Separated Somali children

Once through the port of entry, the separated child moves into a new life. It is a challenge to the receiving country to treat these children with the specialised care they need, and fully respect their rights as a child, while at the same time establish exactly where they came from, how old they are, and what to do with them. Even official procedures designed to be humane can do little to alleviate the shock of arrival. The child is thrown precipitately into a foreign culture and language, often with extreme weather and environment change and, simultaneously, must take on adult-like responsibility for its own basic and complex needs. Some teenagers also arrive with very young siblings or relatives to look after.

In Europe, the legislation and institutions available to deal with the increased number of unaccompanied children generally appear to be inadequate to meet their unique and complex needs. Children also pose a special dilemma to the diaspora - families struggle to cope with even their most basic requirements. Many of the problems that arise come from the fact that unaccompanied children almost without exception have been burdened with a false identity by the smuggler. It puts them in conflict not only with the authorities and their guardians - but also with themselves. They have to live a lie. "I have seen many children living with false histories, and if they can tell their real story, in my experience, it is almost always worse than the false one," said psychologist Marie Hessle in Stockholm.

Receiving separated children

"The children are in a state of bewilderment, fear and confusion…they did not make the decision to leave their own country, they have not been given the right information; they want to go home," said one official working with newly arrived separated children. Somali children are in most cases later claimed by relatives who have been informed of their arrival, or given the authorities the name of a relative to contact.

In Sweden, unaccompanied minors are looked after in the children's unit at the Carlslund refugee centre. They see a psychologist, undergo a health examination, and are allocated a contact person to assist them through the asylum process. In Britain, the child is received at the port of entry by immigration officials, and then become the responsibility of the local authority. 

But about one third of the children suffer such acute fear that they do not want to reply to questions asked by an interpreter, and are not in a position to take in information, according to staff at Carlslund. Some arrive seriously traumatized, the cause of which is not easy to identify - it may be due to their experience in the country of origin, in the family they have left, or with the smugglers. Staff at Carlslund said children who were severely traumatized had to have special care. "If necessary, we send them to a special psychiatric unit…Sometimes it is difficult to find a place to keep them, and they have to stay in a hospital."

The receiving country must try to establish critical information about the child, including origins and age, while respecting their rights as a child. However, many of the separated children will have been instructed to give different ages, identities and stories in the hope of disguising any links to the smuggler and facilitating the granting of asylum. Depending on the country they have arrived in, the children will receive a medical examination, be fingerprinted and photographed, and may be subjected to DNA testing and X-rays, as well as going through lengthy official interviews. In some countries, unaccompanied children may be detained. In a 1999 report on separated children arriving in Britain, Amnesty International said unaccompanied children were particularly vulnerable, where refugees in general posed a challenge to host communities. Of refugees, Amnesty said: "They arrive as packages of complex human rights issues, demanding that those rights which have been stripped from them are restored by the international community… When an unaccompanied refugee child seeks protection those challenges are magnified, not least because, having recognized the vulnerability of children in general, the law makes greater provision for their welfare."10 While processing and verifying claims for asylum, the host country must also deal with medical needs, mental and emotional disturbance, and provide shelter, food, advice and security. The result is often an imperfect system.

Procedures in the host country

A Save the Children report said in 2001 that a significant number of young separated refugees interviewed in the UK "had chaotic and disturbing experiences on arrival and received little or no support".11 In Sweden, there has also been public criticism voiced over how the system treats unaccompanied children, with no clear delineation of responsibility between the immigration office and the social services. The lack of specialised care and personnel for unaccompanied minors is an issue of concern to social workers and psychologist working with separated children in Europe. "Staff might have the best of intentions and be very nice people, but they do not have the competence to deal with the sort of problems these children have… You have to be more than nice," one humanitarian observer said.

Official statistics on the numbers of unaccompanied children are poor, immigration officials acknowledge. "Many children show up, apply for asylum, start the process, then disappear", said one European immigration official. "We don't have the right to do much checking." Immigration officials told IRIN that one of the greatest concerns with Somali separated children was the fact that they appeared to be absorbed by the Somali community and were claimed by "relatives", while there was no real system - either through the immigration board or social services - to establish what the real relationship of the adult was to the child, or whether the home was suitable. In Sweden, one immigration official who had worked on Somali cases for more than a decade said she believed the intake of Somali separated children was "very organized…I can meet the same woman declaring herself to be a relative a number of times." But such officials say they remain in the dark as to who is organizing the movement of children, "we suspect it may be people here who set up a network."

