The Kafka-esque world of Somali refugees in Europe

Finally, after decades of war, peace seems to be coming to Somalia and more than a million refugees are told to return home. So why do so many Somalis continue to live in abandoned buildings, churches, parks and railway stations in Europe?

“I don’t mind going to Mogadishu, but they insist on sending me to Somaliland, where they will think I am a terrorist.”  Kassim Mohamed unearthed a maze of bureaucratic misunderstandings, dangerous errors and continuous fear.

Cold and emaciated, 27 year old Shariff Guled Aden holds a buttonless trench coat together to shield him from the chilling morning breeze blowing in The Hague. He is standing close to the local Somali restaurant Hamar Caadey. “I am standing here outside the place where Somalis eat to see whether any of these guys who are chewing khat outside this restaurant will notice my plight. I can’t beg them, I just hope one of them will understand my problem.” But the men hardly notice his presence.

Shariff Guled is among a group of Somali asylum seekers who entered the Netherlands in 2008. Reluctant to join either side of the armed conflict in Somalia, and under pressure to do exactly that, Shariff had decided to look for a safe place elsewhere, from where he could send for his wife and baby daughter. But his numerous attempts to seek refugee status in Europe soon reached a dead end. “My fingerprints were taken in Italy, and I went through the process there, but they doubted that I came from Mogadishu and they refused me asylum. I then travelled to the Netherlands, but I was informed by fellow refugees that they would not allow me in if my fingerprints were taken elsewhere in Europe.”

Would somebody who is just a chance-taker go through such lengths?

According to European regulations, the country of first entry is responsible to examine the asylum claim. For fear of being refused again, Guled resorted to skinning his finger tips, using a concoction of chemicals: Veet (hair-removing ointment) and vodka. He also burned his fingers with a hot iron and scrubbed off the peeling skin with a knife. “I showed the immigration authorities my damaged finger tips to prove my despair to them.  Would somebody who is just a chance-taker go through such lengths?”

He now says he would rather go back to Mogadishu than stay in the Netherlands, but the immigration police in this country won’t facilitate that because of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) rule that refugees can’t be sent back to a war zone. (In 2013, the UN still viewed Mogadishu, which continues to be racked by terrorist explosions, as a war zone, ed.) Guled: “I told the Dutch government to give me three options: to grant me asylum and recognize me as a refugee, to lock me up in prison so that I can at least get food to eat or to return me back to the chaos in my home country. They told me none of the above is possible. They said I must simply find my own way out.”Without money, Shariff Guled now sleeps on cardboard at The Hague’s Central station, sometimes changing to other railway stations or parks.

Later, back in Mogadishu, I visited Shariff Guled’s wife and daughter. They hadn’t heard from him for the past 4 years and, until I came, did not know if he was alive. “Is he ok?” the wife asked. “Has he married another woman?” It was difficult to tell her of her husband’s real situation, but I informed her as gently as I could. Shocked, she told me that Shariff should return to Mogadishu.

The Netherlands is home to an estimated 27,000 Somalis: just about 5 % of all Somali refugees in the world, who number over half a million. I spoke with 30 Somalis in different areas in the Netherlands who had been granted refugee status, and who had managed to bring their wives and children to safety in Holland as well.  Most of them wanted to go back as soon as peace would be realized in their country; in the meantime, they expressed gratitude to the Dutch government and people. The Netherlands have recently started refusing asylum status to new applicants from Somalia.

But there are hundreds of Somalis whose asylum applications have failed in recent years and who continue to find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The average Dutch pedestrian may not notice them nor may they think twice about the haggard looking individual living on the corner, but for me, a Somali, it wasn’t hard to find Shariff Guled and others like him. Others like Hanad Mohamed, who spends his days moving in a wheel chair between park, station and temporary shelter at acquaintances’ places.

Hanad and Ali are not from Somaliland

Hanad Mohamed is usually wheeled around by his cousin Ali Jamaa. Both came to the Netherlands through Schiphol, back in 2007, but never succeeded in gaining refugee status in the Netherlands. “We sleep in parks or rail stations. Sometimes we go to centers where Somalis meet and they give us accommodation for one to two nights,” says Hanad.

Soon after arriving in Amsterdam, the two were caught by Dutch police on board a train. They were carrying fake passports. “The police told us the passports were fake. We decided to put our hands up in the air. We told them we were refugees from Somalia,” Hanad explains. “How do they want us to have valid passports? Somalia has not had functioning institutions over the last 20 years.”

Ali and Hanad were told to report to Ter Apel, one of the centers for refugees who come to the Netherlands to seek asylum. From there they were transferred to Almelo refugee camp, where they awaited the verdict. It was a painstakingly slow process but they were eventually handed a negative response. They were suspected of coming from Somaliland, the semi-autonomous state in the north of the country, and not from the conflict-ridden South or Central Somalia. “I was born and bred in the Howlwadaag area of Mogadishu but they did not believe me,” says Hanad.

Because of the suspicion against Hanad, Ali was refused too. “They said that they believe that I am from Afgoye [an area 29 kilometers from Somalia’s capital Mogadishu], but they still refused me. I suspect it’s because of Hanad’s case, since they think he’s from Somaliland and that we are related.”  Hanad now plans to argue his case on medical grounds. “If they are human enough I hope they will consider my disability.” “But if that fails, I hope they can send us back to Mogadishu,” Ali says.

