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Peer Pressure Drives Somalis to Risk Europe Odyssey

In an extract from her new book, researcher Nimo-ihan Ali looks at how unrealistic images of life in Europe shared on social media are prompting young Somalis to migrate.

Written by Nimo-Ilhan Ahmed Ali Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Berbera is a coastal city in the north of Somalia, in the self-declared state Republic of Somaliland. April 2014) | usage worldwide Photo by: Yannick Tylle/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Tahriib is an Arabic word that has gained prominence and popularity in the Somali language. In current parlance, young Somalis are said to be “going on tahriib” when they embark on the hazardous journey to Europe via the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

Tahriib has gradually become part of Somali youth culture, a practice shared by youth across different social strata. Young people often use the word “we” to describe why young people undertake tahriib, as one respondent explains: “If we just sit here and wait, nothing happens. We have to go. We have to go try our luck in life. We can’t wait forever.”

Tahriib is a way out – an exit strategy. As a youth movement it puts pressure on young people to join their peers and friends on tahriib. Incidences of large groups leaving together are not uncommon.

In July 2015, a group of young men from a Hargeysa football team left together. Similarly, in 2009, a group of male Borama secondary school classmates left together.

Peer pressure is frequently cited as an important driver of tahriib. A mother notes that her son had left because “all his friends were leaving together so he had to follow them.”

Another says her son “was a good child who did not use to think about tahriib but his friends convinced him to leave.”

In some instances young people are pressured to follow their friends because they do not want to undertake tahriib alone. Having friends on the journey can provide support. They can also inform families back home if an individual does not make it.

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp facilitate peer pressure. The availability of broadband Internet in households, university campuses and the ubiquitous Internet cafes in major towns means that digital communication is relatively accessible across the Somali regions – for those who can pay.

There are improved connectivity speeds, especially in Somaliland, where fiber optic broadband is now available. Smartphones mean that young people are continuously connected with their peers outside the country. As young people often note in conversation, topping up Internet on their smartphone is one of their biggest expenditures.

Discussions with young people in Hargeysa reveal that exchanges on social media sites constantly expose them to the lives of their peers who have gone on tahriib and reached Europe. Although it is widely known that the beautiful images posted on social media sites by those who have reached Europe do not show the reality of their lives, the images nonetheless provide powerful incentives for young people to leave.

Their significance increases if those posting pictures have only been gone for a short while, with people at home still able to remember these individuals’ lives before going on tahriib.

“When my friend left, we did not hear from him for 21 days. Then he started posting pictures of himself in Europe standing in front of tall buildings … beautiful green grass and flowers…. He always posts pictures on Facebook and says to me why are you still in the dust land?”

Those who have made it to Europe use these digital avenues to persuade their friends back home to leave. Those still at home are forced to defend their decisions. In this context, an unwillingness to leave because of fear of the risks associated with tahriib is considered cowardly. This type of pressure is particularly pertinent for young men as it directly touches on important socio-cultural stereotypes of Somali masculinity.

Although many families in Somaliland and Puntland would categorically stop their sons and daughters from risking their lives by attempting such a journey, there are many subtle cues (especially directed at young men) within society that contradict this. To some extent, these cues also sanction such endeavors as courageous acts. A mother whose son left when he was 16 years old reveals this dilemma. Although very emotional and voicing disapproval about her son’s departure, at the same she shows a great deal of admiration.

“He was only sixteen years old and now he is wasting his life in jail…. I wish he were here with us going to school. Now he has nothing. No family and no education…. He was a strong-headed boy and very brave. He saw his father doing nothing and decided he would fight for his life and help his family. He was very brave. He even left his older brother here. He decided to make something for himself.”

Peer pressure, real or imagined, can influence young Somalis to undertake tahriib. The question is whether they are also aware of the difficult conditions in Europe, especially in entry countries such as Italy and Malta, and whether they know that the likelihood of success – obtaining legal residency, employment and so on – is, at best, uncertain.

Discussions with young men in Somaliland reveal that although a level of awareness about these realities exists, they remain hugely optimistic. They perceive these difficulties to be temporary because they are aware that all Somalis eventually tend to be accepted as refugees. Current developments in Europe, however, challenge this assumption.

In May 2016, for example, Finland declared Somalia to be a safe country, revoking Somali eligibility to apply for asylum on the grounds of humanitarian protection under the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention.

This is an edited extract from Going on Tahriib: The causes and consequences of Somali youth migration to Europe.

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