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In Somaliland, go-slow nation building spurs exodus to Europe

The self-declared nation of 3.5 million is trying to build a functioning state, beyond the chaos of Somalia. But many jobless youths have joined the migration to Europe, despite the severe risks.

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    Residents of Somaliland sit under a war memorial of a MiG fighter jet in the centre of town in Hargeisa May 19, 2013. The memorial was set up to commemorate Somaliland's breakaway attempt in the 1980s, and is a symbol of struggle for the people of this province.
    Feisal Omar/REUTERS/FILE
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Faisa Xajji Yussuf will likely never know the exact date her son died, but March 6 is the day the call came.   

It took about 10 seconds for the voice at the end of the line—presumably calling from a satellite phone somewhere in Libya—to relay the message: “Your son suffered, and now he is dead.”  

Months earlier, this son, Mohamed, was working as a wedding photographer in Somaliland, the small self-declared nation in the Horn of Africa. He was one of the lucky few to have steady work in a country where youth unemployment rates of 70 percent have stunted the young population’s earning potential.  

But still, he had decided that the glorified prospect of Europe was worth wagering his own life.   

Mohammed’s story is far from unique: the masses of Somaliland youths who are leaving are joining thousands of Middle Eastern and African nationals also making the perilous journey to Europe. The government estimates that as many as 300 — typically those between18 years old and 30—leave Somaliland each month to begin tahriib, as the journey is known. Official statistics are hard to come by due to the illicit nature of this type of migration.  

While the numbers are a fraction of the more than half a million migrants who have crossed European Union borders this year, their mass emigration has been gnawing at the fabric of Somaliland’s 3.5 million population. Dubbed a “national tragedy,” this youth flight is stressing tightly knit communities and deepening the poverty that many of them struggle with. And officials also appear at a loss as to how to stem the growing exodus.  

It’s increasingly becoming a question of when a young person will leave, not if.  

Somaliland, a territory that is not internationally recognized, has prided itself on its stability. Since it broke from neighboring Somalia almost 15 years ago, it has developed, against all odds, a working political system, government institutions, a police force, and its own currency. Yet development has not kept pace with a younger generation’s appetite for professional jobs, nor created policies that engage them. Many are restless and bored, and their flight eats at the potential of a country hungry to be acknowledged by the international community. 

“They are easily influenced," says Edna Adan, a well-respected politician and female health care advocate. "They think the streets [in Europe] are paved with gold. They are not.”

Facebook envy

For Mbused, a 24-year-old divorced mother of one, leaving is the only option. She, like many young people interviewed, didn’t want her name used because her family doesn’t know about her intentions. 

“Here there is nothing. No jobs,” she says. “There are cultural restrictions on women. I just sit in the home.” 

Somaliland is still largely a patriarchal society. Women are often forced to contend with conservative Islamic religious views, and a deeply entrenched tribal system that inherently favors men. Mbused says the best-case scenario for her in Somaliland would be to work as a cleaner for what she calls a negligible amount of money. 

She scrolls though photos on her smart phone and points to a girlfriend who has been in Germany for more than a year and is now married to a German man.  That’s the life that Mbused wants, and if she can save $6,500 — of which she now has $1,500— she will pay for her own tahriib so as to not to put her family in a tight spot.  If she makes it and finds a job, she wants to send back money for her son.  

The government is struggling to convince its young to stay. Anti-tahriib advocacy campaigns, backed by international organizations, were made a priority in 2013, says one government official.  Advocates went door to door trying to raise awareness about the dangers of tahriib, but the successes, they admit, have been limited.

The government also created the Somaliland Job Center as a measure to tackle soaring youth unemployment. Tucked away in the capital, Hargeisa, the ambitious center has had limited victories.  Of the 700 applications it currently has on file, it says it has placed 70 people in full-time jobs since the building opened two years ago.   

Local investment

Salah, a 26-year-old who runs his mother’s clothing stores, empathizes with his generation’s frustrations over slow development in a forgotten corner of the world, but he fears his cohorts are lured by false expectations portrayed in Facebook photos.   

“Instead of investing $10,000 on tahriib, think of something new and bring it here,” he says. “I know there are no jobs but make one.  Working in a supermarket is better than risking your life.”  

He, like most of his peers, knows a handful of friends who are in Europe and some who have died along the way. It is dehumanizing to watch friends perish in such an unnecessary manner, he says.

Yussuf, who lost her son Mohamed to tahriib because she could not cobble together his $3,000 ransom, had to pay another ransom demand a year earlier when her other son made the same trip. She scrambled to pull the money together, borrowing from friends and family, and selling property and belongings. He now lives in Austria.

It is these photos, of one son's life in Austria, that pulled the other to make the same trip, she acknowledges. She knows that even if employment was forthcoming in Somaliland, as it was for Mohamed, it would still take some convincing for many to stay.  

“He thought he could make it.  I am not mad at him.  He’s a good boy,” she says, pulling up photos of Mohamed on her cracked smart phone screen.  “But he knew the risk.”

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