Researcher Nimo-Ilhan Ahmed Ali on the families in Somaliland doing their utmost to protect their children from making the perilous journey to Europe, including buying them taxis or paying for foreign degrees.
Written by Nimo-Ilhan Ahmed Ali
The stereotype of the Somali nomad endures. In an age of mass movement, it has often led to the assumption that Somali families support all forms of migration. The large numbers of young Somalis risking the long journey to Europe, known in Somali slang as “going on tahriib,” has reinforced this idea.
But it is far from the truth. For many families and administrations in the Somali regions of Somaliland and Puntland, this youth flight is seen as a national disaster. Far from encouraging youngsters to leave, families and communities are devising strategies to persuade them to stay.
A number of factors, from peer pressure to youth unemployment and the legacy of war, are driving the phenomenon of tahriib. The epic journeys involved, the multiple borders and the perilous crossings – first of the Sahara and then of the Mediterranean – are well understood by the families of the young men (and sometimes young women) who attempt them.
Families and officials alike have overwhelmingly come to see tahriib in tremendously negative terms, calling it an “aafo qaran,” or a “national disaster.”
Awareness campaigns designed to discourage young people from leaving are gaining momentum. When young people leave, they often do so without informing their families, for fear that parents and relatives will rush to intervene and try to bring them home. Like young people everywhere, young Somalis have their own strategies for keeping their plans undetected.
An emerging array of tactics are being deployed to turn sons and daughters off of the idea of going on tahriib. Some parents have made promises to their children that they will send them abroad for higher education – mostly to the wider East and the Horn of Africa region, but in some cases as far as India, Pakistan, Malaysia or Turkey by households with the means to do so.
In Somaliland, higher education has boomed in the recent years of relative stability, and in places like Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, over a dozen universities operate. Unlike rump Somalia, where civil conflict continues, the northern breakaway region has enjoyed a period of extended stability and is seeking recognition as an independent state.
But peace and the expansion of local education has not yet reduced the cachet of a degree from a foreign university, which remains highly valued in the local labor market. Foreign degrees are associated with high quality, and their holders, according to local employers, are equipped with crucial work skills like time management.
Other parents have tried to persuade their children to stay by helping them start their own business. One of the most popular incentives deployed has been the gift of a small car, which can be operated as a taxi in bigger towns and cities.
In Hargeisa, these taxis are known as “hooyo ha tahriibin” – which roughly translates to a mother begging: “My son, do not go on tahriib.” A taxi business gives these young men – and they are almost exclusively male – a shot at avoiding unemployment and making a living. The strategy has become so popular it has led some to question whether the taxi market can absorb more newcomers.
The fact that households and authorities are trying to deter young people from going to Europe raises an important question: Why would Somali households that supposedly favor migration stop their family members from migrating?
In contrast to the predominant Somali nomad narrative, not all forms of migration are valued or pursued by Somalis. Tahriib presents households in the region with a host of costs that have huge negative implications for the welfare of those left behind.
Tahriib is immensely costly to the household. It is commonplace for smugglers to extort money from their clients at several stages along the route. For many Somali migrants, what begins as a deal with a smuggler can transform into a situation akin to being trafficked.
When this happens, it almost always involves ransom calls to those back at home. Families have to fork out large amounts of money or their sons or daughters face being held as prisoners or worse.
Smugglers active in Somaliland have developed and refined a “leave-now, pay-later” model, which means many young people embark on their journeys paying next to nothing upfront. When they are held captive at a later stage in the journey, their families suddenly find themselves footing the bill. In such emergencies, families have few choices but to reach out to relatives, borrow money or sell valuable assets. The last of these options can be disastrous, as selling off assets against the clock means they often have to settle for less. The consequences of not raising the ransom on time can be fatal for those being held captive many borders away.
The full costs associated with tahriib go beyond the financial. Deaths resulting from any number of issues, from unsafe vehicles crashing or overcrowded boats sinking, are commonplace. Some young migrants simply starve or are murdered by smugglers and traffickers when things go wrong.
Accounts of young Somalis who have died attempting to make this journey are widely acknowledged on the ground. The emotional distress and disruption to ordinary life for those left behind, as they wait to hear whether their loved ones have made it to Europe, is incalculable.
International migration provided a lifeline for many Somalilanders during the civil war years. Remittances continue to be an important source of support for the local economy even after a period of comparative peace and security. Tahriib too often comes at a price that even the nomad is not prepared to pay.
Nimo-Ilhan Ahmed Ali is a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her PhD research examined the expansion of higher education sector in Somaliland. She has been involved in the initial planning of the Somaliland National Employment Strategy.