By Liban Ahmed
The on-going tragedy of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has left many people asking why so many choose to risk their lives attempting to travel to Europe in boats piloted by unscrupulous or incompetent human traffickers. A second question is what these immigrants’ countries of origin are doing about the problems that compel young people to make the journey.
Those two questions are especially relevant to Somalia, where a young person’s hopes of making successful life for themselves are often seen as being pinned on making a journey that has become known as tahriib.
In 1992 I, along with 200 others, boarded a boat at Bosaso Port to seek asylum in Yemen. Our boat docked at Aden’s Tawahi Port where, after several attempts to turn us away, the Port authorities, allowed us to disembark. We were temporarily accommodated in warehouses. After two weeks the Yemeni government and UNHCR transported us to Medinat Al Shaa’ab refugee .
A young Somali who was born in 1990 is today 25 years old. He or she has never seen Somalia’s pre-1991 hybrid educational system to which parents contributed some fee to supplement teachers’ income, nor did she see Mogadishu’s free system of higher education. When she looks into the future she will see what those of us who fled Somalia after 1991 had seen: a country divided up and exploited by politicians who do not care about the future of their young people.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Somalis viewed Yemen as the route to refugee life or generally as a labourer in Saudi Arabia. The hazardous Sahara route, notorious for ruthless robber Somalis called Ma-gafe, who holds immigrants hostage for ransom have replaced the Yemen route although now Somali refugees are fleeing the Yemen civil war.
The Daily Telegraph reports that some immigrants who were granted refugee status have links with human traffickers. Italian authorities have wiretapped an Eritrean refugee “who is accused of masterminding the smuggling operations from Catania in eastern Sicily, where many migrant boats end up.”
To have better life opportunities is the main motivation for young Somali immigrants who choose to embark on hazardous immigration. What makes 2015 Somali immigration trend different from that of 1995 is not the only route to Europe but the importance many young Somalis attach to taking risks in the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea. In 1995 the impact of the Somali Diaspora on Somalia’s shattered economy was negligible. Neither cross-country money transfer companies nor mobile money services existed in Somalia then. Somalis’ perception of travel and geography has been shaped by the 24-hour Somali TV stations, the Internet and telecommunications. In 1995 the Somali Diaspora in the Middle East and East Africa communicated with their relatives in Somalia by ham radio (known in Somalia as Taar) based at some Somali embassies as the country had no telephone. Diaspora success is much better communicated through media.
Every year hundreds of young Somalis graduate from high schools and universities in Somalia. Young Somalis who are facing the prospect of long-term unemployment in a Diaspora-fuelled local economy contemplate immigration to Europe or eastern or southern Africa.
Addressing the problem of youth immigration should be a joint task by the international community and Somali business community. Somali money transfer companies, telecom companies, livestock exporters should put their heads together to create a fund for Somali youths.
In the absence of taxation regime in Somalia, businesses ought to be helped with reinvesting their capital in ventures that provide employment opportunities for young people. A Somali youth fund to which Somalis business and Somalia’s donor friends can contribute could be a first step to address youth unemployment in Somalia.
The youth fund will aim to accomplish the dual tasks of creating gainful employment for competent secondary school leavers and university graduates on one hand and awarding business grants to young Somali men and women with vocational skills on the other.
We have to go beyond denouncing human traffickers or raising awareness about risks associated with tahriib. The Somali political and business elites should join forces to reverse the trend that sets many young Somalia on the path to hazardous immigration. Silence or apathy towards the plight of young Somali immigrants is as bad as the structural and political violence that makes them flee their homeland in the first place