'Leave now, pay later' migration scams lure Somali teens to their deaths

Wednesday June 13, 2018
By Megan Iacobini de Fazio

HARGEISA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Hanab Ahmed’s
18-year-old son Mohammed did not come home for lunch or answer his
phone, she feared that he – like several other teenagers who had
disappeared from their neighborhood – had set off for Europe, risking
kidnapping and death.

A month later, Ahmed, who lives in
Hargeisa, the capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland,
received a call from her son who was being held for ransom by
traffickers in Sudan.

“He said it was bad and that there wasn’t
enough food or water and he saw people die,” she told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation, clutching a photo of her son between fingers stained
orange with henna.

“We sent $5,300,” she said, which she begged from relatives.

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is a tradition among nomadic communities in the Horn of Africa. Somalis
have used smuggling networks to migrate to the Gulf and Europe for work
and education since the 1970s, and later, with the outbreak of war in
1988, to seek asylum.

For decades, raising money to send a
relative abroad via a locally-known smuggler was seen as worthy
investment in Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in

But it is becoming hard to distinguish between voluntary
smuggling across borders and deadly trafficking – where criminals use
leave-now-pay-later schemes to lure teenagers abroad, without their
families’ knowledge, and hold them ransom.

“They tell them they
can just leave and don’t have to pay anything,” said Xiis Saleebaan
Alinle, whose 17-year-old son Fadhi Hassan, left in secret almost a year

“But then they trap them and beat them until we send money.”


than 1 million people have migrated to Europe since 2015, many fleeing
conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, with thousands
drowning at sea.

Overall numbers have declined sharply since Turkey began to exert more control over migrants trying to cross into Europe.

the long and dangerous journey, known as tahriib in Somaliland,
continues to devastate communities struggling to combat recurrent
drought and widespread unemployment.

“Tahriib is indeed a big
problem in Somaliland … It’s almost a suicide mission,” said Khadar
Mariano, founder of YEEL Volunteers, a local education charity.

“We are losing so many young brilliant minds who would have otherwise contributed to the development of the country.”

U.S. State Department’s 2017 trafficking report noted an increase in
the transport and kidnapping of children and unemployed university
graduates from Somaliland, who transit Ethiopia and Sudan and are
sometimes held hostage in Libya.

Women often recruit and
transport victims to Puntland, Djibouti and Ethiopia to become domestic
servants or for sex trafficking, it said, with poor families willingly
surrendering their children to people with family or clan linkages.

United Nations migration agency, IOM, has spent almost a decade working
to educate people in Somaliland about the risk of kidnapping and
exploitation by traffickers.

But many, aware of the dangers, still choose to go.  

are willing to risk their lives if they have lost hope that their
situation will ever change,” said Anja Simonsen, an anthropologist at
the University of Copenhagen.


Violence and extortion have become systematic, said Said Ahmed, head of Somaliland’s anti-trafficking agency, HAKAD.

to pay ransom means organ removal or bodily harm, injury or maiming to
coerce payment from relatives,” he said, adding that the government is
working to raise awareness, prosecute criminals and protect victims.

The president of Somaliland also issued a decree in 2013 to create a committee to curb tahriib through job creation.

ending tahriib is a tricky business, driven not only by unemployment
and social media posts by friends who have reached Europe, but also by
the visible success of local businesses set up by returnees and visitors
from the diaspora, experts say.

Unlike in the past, when
families readily sponsored young relatives to migrate abroad, elders are
now actively trying to stop their children from leaving.

is a general social understanding among the older generation that
tahriib is haram (forbidden) because, according to Islam, you cannot
kill yourself,” said Simonsen.

“And traveling in the desert,
risking your life when you come from a peaceful country is, by some
elders, seen as a form of suicide.”

Families who can afford to are investing in businesses for their children.

parents bought me this car so I could earn money, but they made me
promise not to leave,” said Abdifatah, an 18-year- old taxi driver who
declined to give his full name.

In some communities, elders
have said they will no longer allow fundraising to pay for ransoms, in a
bid to discourage other youngsters from leaving.

But Mohamed’s
family had no qualms about paying his traffickers to set him free. After
his mother sent the money, he traveled to Libya and bought a seat on a
boat to Italy.

He was just about to board when he called for the last time.

“He told me not to worry and that he would call as soon as he got to Italy,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

Two months on, she has yet to receive that call.



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