Hungering for Something Beyond: Youth aspirations in Somaliland

“Send me money, I will continue with my journey or I will die on a Libyan Ship”– Migrant held for ransom in Libya

September is graduation season in Somaliland. Between 2,500 and 3,000 students receive university degrees at various levels every year. What next? A limited number of new graduates will access employment opportunities in the development and humanitarian sector, or with local and regional authorities, while a small number will forge a career in the private sector. The Somaliland National Development Plan 2012-2016 indicates that unemployment among the youth stands at 75% much higher than the national average, and estimates that young people under 30, constitute 67-70% of the approximately 3.5 million population. As graduation season nears its end, and celebrations honoring fresh graduates quiet down, parents begin to worry, the next season will be that of their children joining mixed migration flows to Libya, many of them hoping to eventually reach the shores of Europe.

By any means necessary

Parents and relatives generally discourage irregular movement of their children to Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Europe. In their wisdom, the risks far outweigh any potential gain. However, youth faced with a lack of choice, hold aspirations and ascribe to a culture that life only begins outside the confines of Somaliland. Becoming the holder of a European passport marks the ultimate fulfillment of Somaliland migrant youth aspirations. Smugglers have long recognized and continue to capitalize on this hunger, the need to access foreign frontiers as the basis for the realization of individual hopes and dreams. They target youth from wealthier families, or families that have access to resources locally or through friends and relatives abroad. Smugglers promise to take youth all the way to Libya before any payment is demanded. Youth in this way are enticed to depart clandestinely, without informing loved ones.

‘I was held in a house in Hargeysa together with 200 others for 4 days before departing for Ethiopia to throw our parents off our trail because we knew they would be searching for us’ – 19 year old returnee

A reality check

Along the way through Ethiopia and Sudan and on arrival in Libya, women risk being raped, migrants may be subjected to severe beatings and physical harm, taken hostage for ransom, robed repeatedly, extorted by security forces and criminal groups in countries of transit, or succumb to the harsh terrain, starvation or disease. On arrival in Libya or enroute to the border of Libya and Sudan through the desert, smugglers and criminal groups begin demanding their fee from parents back home in Somaliland. Sums demanded range between USD 1,500 to 7,000, and are accompanied by threats of physical harm or organ harvesting, according to information received from the father of a kidnapped migrant in Libya. Parents are forced to raise the sums demanded through friends and relatives to secure the release of their children. Strong family ties and cultural obligations among the Somali community secure financial resources required. Once the youth are released, few if any, are interested in returning to Somaliland. Their resolve to reach Europe remains unshaken and they look back home and the diaspora to finance their onward journey. They may end up ensnared once again by criminal groups. During a visit to Hargeysa in September 2014, RMMS encountered a seemingly fatigued father of a young woman held by a criminal gang in Libya, who yielding to frustration from being unable to raise amounts demanded, asked the leader of the gang to send him dowry and take his daughter as a wife.

Reminders are frequent

Towards the end of August 2014 another boat tragedy, a rising trend in 2014, occurred 19 miles off the coast of Libya. According to the father of one of the survivors, onboard the capsized vessel were 130 migrants from Hargeysa, Burao and Borama in the Somaliland region. Unverified Information received from another parent of a survivor indicates that 59 Somalis died in the August boat tragedy, 17 female and 42 men, with 40 of the deceased bodies recovered. A humanitarian worker in Hargeysa indicated that an estimated 500 Somalis from the Somaliland region are being held in various detention centers in Libya, and despite the heightened risk of irregular movement, approximately 5 Somalis originating from Somaliland, cross the Tog Waajale border with Ethiopia everyday as they embark on the treacherous journey.

Fueling the fire

The youth exodus from Somaliland is largely attributed to the scarcity of job openings; demand far exceeds available opportunities. A major pull factor is social media platforms particularly Facebook. The mobile phone facilitates the transfer of funds required for the journey. Pioneers of mixed flows or migration to Europe share seductive images of ostentatious lifestyles and romanticize living abroad to their peers back home through social media platforms. They exhibit selective amnesia in the stories they share, highlighting only successes, true or otherwise, and limiting the hardship experienced or glorifying it as some rite of passage. Their peers in Somaliland, not entirely blameless, may also choose to digest only information that fuels their ambition. A well stationed network present in Hargeysa supported by the alleged complicity of some elements within the government, and exhibiting linkages with smugglers of Sudanese and Ethiopian nationality contributes to fueling irregular movement. The network in Hargeysa participates in recruitment, coerced or otherwise, and assists migrants for profit to navigate the terrain between Somaliland and Libya, and the Mediterranean crossing to the shores of Europe.

Call to action

Irregular movement is said to increase during and immediately after Ramadan. This is attributed to longer prayer periods resulting in relaxed security apparatus, and the obligatory alms given to the less fortunate during and after the end of the fasting period. For years now, humanitarian actors have pursued enhanced coordination with government to address irregular flows from Somaliland. Cooperation between Somaliland and Ethiopian authorities has also been frequently discussed and efforts put in place to strengthen the information flow and response to mixed flows among the two regions respective security apparatus. However, an emerging chorus is the crafting of an appropriate legislative framework to prosecute the facilitators and profiteers of irregular flows not only from Somaliland but throughout the region. Not as prominently emphasized, is the urgent need to link humanitarian needs and approaches, to larger, genuine, long term development goals. Even less considered is enhancing the security and legitimacy of travel documents. The Somaliland passport is not recognized while Somalis from Somaliland are required to access the Somalia passport in Garowe, Puntland.

Politically, access to the Somalia passport as well as its utility for Somalis from the Somaliland region is untenable. The Somaliland region has sought international recognition as an independent state since 1991. It has established institutional and administrative structures separate from both Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, and the internationally recognized State of Somalia. As such, possession of the Somalia passport for Somaliland youth is a contradiction in terms and at odds with the autonomy and international recognition that the Somaliland region desires. Some youth hold the Ethiopian passport through linkages with the Somali Region in Ethiopia, others seek the Kenyan one, while majority dream of becoming holders of a passport from a European country.

[This article was compiled by the RMMS senior project officer during a field visit to Somaliland in September 2014. It includes references to meetings and encounters in Somaliland that cannot be sourced or verified and serves to offer anecdotal illustrations of phenomenon of concern to Somalilanders and RMMS]

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.