Page last updated at 08:49 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

British Somalis play politics from afar

Somali composite: L- women in birmingham; Zainab Awad ; Istanbul cafe

By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News

The university of Burao in the breakaway territory of Somaliland began life on the streets of Whitechapel, east London.

"It is a diaspora building. We set up committees in every country to fund-raise. We had to do something to help our people."

Dr Saad Ali Shire knows that he is a lucky man. He sensed the danger and fled Somalia shortly before 40 people, including a friend, were massacred on a Mogadishu beach during an insurgency in 1989.

Abdulkadir Gutaale
Abdulkadir Gutaale says Somali society is bitterly divided
In the years that followed, conflict laid waste to his hometown of Burao in the north. Building a university for Burao was his idea.

Since Somaliland declared independence in 1991 it has enjoyed relative stability. Its independence is not recognised by the international community but it has a parliament and a police force, and money from the diaspora funds universities, hospitals, schools - the fabric of civil society.

Even though the rest of Somalia has been in turmoil since 1991 and Islamist insurgents are capturing more territory, remittances from the diaspora keep Somali society functioning.

"There are few sources of income but what comes from the diaspora," says Dr Ali Shire, who also runs Dahabshiil, the UK's biggest Somali money transfer company.

Dr Saad Ali Shire
Dr Saad Ali Shire is manager of Somali money transfer company, Dahabshiil

Reliable figures are very difficult to come by but some estimate that remittances come to about $1bn (650m) each year.

Whenever north London housewife Isha can get small jobs she sends money back, even if it is as little as 20. Her brother was murdered in front of her and the money sent to her nephew sustains his business and many families.

"Every day people are dying. It is hard to say no," she says.

Dr Anna Lindley of the Refugees Studies Centre at the University of Oxford explains how even such small remittances to relatives can invigorate the economy.

Exporting chaos

They might live in Britain, but the hearts and minds of many refugees remain in the homelands they fled. What influence do they have back home and what does it mean for their lives in this country?

"People receive money and then recirculate it. They spend it and that creates demand for different types of goods and services. It energises the whole economy," she says.

But the chaos and competing factions that have characterised Somalia's recent history of civil strife can also be found in the UK.

Somali community workers often lament how fragmented Somali society is here. It is an extremely complex community with different clans and different social backgrounds, including a high number of educated professionals, politicians and activists. There is no one overarching organisation for Somalis - hundreds flourish throughout the UK.

"People came here because of tribal war. That enmity still exists and it hurts everyone," said one community worker who wished to remain anonymous.

Somalis in Birmingham describe their life and ambitions

It is reported that al-Shabab, a group of Islamist insurgents, which the US believes is linked to al-Qaeda, does have collection agents operating in the UK. People do contribute money - although some might not know exactly where it is going beyond the cause of getting Ethiopian troops out of Somalia.

Mohammed Abdullahi of the UK Somali Community Initiative says: "We know it is going on in the Somali community." But he stresses the importance of the community uniting.

Warlords 'go freely'

Experts say that clan divisions can be overplayed. But whatever divisions do exist, there is palpable resentment towards those who exploit them. People do not shy from blaming Western governments for their attitude.

"Warlords come and go freely. Nobody disturbs them because they were part of the Western support for the transitional government [currently in power in Somalia]. They find sanctuary here," says Somali journalist Abdulkadir Gutaale.

Many people expressed support for the brief period in 2006 when the Islamist group the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) controlled Mogadishu and defeated the warlords. It represented a force which transcended clan divisions, many argue.


First Somali seamen and traders arrived and settled in port cities in late 19th Century
Between 1985 and 2006, Somalis remained in the top 10 for asylum applications
2001 census: UK Somali population at 43,473
Somali community organisations put the number closer to 90,000
Somalis have settled in London with populations also in Cardiff, Birmingham, Bristol and Leicester
Source: Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees

"They did something the international community could not do for the last 16 years. Mogadishu became peaceful," says Mohamud Nur, head of community group the Somali Speakers' Association.

Mr Nur says that when the UIC took control, many Somalis streamed back to Mogadishu to congratulate them. He was among their number and he is now a representative for the Alliance for the Liberation of Somalia, the organisation opposing Somalia's transitional government, which includes elements of the UIC.

He is part of a Somali political class in the UK that makes it their business to get involved in the deals and coalitions about Somalia's political future.

In a refugee centre in Birmingham, there is talk of yet another coalition of UK-based power-brokers to tackle Somalia's problems.

"We can make a better government if we go back," says Mohamed Aden, who believes the diaspora is critical to Somalia's future political stability.

Growing discontent

But unemployment, poverty and difficulties with integration are all serious problems facing Somalis in Britain, regardless of clan or class. A number of London's teenage knife crime victims come from Somali backgrounds and Somali gangs have been the subject of intense media and police scrutiny.

At a gathering of young Somalis in east London's Oxford House in October, there were complaints about being criminalised, the humiliation of being stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act, being questioned by police up to six times a day.

In Birmingham, which has a growing Somali community, a report from the Human City Institute last year highlighted the appalling conditions many Somali families lived in. The social housing available is often unsuitable for big families, so many take poor quality private sector accommodation.

Born abroad promo

"We are all politicians. We have to unpack our bags, settle down and try to live as normal British people," says Mr Gutaale.

He argues that an emphasis on life back home - often almost an obsession - has meant that the Somali community has allowed itself to become neglected and marginalised in the UK.

"In this advanced Western country, people should be putting other factors such as education, finding work, getting life skills instead of talking about backwards things such as tribalism," he says.

The responsibility of sustaining Somalia from afar can also become a burden.

"You can't make any progress. You work hard, try to go up the ladder. Whatever you earn is sent back home. It handicaps you."

The warning is clear; an absorption in the traumas of Somalia can lead to the neglect and alienation of Somalis in Britain.

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