30 Sept 2013

Entrepreneurship: A Solution to the EU’s Africa Migration Programme?

by Mohamed Ali, Iftiin Foundation

Roma Termini is a cavernous, polyglottic cacophony of German, French, Italian, and English -- bickering, raucous, ebbing, and flowing. The deluge swallowed me up as I stepped out into the terminal, as did the cold November drizzle.

I had come here on a mission. I was visiting Somali immigrant communities in Europe to shed light on the challenges faced by the Somalia Diaspora. Several hours earlier, I had broken the Ramadan fast with a Somali family in Lyon, living in one the city’s banlieues – an ethnic ghetto of mostly African and Arab immigrants. Rome was my last stop and my host was a man by the name of Hasan Sugule Hirsi, the Somali consul to Italy.

He picked me up in a rusty Fiat Uno–no frills, nothing to indicate that he was a diplomatic representative to the world’s eighth largest economy. After a quick “Salaam” I squeezed into the passenger seat and we were off. It was 2004, 12 years after Somalia self-destructed, leaving no functioning government in the country. Everyone called Hirsi  signor ambasciatore”, (the actual ambassador left the country following outbreak of civil war), but in reality his position was more opaque. With no government to represent, there was no one to pay his salary, and no one to maintain the Embassy or Consulate.

We reached our destination: the Somali consulate in Rome, an unassuming brick building on a corner street. The black iron gates screeched in protest as we entered the small courtyard and headed toward the ambassador’s office.

Passing through the dim reception hall, we sidestepped the beds and folded cots that lined the room and avoided stepping on the towels, diapers, and gas heaters that littered the floor. Nearly thirty women and their children were staying at the consulate. The men, 150 in all, were at the rundown embassy across the city. They were all refugees and most entered Italy illegally from small towns and villages throughout Somalia. They crossed the Sahara into Libya and, from there, paid a smuggler to get them across the Mediterranean to Italy, the gateway into Europe. They  were detained, processed, and then released with temporary stay permits. They eventually made their way to Rome where they found themselves homeless and unwelcome. With nowhere else to turn they ended up here.

Hassan talked to me of this and more: there was an abandoned train station in Rome that was home to hundreds of refugees – mostly Sudanese he told me. Hundreds of rickety boats containing migrants from sub-Saharan Africa landed on Italian shores each year – that year over 20,000 people had reached Italy by boat.

It is eight years later and not much has changed. I am in my office as I recall those three days in Rome – in front of me are several news articles from the past month: a boat containing 62 Somali migrants was caught off the coast of Malta – one of the woman gave birth during the journey; twenty-four people drowned off the western coast of Turkey when their boat heading to Europe sunk; last week six migrants died trying to get to the island of Sicily.

From Greece to Italy to Spain, Europe has become increasingly hostile toward the thousands of migrants who land on their shores each year.  The EU established a new agency Frontex, which intercepts immigrants at EU borders and coastal waters; Greece put up a barb-wire fence along the Turkey-Greek border and legislation has been put in place that allows EU members, such as Germany & France, to return illegal migrants to their point of origin in Europe. Despite these attempts at creating a European fortress of sort, the demand for migration hasn’t lessened.

Instead of creating a militarized European border, which has led to increasing human rights violations and has not impeded desperate migrants from finding new ways to bypass border security, a solution that addresses the root causes of migration is needed. Many migrants leave their home countries in order to diversify their livelihoods, increase their incomes and protect their families from risk. By having one or two family members working in Europe, households have a steady source of income.

In Somalia, 70% of youth have said they want to leave the country, primarily because of chronic unemployment, which is part of why I am working on promoting entrepreneurship. By creating sustainable livelihoods for youth through entrepreneurship, I am hoping that these youth will not feel compelled to set themselves adrift into the Mediterranean Sea in search of jobs.

As a Somalia migrant myself, I feel it is my duty to give the youth of my country an alternative to dangerous means of fleeing. What if the millions the EU spends on inefficient and ineffective border enforcement systems was directed toward creating opportunities in communities stricken by poverty? What if all those Somalis, warehoused at the Italian embassy, were back at home, working on innovations that made their own country better?  

Mohamed Ali is the founder of the Iftiin Foundation, an organization that incubates social entrepreneurs, young leaders and their groundbreaking projects to encourage a culture of change and innovation in Somalia. Mr. Ali is also a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Image: Somali Diaspora Some rights reserved by African Diaspora Institute


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