When the child arrives, one of the first priorities of the host country is to try and find the parents. With some of the children, relatives proved equally keen to contact the parents so as to persuade them to take the child back, immigration officials said. While there is suspicion that some of the "relatives" are organizing child smuggling, there is also awareness on the part of the authorities that members of the diaspora are unwillingly burdened with responsibilities through the extended family. Over the last few years, there has been greater awareness of the pitfalls of taking on separated children, and in some cases, relatives help immigration officials contact the parents and persuade them to take the child back. Almost invariably, the child wants to return home immediately. However, some social workers and psychiatrists warn that this policy of return is controversial and may not be in the best interests of the child, who may return to a dangerous or abusive situation, or may face the wrath of the family.

Marie Hessle, a psychologist working with unaccompanied children in Sweden, says the process of arriving in a country and going through official bureaucracy is extremely stressful. "When they go for interview, they might be accused of lying. I've had to counsel young people because of that alone." She says the children have been coached and threatened to give a particular story. Once they are under scrutiny, it is very stressful for the child to give a false history, and then to live with it, she told IRIN.

[Marie Hessle, psychologist specialising in work with separated children in Sweden]

One of the likely issues of contention during the process is verifying the age of a young person; if they are 18 or older, they are not entitled to the special protection afforded to children. Social workers, immigration officials and psychologists say many of the unaccompanied minors claim to be younger than they are, in the belief they are more likely to get favourable treatment in the asylum process. Some children genuinely do not know which year they were born in; and a small number believe they are older than they actually are.

Humanitarian agencies and human rights organizations are concerned that attempts to accurately establish age by the authorities are likely to breach the basic human rights of the child. The use of X-rays is "inaccurate as well as potentially harmful", according to the UK Royal College of Paediatricians. The UK Refugee Council supports a holistic approach, using a process to assess the experiences, skills and needs of unaccompanied children, in order to make a judgment on the age range a child or young person is likely to fit into. The Refugee Council's adviser on unaccompanied minors also warns that young people may appear older because of the impact of extreme circumstances and events.12

10 Most vulnerable of all: The treatment of unaccompanied refugee children in the UK (Amnesty International, May 1999)
11 Cold Comfort: Young separated refugees in England, (Save the Children, 2001)
12 See Cold Comfort: Young Separated Refugees in England. (Save the Children, 2001)

Diaspora responsibilities 

In most European countries, a person is considered a child up to 18, and is entitled to particular rights and treatment. This Western definition may contradict other cultural concepts of what childhood is. For example, in very traditional Somali culture, girls as young as nine may be considered adult; young teenage boys could be taking on the responsibilities of an adult in their home country. Faced with significant cultural contradictions and tough economic and social circumstances, the Somali diaspora find it difficult to raise and educate children, particularly separated children.

When a Somali family living abroad takes on a separated child, there is often little comprehension as to what responsibilities that entails - particularly, the specific entitlement of rights bestowed on that child, and the ensuing state responsibilities. It is also unlikely that there is any understanding of the special needs a separated child might have, including issues of identity, depression and trauma. This can lead to serious conflict in the child-guardian relationship, and means a separated Somali child may "resurface" years after their arrival in official figures for crime, juvenile detention, truancy and drug abuse.

Torn between two cultures 

Once in the host country, children - and particularly young teenagers - feel a heavy burden of peer pressure to assimilate. Children are likely to learn the language quickly and adopt "appropriate" cultural behaviour, whereas adults are more likely see it as their responsibility to retain and protect the original culture. Some children have to become a bridge between the two cultures. They must translate and respond to the outside world - for example, reading school letters to their guardians, and writing the reply - while at the same time responding to pressure at home to be worthy and respectful repositories of Somali culture. Attempts by the diaspora to retain the Somali culture include Koranic lessons and insisting on speaking Somali at home. Conflict arises in the family when the child rebels against "Somaliness", and takes on the lifestyle and values of the host culture to an extent that is detrimental to basic adult authority in the home.

[On taking care of nine-year-old in Canada, returnee in Hargeysa]

Somali parents said one of the biggest problems they faced in raising children overseas was the restriction Western culture places on discipline. "Smacking and beating is seen as normal discipline in the Somali community, and a lot of adults are astonished, and outraged about the role the authorities take," said one Somali mother. Added to the frustration and confusion is the fact that diaspora parents and guardians also face criticism from teachers and police that they are unable to control their children. "In the school, both the teachers and the parents blame each other for the absence of discipline. We think our children are rude because the teachers don't smack them and the children don't respect them - but when we go to see the teachers, they say, why don't you control your children?" said one Somali parent.

Traditionalism versus assimilation

Many Somalis living abroad, or who have returned home, dwell on stories about Somali parents or guardians who had children forcibly removed from the home over matters of discipline. One woman who did voluntary work with social services in Canada said she had come across "a few cases" where Somali children were removed from the family into temporary or permanent care after one of their children complained to the police about corporal punishment at home. She was involved in one case where a seven-year-old child telephoned the police when his mother was smacking his five-year-old brother for hurting his little sister. The seven-year-old had been taught at school to call the police if there was any violence at home. As the mother was unable to speak the host language, the onus was on the seven-year-old to receive the police and translate for them when they arrived; but he became fearful of his mother and of the police when he realized the enormity of what he had done. "The mother had no idea why the police had arrived at her home, and became hysterical, and so displayed behaviour that was detrimental to her own case. When I was called in, the children had all been taken into temporary care until the case was sorted out."

