Lure of high-risk riches too strong for Somalia refugees

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Dadaab, Kenya

A refugee sits near a crumbling mud-wall in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp (AFP Photo/Tony Karumba)
A refugee sits near a crumbling mud-wall in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp (AFP Photo/Tony Karumba)

On a good day, Salat Ahmed and his pregnant wife Sadiyo make two dollars (1.80 euro) selling kilogramme bundles of khat, a leafy green herb that is mildly narcotic when chewed.

They run their business from a corrugated tin shack beside an extravagantly cratered dirt road in Ifo, one of five camps that together form the world’s largest refugee settlement, Dadaab in northeast Kenya.

Most of their money goes on rent, food and medicine for them and their two young children, four-year old Farhiyo and her little brother Guled, aged two.

But Ahmed’s dream is big, common and dangerous.

He longs to join the exodus of mostly young men who make the arduous journey north overland through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe.

The European border control agency, Frontex, says over 284,000 migrants attempted to enter Europe in 2014, with at least a third coming from sub-Saharan Africa. More than 7,400 came from Somalia.

“I dream of a life in Europe,” said Ahmed, who is 21. He knows all about the dangers. He has heard of the mass drownings — most recently of an estimated 900 people in a single tragedy — and of the money-hungry militias turning Libya into a facsimile of his own home country, Somalia.

But he has also heard from friends who have made it, and he calculates the risk is worth taking.

“I know about the difficulties, but if you compare them to the difficulties I already have here in the camp? They are more than that,” he said. “There’s no bright future here, for me or my children.”

Ahmed is one of 350,000 Somali refugees living in the Dadaab refugee camps 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the border. They have come to Kenya in waves since 1991, propelled by civil war and famine.

The first arrivals fled their collapsing country as warlords wrested the state from dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Famine came after and more crossed the border. Other large influxes followed a US-backed invasion by Ethiopia in 2006 and another famine in 2011.

Fed up with hosting the refugees and suspicious that the camps harbour terrorists from Somalia’s Shebab militant group, Kenya now wants the refugees to leave.

Ahmed is keen to go, but not to Somalia. “Life in Europe is 100 per cent okay. Friends who reached Europe call and say things are good there and I believe them. And I have seen it on TV,” he added.

Ahmed’s goal is to save the $3,000 (2,800 euros) he says he needs to make the journey. He has been trying since he arrived in Dadaab in 2010 after fleeing Somalia’s routine violence that made his job as a minibus taxi driver in the capital Mogadishu a daily gamble with death.

“I understand the dangers of the journey to Europe, but you either live a good life or you perish trying. I’ve heard of those who die on the journey but it is a risk you must take for a good life,” he said.

Noor Hussein, a 27-year old primary school teacher, shares the dream of a better future and, like Ahmed, believes Europe is where he must go.

Hussein was carried to Dadaab on his mother’s back as a two-year old baby and has lived in the camp ever since. He went to primary and then secondary school in Dadaab before training as a teacher at a college in the nearby town of Garissa.

Life as a permanent refugee is no life at all, he said.

“I have to go elsewhere out of this region, that’s what I need,” said Hussein. “Pain is staying here 25 years.”

Like others who have gone before him Hussein believes he will find work in Europe and be able to send money back to Dadaab and to Somalia, playing his part in improving his family’s lot. And for that he is willing to risk it all.

“Death can come to me in bed, on a journey, or anywhere, so I don’t fear. If I make it my life can change,” said Hussein. “I believe that I will succeed.”