Somalian refugees

The situation in Somalia has recently calmed down considerably, but there is still danger facing those who are seen wandering between regions, especially young men. This is why Hanad and Ali say they could not safely travel to Somaliland, and from there to their homes around Mogadishu. Hanad: “Once you return to Somaliland from abroad and then travel to Mogadishu on your own, the government will be suspicious that you are one of those who come from overseas to fight for Al Shabaab. There are many young men who come from the US or the UK to fight for Al Shabaab, and you would be mistaken for one of these. People back in Mogadishu will ask, ‘you say you come from beautiful Europe? How could you leave this wonderful place to be back in Mogadishu?’ Nobody will believe that you are not there to fight with Al Shabaab. Except Al Shabaab, who will see people from the diaspora, who return to Somalia and don’t join Al Shabaab, as spies. And then they will kill you”.

Stuck between Holland and Italy

Hassan Abdullahi (20) ran away from Bulla-Hawa in the Gedo region of Somalia after his father was murdered by members of Al-Shabaab at the end of 2008. His mother had died in 2006. He doesn’t know the whereabouts of his eight siblings, whom he had initially hoped he would be able to care for and send to school by making it to Europe and sending money home. Abdullahi now lives at Amsterdam Central station. “I entered Europe via Italy, but they did not grant me asylum. I tried Holland then, but they told me I should go back to Italy. I have no prospects in Italy.”

Italy seems to be the country that causes most of the trouble for those stranded in Europe. All individuals interviewed talk of high levels of discrimination and deplorable living conditions in the asylum seekers’ camps there; of officials telling you to ‘hit the road’ and look for other countries. Telling you that Somalis are not welcome in Italy.”

Dutch authorities told them to ‘go take a train at the railway station.’ And at the railway station, they stay

During my one and a half months’ stay in Holland, I  found five other Somali men, in Eindhoven, Rotterdam and Utrecht, who can’t stay here but also can’t go back to Somalia. They have all been told by Dutch authorities to ‘go take a train at the railway station.’ And at the railway station, they stay.

The Al Shabaab factor

The fear of being labeled a ‘terrorist’ whilst in Europe is another concern to the Somali community in the Netherlands.  In December 2010, twelve Somali men from Rotterdam were arrested on suspicion of links to Al Shabaab. It turned out, however, that they were falsely accused by someone who had attempted to blackmail them. The case got public attention: eight of the men were paid damages and three have gone to court to seek economic damages incurred. But they could only do this because they were legally in the country. Others, whose applications for asylum were rejected and who live in fear of being exposed, are all the more vulnerable to blackmail.

I spoke to nine other individuals who were similarly blackmailed and who still keep paying, for fear of being denounced as a ‘terrorist’. Ironically, many of these persons were initially refused asylum because the Dutch authorities were not certain that they were not linked to Al Shabaab. If the blackmailer would expose them as ‘terrorists’ now, simply because his victims did not pay up, it could be seen by the police as ‘confirmation’, with all the consequences thereof.

Ali is getting a passport

Between a rock and a hard place, Somalis in Europe find a more welcoming environment in criminal syndicates. One can buy a passport there or, alternatively, become involved in the passport forgery business. 25 year old Ali Mohamed came to Rotterdam from Italy in April 2011. He decided not identify himself to authorities. “I heard that the Netherlands is not a good place to seek asylum. I don’t want to live on the streets. I decided to try my luck in London.”

Ali has recently been informed that there are Dutch passports for sale in The Hague. He is now on his way to order one, and agrees to take me along to see if I can get one, too. In The Hague, together we meet an Ethiopian man. Ali hands him a passport size photograph. Within five days, Ali pockets his Dutch passport. It is on lease from the real owner and will have to be returned after he reaches his destination. It has cost him 1000 Euros. “I called several of my relatives in Canada and Norway who each sent me something and I managed to raise the amount,” he explains.

17 days later, he phones me to say he has crossed through Calais, France, into the United Kingdom. Immigration officials on both sides of the border didn’t notice any abnormality in his passport. “I am so happy,” he says. “I have been accepted as a refugee here in the UK and all is well. I have also managed to send back the passport.”

The Ethiopian man who only identified himself as Elamanyahu told me he has been involved in this business for several years. According to him, a passport goes for between 300- 3,000 Euros. The UK and Canadian passports are the most expensive (3,000 Euros) followed by other Euro zone passports. “You can also get a fake one. This will cost you as little as 300 dollars while a genuine European passport goes for between 1000- 3000 Euros depending on the country. The genuine one like the one Mohamed was lucky to receive must be returned to the owner. Once you are where you want to be you have no more use for it. The owner gets 50 % of the money for the leasing service.”

Ironically, the work the European immigration authorities are doing to keep the numbers of refugees down pales into significance when compared with the high numbers that are ‘weeded out’ before they even reach Europe. Farimos Maalim of Karti Foundation in Eindhoven, puts the ‘wave of immigrants’ scenario into perspective: “I met a Somali refugee the other day who told me 96 of them left Sudan. Only twelve made to the border of Libya and the rest died on the way due to starvation and thirst. Out of the twelve that came to Libya, six were ladies. They were forcefully taken by Libyan men who said they will ‘marry’ them. Out of the six that remained two men died in Libya and only four managed to cross the sea to Italy.  The one who spoke to me came to Holland. The other three are still in Italy.”

Kassim Mohamed is an award-winning Somali journalist based in Nairobi and Mogadishu. He visited The Netherlands in 2012 as part of a ZAM exchange programme. Mohammed is a Board member of the Forum of African Investigative Reporters.