Somali organizations and associations in the West often hold international conferences to discuss the reconstruction of Somalia. The picture shows two of the participants in a conference in Aalborg: Professor Mohamed Mukhtar and ethnographer Faduma Warsame Halane. Photo: Nauja Kleist.
By Nauja Kleist, Senior Project Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies
Somalis represents one of the newer larger refugee groups and the largest African group in Denmark. The first Somalis arrived in the country in the mid-1960’s as students and guest workers and from the 1980’s as refugees and reunited family members. Today almost 16,700 Somalis live in Denmark.
A NEW REFUGEE GROUP
In 1988, an armed conflict broke out in northwestern Somalia and a small number of Somalis began to seek, and were granted, refugee status in Denmark. This number rose sharply from the early and mid-1990’s, as the civil war spread to the rest of Somalia. At the same time, the number of family reunifications increased.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the Somalis thus grew to become one of the biggest groups of non-European citizens in Denmark. Due to the civil war, Somalis are now spread out all over the world, mainly in the neighboring countries and in Great Britain and the USA. There is still civil war in large parts of Somalia.
There are several reasons why Somalis have come to Denmark. First and foremost, the need for protection and asylum as a result of civil war and, in the case of family reunifications, the desire to be together with their spouses and immediate family. Many also ended up randomly in the country, due, amongst other things, to European asylum law. This means, inter alia, that asylum seekers must seek asylum in the first EU country they enter – for example if they are in transit in Denmark on the way to Great Britain or Sweden, which has been the case for some Somalis.
Others again had some prior knowledge about Denmark through their family and friends and thus wanted to settle in the country. English-speaking and multicultural countries like Great Britain, USA and Canada are, however, generally considered to be the most attractive countries of residence among Somalis.
A MIXED RECEPTION
Issues such as integration, asylum, immigration and Islam have been key political issues in Denmark since the latter half of the 1990’s. Politicization and media interest in these issues coincided with the receipt of a large number of Somali refugees in Denmark and – as a very visible Muslim refugee group in Denmark – the Somalis were given a rather mixed reception. On the one hand, a large number were granted asylum or family reunification. On the other hand, Muslim immigrants in general, and Somalis in particular, were portrayed as ‘the foreigners’ and ‘difficult to integrate’ in some media and amongst some politicians. This trend was exacerbated by high unemployment in the Somali group.
The debate led to a good deal of frustration amongst Somalis because, amongst other things, it ignores the internal differences within the group, which contains both illiterate and highly educated women and men.
The proportion of approved Somali refugees and the number of asylum seekers from Somalia have decreased since 2003 due to tightening of asylum laws. It has also been harder to achieve family reunification and Danish citizenship.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION TODAY?
Over half of the Somali group has now lived in Denmark for 10 to 15 years and has become a part of Danish society. For example, there are over 50 Somali associations, spread out over the whole country, whose focus includes integration, language, sports or support for reconstruction and development projects in Somalia. There are also several Somalis in Danish local politics.
Many Somalis are still in touch with family and friends in Somalia, neighboring countries or elsewhere in Europe or North America and are thus involved in various kinds of transnational practices, including remittances to family members in Somalia or in refugee camps. A number of the Somalis, who have acquired Danish citizenship, have, however, chosen to move to larger cities in Great Britain, such as London, Birmingham or Leicester.