The Somali conflict has affected Somali citizens inside and outside the Somali region for over 25 years. While Somaliland and Puntland have enjoyed relative stability for more than two decades, conditions are much more fragile in south-central Somalia, and residents in many parts of the Somali region face considerable levels of insecurity still. In late 2012, however, the first permanent central government since the start of the civil war was installed in Mogadishu. This increased expectations that south-central Somalia is transitioning towards greater stability and created hope amongst the Somali diaspora. Since 2011-2012, the number of people returning to south-central Somalia has increased considerably. While no statistics are available, full daily flights into Mogadishu offered by Turkish Airlines and the visibility of diaspora investments in business and real estate suggest that return to Mogadishu is now much more frequent than it was just a few years ago.
It is widely acknowledged that the Somali diaspora plays a central role in political-economic affairs while having socio-cultural impact inside the Somali region. Remittance inflows reach over 1.2 billion USD annually and have been extensively studied; in terms of, inter alia, the senders’ motivations, their positive and negative impacts, and transnational relations between senders and receivers. Similarly, their political role is immense and has received some academic interest, focusing on both contributions that increase conflict and those that try to mitigate conflict potential or work towards peace. Another strand of literature has looked at the interlinkages of the Somali diaspora with development and humanitarian aid, as well as how donors encourage and support diaspora engagement. While much of this political-economic influence plays out transnationally, it is increasingly crucial also to look at the impact of return. Some studies have been done on this over a decade ago in the case of Somaliland, but little is known about more recent returns to the region.
Based on a research project carried out by PRIO in collaboration with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), I would like to present some reflections on the role of return of young Somalis and their engagement in the region. I do not refer to ‘return’ in the sense of a final stop in a migration trajectory from a place of departure in the country of origin to a place of arrival in the country of destination and back. Rather, the reality of the Somalis we spoke to is better understood in terms of a transnational sense of civic engagement and belonging. Many of those we spoke to had engagements in, and experiences from, more than one national context. Those we spoke to talked about the vision they had to make a contribution at this particular stage of Somalia’s history:
‘Making changes and improvements to the city and to the lives of those who live here also means that you are contributing to peace and security. I want to be part of this’ (Omar Hassan, returnee from Norway, Mogadishu)
Why go back?
Diaspora returnees frequently emphasize the sense of obligation and responsibility they feel towards their country of origin, indicating that they want to ‘give back’ or to ‘contribute’ to their ‘homeland’. Young people especially, often also mentioned this in light of the competences and expertise they gained while living abroad. They feel a sense of responsibility because of being in a privileged position. At the same time, as Mohamud argues ‘the decision to return to Somalia may be motivated by a desire to contribute to the country’s reconstruction, but is ultimately triggered by specific opportunities enabling them to do so’. Indeed, another common motivation for return relates to career development opportunities. Our interviewees usually moved when specific opportunities arose, including a job offer, a business initiative or a political position. To some, their chances upon return are apparently limitless:
‘Most exciting is the opportunity for growth and opportunity for employment… over 80, even 95 percent of development has already been achieved in other places where in Somalia it is the complete opposite as 85-95 percent of development has not been achieved. So for me, I see myself having the opportunity of becoming the Rockefeller or Kennedy of Somalia’ (Ridwan Ali, returnee from Canada, Mogadishu)
At the same time, the reason for returning is also related to these young people contesting mainstream perceptions of their own futures in Norway and the USA. They feel they cannot make much of a contribution in their countries of residence, either because the system is well-functioning or because their own resources are not recognized.
‘I knew that when it came to America, my contribution would be limited. What do I mean by this? Yes, my contribution is needed in America, but there are millions of people who have the same knowledge or are more knowledgeable than me that are already there. It has a system that has been in place and that has been working for centuries… When you look at my contribution here in Somalia it is really valuable and makes a difference’. (Mustafa Osman, returnee from Minneapolis, Mogadishu)
Somalia’s hope for the future?
While thus, the role of the return of young diaspora Somalis in shaping Somalia’s future is important to explore, it is crucial to realize that their understanding of making a ‘real contribution’ is contested locally. Those who never left Somalia challenge perceptions of belonging and who has the right to be civically engaged in Somalia and the idea that diaspora contributions are necessarily positive. This is often a reaction to the attitudes with which young Somalis return from the diaspora. Quite a few of our interviewees expressed viewpoints similar to the quote below:
‘People in Somalia are creative and like to be active. They have energy, they have many organizations. They lack structure, experience and administration. They have the right energy, but they lack knowledge’ (Axmed Yussuf, lives in Oslo, engages in civil society in Garowe)
With a large diaspora of potential returnees, Somalia faces both opportunities and challenges in the current phase of increasing stability. Those returning come back with visions of the ideal society, modelled by the political systems and societal traits that they appreciated in Europe and North America. Such visions may replicate modernization theory and its young believers face recognizable problems when describing realities in Somalia in evolutionary terms (where Somalia is simply 100 years behind the west). For obvious reasons, there is great resistance to such a worldview and the ideal future for Somalia it suggests. From this perspective there appears an intense contestation over the future of Somalia, where young people (born and) raised in places like Oslo and Minneapolis envision Somalia as a place where they could live, if only certain things were different. They are willing to contribute to that change in an attempt to connect their own individual future with collective futures in Somalia:
‘it is hard to call this place my home although technically I know that it is. I feel disappointed with the government here. There was a time I was a nationalist. But there is tribalism here. There is no law and justice. If I can make the contributions that I want to here and things change, then it might very well become home’ (Jamac Moxamed, returnee from Minneapolis, Garowe).
Others have also observed this dissatisfaction with larger political structures among young diaspora Somalis in their research. Yet as Hassan convincingly argues in the case of Somaliland, their position is often delegitimized precisely because of coming from abroad.
[P]eople educated in the west, if they go back to lead the country, they will be seen as stooges, puppets or spies, whatever you want to call them. Even if they might not be, Somali people will see that as the west manipulating their affairs and the fighting will continue. People should be empowered to decide what they want rather than imposing a rule over them, it would never work in Somalia (25 year-old Mursal, in Hassan 2014).
Despite long-standing theoretical insights in anthropology and other fields, general conceptions of people’s political identity and belonging to a community are often still expressed in terms of ‘roots’ rather than ‘routes’ (Clifford, 1994, 1997) in countries of settlement. Yet this rootedness is then challenged in Somalia, when the right of young returnees to contribute is delegitimized based on perceptions of external influence and manipulation.
If we do acknowledge the multi-sited embeddedness – both in the sense of belonging and acting – of young Somalis, we have to go beyond a focus on roots to understand the impact of routes on both their own and other people’s understanding of their role in Somalia’s future. This enables us to explore interesting aspects of their return to Somalia, as return allows young Somalis to compare contexts and this comparison may lead to contestations about Somalia’s future. As I have argued, seeing Somalia through a Norwegian or American lens, many young members of the Somali diaspora wish to contribute to radical transformations in Somalia’s political and social structures. At the same time, through their return they aim to reshape their own future to one where they feel they can make a ‘real contribution’ to society – albeit not the society they grew up in but the society their parents moved from. These developments represent a number of opportunities for Somalia’s future, which are important to explore. But they also denote significant challenges if questions on who has the right to belong to and participate in society are not addressed.
Cindy Horst is Research Director and Research Professor in Migration and Refugee Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO. Her current research interests include: mobility in conflict; diaspora; humanitarianism; refugee protection; (transnational) civic engagement; and theorizing on social transformation. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
All names are pseudonyms to protect the identity of our informants
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