BARBER shops are excellent places for gossip. Hassan Ali’s place in Kentish Town is no different. The north Londoner arrived in Britain from Somalia with dreams of becoming a mechanic. But he was good at cutting hair: you do whatever work you can, he says. Most Somalis—Britain’s largest refugee population—do not work. They are among the poorest, worst-educated and least-employed in Britain. In a country where other refugees have flourished, why do Somalis do so badly?
The first Somalis to arrive in Britain, over a century ago, were economic migrants. Merchant seamen settled in cities with docks: Cardiff, Liverpool and London. As civil war ravaged Somalia in the 1990s, refugees flocked to Britain. In 1999, the high-water mark, 7,495 Somalis arrived (11% of the refugees that arrived in Britain that year). Since then, the influx has slowed (see first chart); it still leaves a large community. The 2011 census identified 101,370 people in England and Wales who were born in Somalia.
Poverty is their first problem. Over 80% of Somali-speaking pupils qualify for free school meals. In Waltham Forest, a borough in east London, home to nearly 4,000 Somalis, 73% live in households on benefits. More than 50% of British Somalis rent from local councils, the highest proportion of any foreign-born population. In nearby Tower Hamlets 2010 data showed that Somalis were twice as likely as white Britons to be behind with the rent. The cost of their economic marginalisation hurts them, and is a toll on the public sector, too.
Education looks an unlikely escape route. Overcrowded houses mean children have nowhere to do their homework. In 2010-11 around 33% of Somali children got five good GCSEs, the exams taken at 16, compared with 59% of Bangladeshi pupils and 78% of Nigerian ones. Parents unable to speak English struggle. They see their children move up a year at school and assume they are doing well (in Somalia poor performers are held back). Their offspring, roped in as translators, are in no hurry to disabuse them.
This helps to explain the pitiful employment rates among Britain’s Somalis (see second chart). Just one in ten is in full-time work. Many Somali households are headed by women who came to Britain without their husbands. Fitting work around child care is a struggle. Without work, Somali men while away their days chewing khat, a mild stimulative leaf. Awale Olad, a Somali councillor in London, supports the government’s recent decision to ban the drug. But others fear it will needlessly criminalise a generation of men.
Religion, however, is an overstated problem. It is true that, like their Bangladeshi and Pakistani counterparts, some young Somalis are embracing stricter forms of Islam. Amina Ali, who hopes to stand as an MP at the next election, worries when she sees girls of three wearing headscarves. People can respect Islam without being so conservative, she says. But religion unites young Somalis with other young Muslims, says Ismail Einashe, a journalist. A few are radicalised, but most are not.
This cocktail of poverty and unemployment dogs Somalis elsewhere too. In 2009 they were the least-employed group in Denmark. The Norwegian government is so worried about its Somali community it wants research done on their plight. Even discounting such factors as religion, age and experience, compared with other black Africans in Britain, Somalis face an “ethnic penalty” when job-hunting. Their disadvantages are clear. But Britain is rightly perceived as a country in which it is relatively easy to set up businesses; it also offers the hope of a warm welcome with its large Somali and Muslim population. This should bode well for Somalis.
Many are hopeful. Somalis want their children to succeed, so growing numbers are hiring private tutors (see article). In 2000 just one Somali teenager in the London borough of Camden passed five GCSEs with good grades. To improve matters, the council and others set up the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre, which mentors students and lends them books. Last year the figure rose to 59%.
Abdikadir Ahmed, who works there, says his organisation encourages people to put the entrepreneurial skills they learn in gangs to better use. He works with Somalis locked up in Feltham prison, a young-offenders jail. Their numbers are dropping, he reckons. Somalis played little part in the summer riots of 2011.
This investment reflects a deeper change. For years many Somalis kept their suitcases packed, ready to return to Africa for good, says Mr Olad. Firm in the belief that they would soon be on the move, there was little point in putting down deep roots, or encouraging their children to do so. But the current generation of Somalis grew up in Britain. For them a permanent return to Somalia holds less appeal. Young British Somalis still embrace their nomadic heritage. But now they seek a dual identity, able to flit between two homelands and, they hope, to make the best of both.