Apr 4th 2007 | TOXTETH, LIVERPOOL
From The Economist print edition
Things are looking up for Britain's largest refugee community
GLOOM had descended on the Lodge Lane Somali Women's Group. The landlord was selling up and the small Liverpool charity did not have enough money to buy him out. Eviction was two weeks away. Then in walked Mariam Gulaid, the group's treasurer, with a bulging carrier bag. Inside was £14,100 in cash, raised in a whirlwind door-to-door collection from local Somalis—“all women,” she adds proudly. They are now on the way to buying the building.
Little is known of Britain's Somalis. Even counting them is hard: the 2001 census came up with a total of 43,691, but surveys since then suggest a number nearer 100,000. A century-old trickle of economic migrants became a flood of refugees in the 1980s, increasing in the late 1990s as tens of thousands fled violence. Somalis are now Britain's largest refugee group.
News tends to focus on the criminal exploits of their young men, who have acquired a fearsome reputation in some quarters. Reporters might learn more from the women: they are finding their feet, and helping friends and family find theirs.
“The men always say that women change when they come to England,” says Mrs Gulaid, who estimates that at least half the women who come through her door are single parents, either through death or, increasingly, divorce. For women, life in Britain means support from the state and, through this, independence from their husbands, she says.
Somali men seem to have a bumpier transition. Three-quarters have been to secondary school and one in ten has a degree, but language difficulties and unrecognised qualifications make unemployment the norm. Jill Rutter, a migration researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank, estimates that 65-70% are out of work. All-night sessions chewing qat also play their part (see article).
Down the road from Lodge Lane is the Merseyside Somali Community Association, a men's club. The brightly painted building is more a social venue than the action-oriented women's centre, which means that some men sneak into the women's group for advice. Osman Mohamed, its chairman, says hysteria about terrorism and suspicion directed at groups of black youths have given Somali men a reputation they do not deserve.
It is hard to sort fact from fiction, as crime figures are broken down only by broad racial categories. Somalis have made the news for a few ruthless crimes, including the murder of Sharon Beshenivsky, a rookie police officer, in 2005. But police say these villains are unrepresentative. Paul Hurst, a police constable who has patrolled Toxteth's Somali neighbourhood for 21 years (and visited Somalia on a police bursary), reckons a hard core of about 30 Somali youths are active in car crime and low-level drug-dealing in the city. Nonetheless, crime in Somali “Tocky”, as Toxteth is known, is lower than in neighbouring Picton and Wavertree, and light-touch policing has kept the peace. A repeat of the bloody Toxteth riots of 1981, when local Afro-Caribbeans clashed with police, is unthinkable, everyone agrees.
The outlook for young Somalis is brightening. Lack of English among newly arrived refugees has prevented progress at school: a 1999 study of students in Camden, north London, found that just 3% got five good GCSE qualifications, compared with 48% of all students (and 21% of refugee children). But as the number of asylum seekers has plummeted, achievement has soared: in 2005 24% of Somalis in Camden got their five good passes.
The fall in new arrivals has also damped down clan tensions, often blamed for causing fractures in the community. The Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, a research body, counts at least 100 Somali organisations in London. Now, Liverpool's various bodies have overcome their differences to form an umbrella group, which is badgering the council for a joint community centre.
Image remains crucial, especially to elders who fear their community is unfairly smeared by impostors. Economic migrants from all over east Africa (some of them ethnic Somalis) claim to be from Somalia to boost their chances of gaining asylum: a favourite pastime of British Somalis is spotting the fakes. Hussain Osman, on trial for trying to blow up a London station in July 2005, is considered one of Britain's highest-profile Somalia-born refugees. He may be nothing of the sort. Italian police say he is Hamdi Issac, and Ethiopian.