Parents and guardians also feel their authority is undermined generally by the more permissive, welfare-oriented societies in Europe and North America. When young teenagers appeal to the welfare state for help, they may be entitled to accommodation and benefits that allow them to leave the family. For many young teenagers struggling to assimilate, rejecting adult authority in the house is part of the drive to reject the culture of origin. Others find crucial aspects of their own culture have no practical relevance in the new environment - where, for example, Somali teenage boys are expected to take a dominant male role in the household at 14, but find they are living in a female-headed household in a society that openly condemns the notion of male superiority. 

Such "cultural confusion", said one member of the diaspora, tends to bring out extreme traditionalism in adults and obsessive "assimilationism" in the young. Adults retreat into their own culture; their children get to know the foreign system better, are better educated, are better versed in the host language and appropriate cultural behaviour, and are also likely to deal with any paperwork (letters from school, officials forms etc) that comes across the threshold. "The authority of the adult is ambiguous, to say the least," said one Somali parent.

Many adults in the diaspora try to minimize this culture 'gap' between the generations by making sure Somali remains the language of the house. The children receive religious education from Koranic teachers in the evenings or at weekends, and the Somali community works together as much as possible through local organizations and social contacts. However, when all else is seen to fail, children are "deported" back to the homeland - sometimes with disastrous consequences (see Chapter 6 Returning Home).

Living on the edge 

Some unaccompanied children suffer more than others. Most at risk are those who have been abused or used for exploitative purposes, ranging from benefit fraud, domestic labour and prostitution.
An unknown number of these children are exploited by using them to manipulate the welfare state. In Britain, this is a category of at-risk children who are of particular concern to Somali voluntary welfare organizations. "Often the family wants social service benefits, but does not give the child any affection or proper attention…The children know they don't have an equal life, an equal share, with the other children in the family, and that leads to misery and problems," said Dahabo Isa, a community organiser in London.

Benefit fraud

Where a state welfare system gives priority to women with children, a child may be used to secure accommodation, or to get welfare payments that are used by the rest of the family. Concerned members of the diaspora say the Somali community abroad turns a blind eye to this practice, either because it is useful for claiming benefits or out of shame that it is being done - or through fear that exposing it might threaten legitimate benefits. One Somali teacher in London said children exploited for benefit were a visible "underclass" in the community. In one of the schools she taught in, the teacher said she became concerned for one eight-year-old Somali boy who appeared unnaturally thin and disheveled. "He used to come to school having not eaten and it was obvious he had no care at home…he said he was living with relatives whose children hated him, and he had to look after himself." The boy was left to get his own breakfast and find his way to school. He was poorly dressed despite the cold, and frequently ill. According to the teacher, he described himself as "alone in the family".

Photo: IRIN/Jenny Matthews-Network 
Dealing with the paperwork - Deqa, in London, struggles to understand an eviction order
Through her work in the Somali Development Organisation, Dahabo Isa seeks out separated children in the community to try and give them advice and support. It is only recently, she says, that diaspora organizations have realized the scale of the problem of unaccompanied children. She describes most of the separated children as "hidden", as they stay with clan members or a distant relative - "We try to do what we can, and find them through word of mouth, through relatives…Sometimes they come to our attention because they have been used to claim benefits and then the family doesn't want them any more." The Somali community has resisted attempts to collate lists of unaccompanied children and highlight their plight. Dahabo blames this on a particular section of the community. "Our people refuse, they don't want it known that there are unaccompanied children, because they want to keep on getting the benefits", she told IRIN. She said her organization has had little success when trying to petition social services about the plight of the unaccompanied, because social workers believe it is sufficient that the child is staying with relatives. "We try to help these children, meet with the duty worker, go to the asylum section for unaccompanied children, but too often they say the child should stay with relatives and friends. 'This case is not a priority', they say."

In its study on unaccompanied children in England, Save the Children underlined this concern when it observed the lack of interest on the part of social workers in the families which took in unaccompanied children. "We did not identify a single case where an adult carer accompanying a separated child had been assessed for their suitability to take responsibility for the child."13

According to Marie Hessle, research carried out in Sweden showed that of a group of 100 separated children of different nationalities, 58 percent had such severe problems that they needed special help. Hessle said that during the autumn of 2001, 12 unaccompanied children of different nationalities under the care of the state had attempted suicide. She said it related to the trauma in their home countries, as well as the situation in the host country. "Some have witnessed awful things, and some have been abused; some have come from violent families." She added that some of the girls were raped and abused by smugglers or lured into prostitution; some discovered they were HIV-positive.
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