Somali youth and the dangerous journey to Europe

In 2015 over a million people crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. Thousands died trying. At about 358,156 arrivals by sea in 2016, the numbers are less than half of last year yet the number of those that have died or reported missing is higher.

Although small in numbers compared to that of Syrians and Afghans, Somalis continue to be amongst the top nationalities coming to Europe. Accurate statistics on the number of Somalis that have perished either during the sea crossing or at some point during the long journey (which includes the Sahara), are not known. However, on the ground in Somaliland and Puntland stories of the missing and the deceased abound. Despite the known dangers, more leave each day.

These are said to be going on tahriib. Tahriib is an Arabic word locally used to refer to this hazardous journey to Europe. Attempted by mostly young people aged 18 to 21 but some as young as 14, it involves traversing across borders by land and sea often on vehicles not fit for the journey. Human smugglers known to operate in the Horn of Africa and along the route to Libya facilitate this journey. Although the relationship between smugglers and migrants is not always negative, the numerous smugglers operating along different parts of the route and the multiple ‘agents’ involved during the long journey can result in a significant change to the relationship and it is not uncommon for a smuggling arrangement to quickly turn into a human trafficking one. Those travelling are often subjected to abuse, violence and even fatal experiences.

The older Somali generation do all that they can to stop their youth from leaving; they understand the perils of the journey – but they also fear for the livelihoods of the family left behind, which will likely suffer drastically. The younger generation devise a wide range of strategies to leave without being detected by their families.

Their motivations are varied – from peer and social pressures, the feeling of “I am not doing anything here”, to a host of reasons associated with the legacy of war and protracted uncertainties. All a young person has to do when he or she is ready to leave is to approach a smuggler to arrange a departure date. Smugglers mostly operate a ‘leave now-pay later’ scheme, which means young people can leave without having to worry about the initial costs or travel documents.

The journey is of course never free. At some point during the journey smugglers (human traffickers in some instances) demand payment and often hold the young people hostage until their families in the Somali region clear the debt. Failure to pay the ransom can be detrimental to the young person being held. In despair, households utilise multiple means to try and raise the required payment. Many are forced to borrow, or sell key assets such as land often well below market value. The implications of debt or loss of key assets to the future ability of these households to withstand livelihood shocks can be catastrophic.

Why do you put your family through this? We asked young people in Somaliland and Puntland: “I’m not worried about the finances, our relatives will help”, one declared. Another noted: “my family will find a way”. How about your life, are you not worried about the dangers associated with this journey? “As a Muslim you die when and where you were destined; death can happen even if you stay here.”

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