In-depth: Separated Somali Children

Separated Somali Children

NAIROBI, 6 January 2003 (IRIN) - A Gap in their Hearts: the experience of separated Somali children

Somali parents are paying smugglers up to US $10,000 to take their children abroad, as part of a lucrative and exploitative international child-smuggling business. Faced with desperate choices, many parents who see no future in their own country allow their children to be abandoned by "agents" at airports and railway stations in European and North American countries. These separated children - mostly teenagers, but some as young as two or three - arrive burdened with a false identity. Most have been coached or intimidated into assuming a new name, a different age, and an imaginary history. Some are used for benefit fraud in welfare states; others - in the more extreme cases - are used as domestic labour, for prostitution, or fall into the hands of international criminal gangs. While some end up in the competent care of relatives, all, to some extent, struggle with serious psychological problems and identity issues. "There is only one word that describes the feeling they have: loneliness - they don't really live inside society, but on the edge of it," Swedish psychologist Marie Hessle told IRIN.

According to the "agents" who run the child-smuggling business out of Mogadishu, up to 250 children are sent out every month - although international security measures instituted after the events of 11 September have stemmed the flow and increased the cost. Even in post-conflict Somali areas, families spend thousands of dollars to smuggle children abroad because of poor services. Education is given as the main reason for taking such extreme measures, as well as poor health facilities, conflict and poverty.

Yet many of these children fail to realise even their most basic potential as they struggle to cope in an alien education system. Houdan, who is reading for a degree in biomedical technology in Stockholm, arrived in Sweden as an unaccompanied child, and is adamant that the problems outweigh the advantages for unaccompanied children: "It is tragic... they can't take advantage of the opportunities they are sent for because of their circumstances". Many end up as victims of the generation "clash" within the Somali diaspora abroad, and might find themselves tricked into returning to a "home" they hardly remember. Known as "family deportees", these bi-cultural children face daily bullying and isolation; at worst, they meet with extortion, rape and murder by child gangs in their homeland.

The phenomenon of separated children - termed "unaccompanied" in official immigration statistics - poses unique challenges to the host country, raising serious questions about the rights, education and mental health of that child. In this webspecial, IRIN has looked at both sides of the story, and hopes to show that development and aid is imperative rather than relying on erecting more barriers in the receiving countries. After a decade of international neglect to, Somalia's unique circumstances ever since the collapse of the state in 1991 have served to produce one of the largest groups of separated children arriving in Europe and North American countries. With immigration as one of the most important issues in the West today, this report hopes to act as a reminder that Somalia remains an international responsibility, and that continued neglect comes with a price for everyone.

Lead Features
PDF files

 full report (English)
1.4 MB
 full report (Somali)
932 KB

A Gap in their Hearts - the experience of separated Somali children
Personal Accounts
Audio / Visual
In-Depth Feedback

IRIN welcomes feedback. Send your messages to feedback.