In August 2013, the Economist published a grim article stating that “Most Somalis — Britain’s largest refugee population — do not work. They are among the poorest, worst-educated and least-employed in Britain.” They have also reported that the last 2011 census has recorded “101,370 people in England and Wales who were born in Somalia”, the figures estimated for British-Somalis vary from that to 500,000. There was an outcry from the Somali community in the UK of the overly negative portrayal of their image.
The 22nd May 2014 local elections indicate this gloomy trend is about to change thanks to a more active participation by Somalis in local politics. This is a long overdue move by the Somali community and crucial to their integration and progress in British life. It is also a great benefit to their home nation, Somalia, where they support their families and are actively involved in rebuilding the country after 23 years of a civil war.
Approximately four years ago, there was an increased uptake of British-Somalis in the local and national political system. There are a number of factors behind this: 1) The work done by Somali organisations (such as Act for Somalia) to raise awareness and empower Somalis to take an active interest in the political process; 2) The rise of the number of naturalised Somalis with the right to vote for the first time; 3) Second generation Somalis born in the UK, or those who came to the UK as children, reaching voting age; 4) Compulsory citizenship courses and provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision, which has given older Somali immigrants the English skills and confidence to fully participate in their adopted home’s political affairs; and 5) Increasing interest and participation of Somalis in higher education across the UK as a whole.
British-Somalis are some of the most politically active among Somali Diaspora communities outside Somalia and they have succeeded in integrating into British society without losing their cultural identity or their enthusiasm to support projects in rebuilding infrastructure or supporting peace in Somalia. In addition to nine elected local councillors (one in Bristol, one in Newport and seven in London), there are large numbers of Somalis on the electoral register, some of them for the first time. This has come to the attention of all the major political parties who are now taking the needs of the Somali populations within their local communities more seriously and is a force they ignore at their peril.
This is in sharp contrast with Diaspora communities in other countries, notably the United States, where the Somali population is less politically active and only have two elected Somali councillors. In addition to the councillors in the UK who have been elected, many others have unsuccessfully stood for election at local level but came second or third in their wards. Nevertheless, this has raised political awareness within the Somali community as a whole by the holding of political rallies, the distribution of political literature and, most importantly, providing a forum where local people can raise the issues they have in their local community and work together to come up with solutions.
Of the 275 members of parliament in the Somali federal government, 50 of them are British-Somalis. Their passion for rebuilding Somalia has encouraged them to return to their country of birth. It seems that the trend of younger British-Somalis wanting to serve their local communities in the UK while the older ones want to return to Somalia, is set to continue. Given the massive groundswell of interest in the British political system among the British-Somalis living in the UK, it is quite possible that we will see Somalis elected to parliament in the 2015 general elections and even to the European parliament in the next series of European elections. However, it may take some time for the rest of the British population to adjust to this meteoric rise.
Councillors elected for London boroughs:
Awale Olad – Camden
Rakhia Ismail – Islington
Harbi Farah – Brent council
Abdi Aden – Brent Council
Abdulahi Guled – Ealing
Amina Ali – Tower Hamlets
Abdul Mohamed – Southwark
Hibaq Jama – Bristol
Omar Ali – Newport City
By Mohamed Ahmed Cantoobo