HARGEISA, 30 March 2009 (Somalilandpress) - Harir Omar Yusuf, about to finish high school, should be choosing a degree course and deciding on a career direction; instead, he spends most of his time planning a perilous escape from his hometown of Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland in the northwest of Somalia, to Europe.
“As soon as I finish high school I will go there, because I have nothing to stay for in Somaliland,” he told IRIN, adding that his parents could not afford university fees and he was not assured of a place even if they could.
Yusuf has many friends who have made the journey - first through Ethiopia, then Sudan and Libya and finally to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea - and are now living as illegal immigrants in Italy and other European nations. He also has many friends languishing in Sudanese or Libyan jails, arrested for entering the country illegally, and knows of many who died making the trip, but he remains determined.
Tens of thousands of Somalis also try to cross the Gulf of Aden into Yemen every year aboard small vessels run by people-traffickers operating from Somali ports; according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), one out of every 20 people attempting the journey in 2007 died.
Yusuf says he would rather risk death than live a life of certain poverty in Somaliland.
“The issue of young people running away is very problematic in Somaliland,” said Omer Ali Abdi, the director of the youth department in the Ministry of Youth and Sports. “Year after year, graduates from secondary schools are increasing and our universities just don’t have the capacity to take in all of them - and even when they graduate from university, there is no guarantee they will get a job.”
According to Ahmed Hashi Abdi, vice-minister in the Ministry of Planning and Coordination, only 10-20 percent of people under 35 are employed.
“Because it is unrecognised internationally, Somaliland has no access to bi-lateral funding, which has caused our economy to suffer, especially after the livestock ban of 1999, which destroyed the main source of income of most of our people,” Abdi said. “For the same reason, international scholarships and higher education exchange programmes are not open to our students.”
An outbreak of Rift Valley Fever in Saudi Arabia in 1999 resulted in a regional ban on imported livestock from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, and Djibouti; the ban on Somalia remains in place and now includes several other Middle Eastern nations.
After the ban, remittances became the main foreign exchange earner; thousands fled the country during an outbreak of war in 1988, and regularly send money to their families. The Ministry of Planning estimates remittances account for US$500 million - or about 80 percent of Somaliland’s economy.
“When people leave the country legally, we are happy that they are able to send back money, but as much as possible we try to discourage young people from leaving illegally - then it becomes a matter of life and death and we cannot encourage that,” Abdi said.
Despite the risks, many families scrimp and save to send their children on these journeys. Over the past year, Amina Rooble (not her real name) has spent more than $6,500 on transport, communication, paying traffickers and bribing prison officers, all in an effort to get her son Hashim to Italy.
Although his boat sank, Hashim survived and is now seeking asylum in Italy. “Even though my son was rescued, two other members of my family died on that boat,” Rooble said.
Incentive to stay
The government and local NGOs have run campaigns to discourage young people from leaving, but according to Yahye Mohamoud Ahmed, head of the Somaliland National Youth Organisation NGO, unless the government can provide some motivation, young people will continue to escape in droves.
“They have no incentive to stay - no jobs and no businesses, so it is fairly futile to tell them to stay,” he said. “They need to be given the capacity to feed themselves here.”
Ahmed added that many young men were now taking swimming lessons and using hi-tech communication equipment - such as satellite telephones to make SOS calls - to make their trips safer.
“When they hear about their friends and relatives in London or Italy, they get encouraged to go; even when their relatives have no jobs there, they still think they have a better life than here,” he added.
According to Ahmed Abdi, the national development plan includes the creation of two vocational training institutes in every region of Somaliland to boost the number of tertiary institutions and the variety of courses available.
“We also intend to set up micro-finance schemes to enable them to be self-supporting,” he added.
He noted that despite the continued livestock ban, a few countries in the Arab world were starting to buy Somaliland’s meat, and the government hoped the Saudi ban would be lifted, restoring the industry.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports, in partnership with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is drafting a national youth policy - due to be passed by parliament in 2011 - that hopes to address issues of youth emigration, unemployment, education and political participation.
“What we need more than anything is resources from our international partners focused on development rather than strictly emergencies - resources focusing on education and building the economy would encourage young people to stay and build their own nation,” the Ministry of Youth’s Abdi said.