Somaliland's prosperous refugees return to invest in their country

News Stories, 24 March 2006

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
A woman and her family outside the gate to their squatter compound at State House in Hargeisa. The fence is made of flattened tin cans, as are many of the homes impoverished returnees live in.

HARGEISA, Somaliland, Mar 24 (UNHCR) Ali Abdibihi is a bright, outgoing boy of 16 who is eager to practise his English with any visitor to the shantytown he calls home.

He lives in a traditional igloo-shaped home a tukul made of rags and flattened tin cans, with his blind father, his mother and six older sisters and brothers, all of whom are unemployed. Yet he sees clearly how he can help them: "I am going to be a professor. I am going to teach computer science."

The inspiration for such a precise ambition? A Somali who found refuge in Britain, earned a PhD there, and has come home to the Somaliland capital and set up an internet centre among the squatters' tukuls where he teaches computer science.

Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared (but internationally unrecognised) state of Somaliland is bursting at the seams these days with people like Ali and his family former refugees who have come back to their country, but have nowhere to live but squalid settlements, often set up without permission on state or private land.

At the same time, the city is booming thanks to other returnees like the British-trained professor who are bringing home their skills learned in exile, and quite often their money as well. According to UN figures, Somalis abroad sent home $750 million last year to fuel the region's economy; this year the figure is expected to reach $1 billion. Much of that is fuelling Hargeisa's construction boom.

Somaliland, which is also known as north-west Somalia, broke away from the rest of the country and declared itself the independent Republic of Somaliland in 1991. It was devastated by a vicious civil war in the late 1980s under the central government of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, followed by outbreaks of anarchic inter-clan fighting after his fall in 1991.

"Not only did people come back from refugee camps in neighbouring countries," says Somaliland's foreign minister, Edna Adan Ismail, "but many also came from far afield. We have returnees coming back from Canada, from the U.S., from Britain, from Australia, from Saudi Arabia. These returnees and I am one of them are putting Somaliland back on its feet."

Across town from the Sheikh Nur settlement where Ali's inspirational internet centre is located, a more formal computer class is under way at Havoyoco (Horn of Africa Voluntary Youth Committee), a local non-governmental organization funded by UNHCR that claims that 90 percent of its graduates find paying jobs. Today a class of about 30 young women is learning how to enter data into a computer to process payments.

Elsewhere in Hargeisa, the Somali Women's Development Association (SOWDA) teaches basic literacy to girls and women, and also teaches skills like tailoring, incense-making and soap-making with funding from the UN refugee agency.

Ugbad Ibrahim Kahin, 16 years old, dreams of someday becoming a medical doctor. For now, seated behind a treadle sewing machine at the SOWDA centre, she's happy to learn tailoring because "sewing is something that will improve my life."

She's one of eight children, their father is dead, and their mother cannot find work, "so I thought I could be the one who could earn money and support the family," the teenager says.

Helping Somalilanders acquire skills to support themselves is one of many goals of a $200 million Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) to improve the lives of Somalis in the four main countries of asylum (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen) and returnees and displaced within the country.

In an area where being rich is defined as eating three meals a day, the regional CPA is designed to help place Somalis on a more stable footing by, among other aims, protecting returnees and displaced people, improving the nutrition of women and children, improving access to clean water, and increasing access to health care and education.

With initial backing by the European Commission, Denmark, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, UNHCR and other United Nations agencies plan to present the CPA to donors later this year. This fundraising event will be the first phase of a larger donor appeal that aims to turn an assessment of needs of Somalis into a three-year development plan.

Through these joint processes, the returnees in Somaliland should be in a better position to fully reintegrate and, together with other vulnerable groups, including those displaced internally, recover some "normalcy" in their lives.

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
Students at a computer training centre run by the NGO Havoyoco and funded by UNHCR, in Hargeisa, the booming capital of the self-declared independent state of Somaliland.

Back at the foreign ministry, Edna (as the foreign minister is affectionately known far and wide) says investing in the future of returnees is a smart move, and that the energy of Somaliland's returnees who have come home from refugee camps and elsewhere can stand as a model to refugees in other countries.

"What is happening in Somaliland is encouraging for all refugees," she says, "that they should come home and rebuild their country like Somalilanders have."

By Kitty McKinsey in Hargeisa, Somaliland

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