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Review: Britain’s Somalis: The road is long

Somalis fare much worse than other immigrants; what holds them back? (The Economist online, 17/8/2013)

by Abdinasir Ali Mohamed
Saturday, August 24, 2013

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Any objective reader of
The Economist’s article would quickly sense not only the plight of British-Somalis in the UK and the huge acculturative challenges they face, but also may sense what can be construed as the motivation of the article. Although the causes of some of the challenges this community faces have been widely discussed in literature (see APPG, 2012; Atfield & Bloch, 2002; Bigelow, 2008; Demie, McLean, & Lewis, 2008; Harris, 2004; Mohamoud, 2011; Rasmussen, 2009; The Change Institute, 2009); the article’s quick jump to associating British-Somalis with gossip houses may be a clear indication of its motivation to project Somalis as preferring gossiping to finding jobs. This understanding is reinforced by the article’s emphasis on the community’s low school achievements, religious extremism, and ‘refugee’ statuses which makes many to rely on the benefit system. Although the article provides a problem question that deserves genuine and serious investigation, it fails to identify a key issue―absence of meaningful data about the community at the national level―rendering the article uninformative. Without available national data, no genuine effort can provide a plausible answer to what holds Somalis back both in UK and in the wider EU in any meaningful way.

Absence of Data

Any genuine discussion as to why British-Somalis fare worse than other minority groups has to start with the absence (and availability) of good data. Without credible national data, any portrayal of the British-Somalis will simply remain futile. This is because, like any other research question, defining the problem must precede armchair comments about it. Therefore, why Somalis in the UK lag behind may be partly explained by the absence of Somali-specific data at the national level. For example, in the most recent UK census in 2011, as in the 2000 census, the government did not collect Somali data (APPG, 2012), although it collected data of groups that are far smaller than British-Somalis (see Office for National Statistics (ONS), December, 2012). Instead, British-Somali data were collected as part of the wider Black/African category. There are two reasons as to why ONS should not lump Somalis into this grouping variable. Firstly, Somalis in the UK clearly differ from the majority of their Black African counterparts on numerous factors: most Black Africans in the UK hail from former British colonies e.g. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and so on; where English is the lingua-franca. In contrast, English language has never been the lingua-franca among Somalis. Thus, while most people of Black African heritage come to the UK with working level of the spoken English language, and British recognised qualifications, many Somalis did not; leading to lack of recognition and utilisation of their qualifications, skills and expertise (Atfield & Bloch, 2002; Harris, 2004). Secondly, most people of Black African heritage in the UK e.g. Nigerians and Ghanaian were not uprooted by a civil war like most Somalis. Therefore, not only the highly educated middle class Somalis became refugees in the UK, but also the nomadic and farmer communities uprooted by the civil war too. Hence, the Black/African category cannot not statistically meaningfully represent such distinct groups.

Moreover, in the absence of Somali category, one would assume that most Somalis would tick the nearest category which they think they fit, which is Black/African. This may be exacerbated by an unfamiliarity among the Somalis about the meaning of these categories. Recently, a Somali parent and a former statistician in the Somali ministry of planning informed me that while ticking the ethnic group part on a school application, his 20 year old daughter and 18 year old son asked him if the reasons for him to tick ‘Other’ and write Somali was because he did not want them to be identified as Black/African? Such naive assumption is generally observed in research as resulting from the absence of any cues as to the purpose of these categories, leading to both methodological validity and reliability issues. This indicates that the data known about Somalis in the UK are terribly incomplete at its best. Using such problematic data and making assumptions, generalisations and comparisons is grossly misleading, simply because some Somalis tick categories such as ‘Other’ and write Somali, while others simply tick ‘Black/African’. Therefore, a good proportion of Somalis are obscured in the Black/African category, while only a fraction are identified as Somalis.

In addition, although some local councils recently began to collect ethnic data i.e. school achievement (Ali & Jones, 2000; Demie, McLean, & Lewis, 2008; Strand, et al., 2010; Tower Hamlets Council, n.d), these results vary from council to council.  Perhaps, this is because students may tick themselves as ‘Black/African’ rather than Somali in order to not only fit in their environment, but may also do so as an avoidance strategy of perceived discrimination. Thus, in the absence of Somali-specific data at the national level, and in the absence of efforts to educate the British-Somali community about the aims of these categories, the generalisations of inactivity and benefit dependency made in The Economist article will remain simple claims that are difficult to substantiate.

