Monday, November 24, 2008

The Somalis of Leicester

(Photo: "Leicester - It'll be good when it's finished" by Andrew M Butler on Flickr)

This weeks Radio 4 Choice is about Leicester - which will be within a few years Britain's first 'plural city' where no ethnicity forms a majority. This does not actually mean that any one current ethnic minority will form a new majority, whites will still be the largest group in Leicester, but they will no longer be more than half of the city's population.

Leicester is quite interesting demographically because its big immigrant inflow, unlike say the northern mill towns, was only 30 years ago and was East African Indians who have tended to be very business-minded. But what I found more interesting was the interviews with more recently arrived Somali families - most of whom moved from Holland because they wanted to be in more a multicultural society than the Netherlands. Their experiences in the UK seem mixed, but what the programme noted was that those that came were all pro-education (with one kid who arrived in the UK at 13 only knowing what English he had heard in music, who then 3 years later got 21 GCSEs! For non-UK readers, that is more than double the number of subjects that a bright kid would normally do at school).

I've been interested in the phenomenon of Somali movement within Europe for the last three years, when I first started hearing anecdotal evidence of it. But now I'm in no doubt - there is an outflow of aspirational young single Somalis and Somali families from Holland and Scandinavia to the UK. I've now heard this from the UK-end and from an odd variety of sources who have noticed in Scandinavia that "their Somalis" are leaving. The UK welfare state isn't as comprehensive as for example in Finland or Sweden, so clearly the old racist line of "they've come here to get a free house" isn't true. Clearly a growing Somali population in the UK has some social policy implications - although as it seems that most Somalis go to the UK to start a business or get higher education, these probably aren't major challenges. It would seem to have much bigger implications for the countries where the Somalis are leaving. If the best and brightest of one of your immigrant communities ups sticks and moves to another country, the community that remains is likely to present a higher proportion of social policy issues. This is exactly what a Danish Imam told me was clearly happening in his city, increasing racial tensions. Another very serious question is whether it suggests that there is a systemic failure in the integration policies of social democracies such as Finland or the Netherlands.

I had a funny conversation with a professional Finnish-Somali guy recently, in that both of us had become interested in the politics of Minnesota for exactly the same reason. Minneapolis seems to have become the promised land for the Somali diaspora - where the community has thrived through its entrepreneurship (and supportive policies from the state) and become integrated into the city's political life in the traditional way new immigrant populations in the United States always have. Now they are important within the Democratic Party, and as a result some of the Minnesota's congressmen and its senator have become leading figures in the international efforts to find peace in the Horn of Africa. The US model of integration (which seems to be to a great extent leave people to their own devices) has successes where the European social democracies do not.

1 comment:

Your neighbour said...

My bet is that the new UK Somalis are mainly either from Somaliland or they are part of the expatriate Somali intelligentsia, and that English language skills had a lot to do with their choice of destination.

Quite a lot of displaced Somalis arrived in Finland from Russia in the early 90s, partly because international travel to Moscow remained possible as the rest of the developed world closed its doors to individuals displaced by the civil war in Somalia. Finland then became the first country of asylum, but was hardly the ultimate destination preferred by educated Somalis.

The time of remigration in turn relates to the delay in securing full mobility rights within the European Union. Somalis are not the only group of English-speaking Africans to head for the UK immediately on securing a Finnish passport.