somali community…we try to help the girls who get pregnant and have children on their own." When she describes the difficult experience of being an unaccompanied child, she talks about feeling "out of place" and being "a bit of an outcast", or being "ostracized" and "lonely".

Isolation and depression

Somali community worker in London, Dahabo Isa told IRIN that it took time for the diaspora to realize the scale of the problem with unaccompanied children, many of whom she describes as now suffering "mental health problems". The stress of loneliness, exploitation for benefit, lack of accommodation, as well as identity problems, can have a shocking toll on young teenagers, she said. "I have heard of suicide cases, where these young Somali children attempt to kill themselves, cut themselves, or throw themselves in front of trains…we try to do what we can, but there is no [institutional] priority given to these children."

[On identity problems, educationalist Hussein Hassan]

Members of the diaspora point out that even adults struggle to deal with the issues of assimilation and integration, with a varying degree of success. Somalis in exile are generally perceived to have a strong sense of culture and community and a positive self-image. But that sense of belonging to a community, or a family, is something separated children rarely have, professionals say. The exodus from Somali territories has over the last decade resulted in disjointed families; parents are unable to act as a bridge from the old country to the new. Separated children are forced to make the leap without the bridge, and frequently fail to get across.

In a study on children refugees in Finland, Somali adolescents were found to have a good self-concept regarding physical appearance compared with other refugees - and even rated better in the study than the Finnish adolescent.22 But the same study found that a slow system of family reunification meant that Somali children living in orphanages suffered from depression and psychosomatic symptoms, and had, in some cases "started to use alcohol and drugs to cope with reality." It said Somali minors involved in the study who had been waiting for their families for 3-7 years found that reunification can come too late - "family relations cannot be rebuilt, and the cultural clashes have been evident." Unaccompanied minors felt more than anything else that they were alone, with no one to talk to them about their traumatic experiences, the study said. It recommended that separated Somali children "have a friend who would listen and understand. Someone that can be trusted." Other problems listed in the study included a sense of confinement among young Somalis who tended not to go out in the evenings because many of them had experienced verbal or physical racist attacks.

The problem of racism in European countries is an oft-repeated complaint, and is a fundamental part of the stress and fear separated children experience in Europe and North American countries.
21 IRIN was unable to find official statistics on the presence of Somali children in such institutions in European countries.
22 See 'Psychosocial Adjustment among Somali Refugees in Finland', by Nina Forsten-Lindman in Variations on the theme of Somaliness (International Congress of Somali Studies, Finland, 1998).

Somali minors on racism in Finland

"Five men ran after me with baseball bats in their hands. They hunted me by car. We managed to get in safety to a house. I am always afraid when I am walking in town. They still haven't caught me once. No…There have been many threatening situations. It has lead to the fact that I don't go out so much. For instance today it is Friday, but I am going to stay at home because I am too afraid of going anywhere."

"Last May I was fighting with a Finn in a bus. The Finn said: "f***, look a nigger. I do not like them. I am allergic to them." I told him to get out of the bus then. He hit me from behind. I hit him back and my middle finger was broken. He left the bus. Every weekend people shout "nigger"…but I have only once been in a fight."

"I have often been abused. Somebody hit me with a bottle in my head, another one with a base-ball bat- I've gotten stitches every now and then."

Source: Variations on the Theme of Somaliness (International Congress of Somali Studies, Finland, 1999)
"A tendency towards aggression"

The study also noted the high incident of Somali minors dropping out and missing school lessons. This was attributed to depression and poor motivation among young children who missed their parents and pined for a family reunion. Most of the Somali children interviewed had some siblings remaining in their home country; some did not know if their relatives were alive or dead. All described some sort of loss, including those who had witnessed a parent being killed, or siblings dying in conflict or as a result of the upheaval.

Sheila Melzak, a psychiatrist working with traumatized children23, including separated Somali children, said that Somali children as a group demonstrated a tendency towards aggression and violence in London schools. She told IRIN that, in her experience, there were a high proportion of Somali children in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile detention centres. She attributed this to the high number of Somali children who were separated from their parents, and who had suffered trauma with the collapse of the state. Melzak also pointed to the gap between generations in the Somali diaspora, and the traditionalism of the adults in exile who may be dismissive or distrustful of concepts of mental trauma and depression among the children. Like other professionals, she described institutional and bureaucratic responsibility for separated children in Britain as weak and confused, especially for 16-18 year olds. Under present policies, separated children tend to suffer further instability by being shifted around to different accommodation, to different boroughs, and sometimes to different geographical areas.24

"The children have so little stability in their lives…[16-18 year olds] don't really fit in anywhere. They stop being the responsibility of the schools, and of the social services, and they are 'placed in the community' - which means they have a very tenuous connection to anyone," Shelia Melzak said. Although some authorities create special teams to deal with separated children, lack of resources mean the teams are often short lived or suffer a high turnover of staff - "so the children don't build up any real trust".

Cultural no man's land

Although there is a paucity of statistical information on the experience and circumstances of separated children, existing evidence points to a probability that they are likely to end up in a cultural 'no man's land', unable to "belong" to either their original culture or their new country. Such children appear to encounter little tolerance. Both the host country and the Somali community are likely to consider the child's behaviour inappropriate, unproductive and "anti-social". As a result, a number of Somali children are returned back to Somalia by relatives - "family deportees" - in a turn of events that can equal the trauma of being sent away in the first place.

Photo: IRIN
Ismahan: "I liked my independence... but I didn't have such a good relationship with the Somali community."

23 Medical Foundation for Torture Victims, London
24 Britain has a policy of dispersal of refugees and asylum seekers, which means unaccompanied children are likely to be sent away from their established communities or place of arrival. For more information see Cold Comfort, Save the Children

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A Gap in their Hearts - the experience of separated Somali children
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