Furthermore, the article suggested that Somalis in the UK are just over one 100,000. Speak to Somali community leaders and the figure is between 350,000 and 500,000. One Somali academic and a community leader working for the NHS in Birmingham told the author of this paper that Somalis in Birmingham are estimated at over 80,000. In addition, two London boroughs, Ealing and Brent, boast to have about 65,000 Somalis, although community leaders believe that the numbers are far greater than these official figures. In light of the huge discrepancy between estimates of Somali community leaders and the cited figure of The Economist article, it could be safely argued that such claims as ‘50% of British-Somalis rent from local councils’ should be more statistically corrected to 12.5% since the article cited approximately a mere 25% of the British-Somalis in the UK; which is not surprising considering the high discrimination levels they face when compared to other groups (APPG, 2012). This again, highlights the plight of British-Somalis since their data are obscured in a wide category that does not sufficiently represent them.

So why do they fare worse?

There is no doubt that British-Somalis fare worse than their counterparts in the UK. However, considering the fact that Somalis are known to be industrious and entrepreneurs, their predicament appears to have both social and structural barriers that prevent them from utilising their skills. For example, employment is closely entwined with skills, experiences and levels of education; and the better one’s skills and education level, the higher their chances of employment. However, for the Somali community, the problem is not a lack of skills or education, rather a set of barriers resulting from lack of recognition of their skills and education (see Harris, 2004) to discrimination and exclusion. Such lack of recognition of skills e.g. doctors driving minicabs (Harris, 2004), and the purposeful dissuasion by school teachers of young Somali students from aiming high (Kuyok, 2011) are some of the examples of barriers to employment and school achievements. Thus, what holds Somalis back can be summarised as the interplay of a number of structural and social barriers of which lack of recognition of skills is a crucial one.

Furthermore, there has been little social research on British-Somalis, and what is known about them is known through commissioned reports that seek solutions to problems of a particular time and place. However, even these commissioned reports on the Somali community highlighted the widespread perceptions of discrimination and sense of invisibleness among the community (Demie, McLean, & Lewis, 2008; Harris, 2004; McLean, & Lewis, 2008; Rasmussen, 2009). In addition, compare Somalis in Europe to Somalis in the UAE, South Africa, Zambia, South Sudan, and Nairobi; a different picture emerges: a successful and highly entrepreneurial community; further reinforcing the argument that widespread discrimination and lack of access to opportunities are holding British-Somalis back.  

Last but not least, as it appears, when refereeing to Muslim groups, no article is complete without the flavour of religious ingredients. Similarly, maligning easy-target Muslim minority groups, lack of sensitivity and critical evaluation of uninformed and unrepresentative comments no longer appear to be a monopoly of the red-top papers. As The Economist’s article portrayed, sections of the British-Somalis are becoming fanatics; its ‘evidence’ is by a reference to a comment about three year old Somalis wearing headscarves, together with the emphasis that British-Somalis overwhelmingly depend on the benefit system. This appears to create a blend of disgust and fear among lay readers of The Economist article, leading to a self-fulfilling prophesy as readers may expect Somali women or even children wearing simple and peaceful headscarves to be the prophesied indicator of Muslim fanaticism―an outcome I like to think The Economist did not intend to predict.

Besides the barriers that British-Somalis face in the UK and in the wider EU, and contrary to the bleak image painted by The Economist article, British-Somalis are making positive strides. In the education front, more and more Somali private schools and after-school clubs are emerging in almost all areas that have sizable members of the community. In addition, in most universities, British-Somali students both females and males are becoming more visible, while more and more British-Somalis are opening new businesses e.g. import/exports, pharmacies, money transfer companies and other retail based trades. Finally, in the face of subtle and sometimes blatant discrimination, and in the absence of Somali-specific data at the national level, it would be futile to make armchair assumptions and sweeping generalisation stripped of all contexts about an entire community that may be faring reasonably well against all odds.

 Abdinasir Ali Mohamed (London, UK), is a researcher interested in social psychology

(BSc & MSc in Social Psychology, Statistics and Research Methodology)

E-mail: [email protected]


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