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Somalis in Europe
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By Dr. Doug Rutledge
Conditions for Somali refugees in Europe can often be unpleasant. As a way of thinking about this, let me introduce you to an elderly couple whom we recently met on a German train. As World War Two ended, this man and woman, whom we shall call Fritz and Helga, were children living in a part of Germany that treaties had just transferred to Poland. These kids would have had to endure a difficult life in Poland during the Cold War. However, as a result of the 1951 Geneva Convention, they were able to come individually to the United States as refugees. While in Baltimore, they met, fell in love, found work, and raised their children. Moreover, in America, they became affluent enough that when the Cold War ended they could make a regular practice of returning to Germany, where they met with family and old friends.
The Geneva Convention was revived in 1961, when the geographical restrictions were removed from the agreement. Therefore, it now should protect Somali refugees who are fleeing war and persecution. Nevertheless, it is worth asking if people able to find refuge within Europe when they are fleeing African wars? Consider the fate of Abdi, who fled the civil war in Somalia, and after a long journey along the refugee route found himself in Germany. Abdi has lived in Germany for several years now. Yet, he was unable to travel more than fifty miles, for the first five of those years, in spite of the fact that freedom of movement is a right granted under the European Declaration of Human Rights. Consequently, he could not reunite with his wife and children, even though family reunification is one of the rights granted war refugees under the Geneva Convention. Because Germany only grants a form of subsidiary protection called “Toleration,” Abdi was given a very small apartment, food and medical care. However, he was unable to travel and unable to ask his family to join him. As a result, Abdi’s wife sought a divorce. He has now married a second wife, a Somali woman whom he visits illegally in Holland. However, because of the Dublin Regulations, Abdi cannot move to Holland, and his wife cannot move to Germany. The Dublin Regulations assert that refugees must be sent back to the country through which they first entered Europe. Since Abdi first applied for asylum in Germany, that is where he must stay. In the meantime, because of German law, Abdi still cannot work. Poor Abdi is afraid that he is about to suffer a second divorce. He can’t seem to get on with his life.
Recently, I was in touch with Bruce Leimsidor, who is professor of European immigration law at Ca Foscari University in Venice. He has also served as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Dr. Leimisdor argued that rather than trying to prove that Somali refugees are worthy of asylum under the rules of the Geneva Convention, we should make sure that the various forms of secondary protection offered in many European nations and policed by the European commission are enforced with some regularity. However, the combination of the Dublin Regulations and the subsidiary protection often means that people are unable to live their lives with dignity.
As we noted earlier, according to the Dublin Regulations, a refugee must remain in the country in which he was first granted asylum. The Dublin Regulations stop being relevant when a person is finally granted citizenship in his host country, but this seldom happens quickly and often does not happen at all. Therefore, if the smuggler picks you up in Turkey, puts you in the back of a truck and then tells you that you are in Holland, when in fact he has just dropped you off in a German gas station, you must remain in Germany. In Germany, the refugee will of course be housed and fed, and he will be given wonderful medical care, but he will not be given a work permit for five years. After that, he can only get a job if his employer can prove that no other German or European wants the job. In Germany a refugee can live, but living with his family or his dignity is often difficult.
But what is life like in other countries who offer subsidiary protection? Consider the case of Hassan Ali Mohamed. When he was still living in Mogadishu, an armed militia told him that they were confiscating his house for their headquarters. Then they opened fire. Hassan’s son and his sister were killed immediately. The rest of his family scattered in several directions. As Hassan traveled, he constantly asked after his family, hoping to meet his wife and the rest of his children. In time, Hassan made it to a refugee camp run by the U.N. in Libya. He asked after his family there, but could learn nothing. One day, the Libyan military came into the camp with bulldozers, knocking over the shelters and beating the people as they ran. At this point, Hassan had to bribe smugglers (in Libya, the smugglers are also the police) to help him cross the Mediterranean in a leaky boat. He ended up in Malta.
In Malta, people are held in detention for over a year, where they are regularly beaten. The sanitary facilities in detention are inadequate, so people are constantly getting sick, but they very poor medical attention. There is no separation between men and women, so rape is a frequent occurrence, and if Somali men attempt to protect their sisters from rape, fights start, and more beatings occur. Still, when he got out of detention, Hassan was hopeful. He thought that in Europe, humanitarian agencies would help him find his family; he could reunite with them, and he could get on with his life. Unfortunately, this was not the case. In Malta, a Catholic country, the form of subsidiary protection offered is called Humanitarian Protection, and it is a form of charity. There are no rights as there would be under the Geneva Convention. So Hassan does not have the right to family reunification. Moreover, he also does not have the right to work, as he would under the convention. In Malta, it is almost impossible for Somali refugees to find work. When they do, the job only lasts for a few days at a time. The Somali person will inevitably be paid a third or less than what a Maltese would make for doing the same job. Moreover, if a refugee’s employer refuses to pay him, he has no recourse. Hassan’s employer would not pay him for five days work. He complained to the police, who simply reminded Hassan that he was African and had no rights in Malta. He then went to the refugee commission run by the Church, where the priest told him he would help, but nothing was done. So Hassan, who is forty, is living in what is called an open center, with hundreds of other refugees. The sanitation is terrible, the living conditions are hot and uncomfortable, but he cannot leave this small island, where racism is rampant. The Maltese actually want Hassan and all other refugees to go. They even give them travel documents, but Hassan is clearly not going to pay the smuggler to take him back to Libya, and the Europeans will not let him enter. If Hassan were to go to England or Holland and apply for asylum, he would be sent back to Malta. He could attempt to live underground in England, for example. He would have to work illegally, and he could not ask for medical care. This is exactly the problem. Sooner or later, through a medical need, a traffic accident, or simply the wrong conversation, Hassan would come to the attention of the system, and when he did, he would be sent back to Malta.
Europeans believe that they can discourage Somalis from entering Europe by using the Dublin Regulations to keep them in countries where life is terribly unpleasant, but as we all know, the situation in Somalia is so dire right now that people must leave. As I interviewed people, they consistently told me that they left because conditions had become such that they would either have to kill someone or be killed themselves. Under these circumstances people must leave Somalia, and Europe is the logical destination. Therefore, we all must encourage the European governments to act in a more humane fashion toward Somali immigrants. In the meantime, we must find a way to help people stuck in border countries like Malta, where life can be unfair and often unbearable.
Dr. Doug Rutledge was an English teacher; he got his PhD from the University of Chicago. Dr. Rutledge published several articles of an academic nature, and several other interesting articles on Somali Community in the Diaspora. Dr. Rutledge and Abdi M. Roble will have a book out in the fall of 2008, entitled “The Somali Diaspora, A journey away” which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Dr. Doug Rutledge
The Somali Documentary Project
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