We were sitting in a crammed cafe in the sweltering heat of a Mogadishu afternoon. The mishmash of conversation, clinking plates and loud horns from the street outside forced us to speak loudly across our plates of rice. A 22-year-old man I will call Liban, to protect his identity, sat across from me. Gangly and bursting with frenetic energy, he was telling me of his plans to cross the Mediterranean Sea to enter Italy illegally.
The topic came up casually during a conversation about a youth entrepreneurship summit I was organizing that week. He told me about a friend who introduced him to a fixer last year, who then connected him with a smuggler. He said his next step was to get together the last portion of the $4,000 that he would pay for his journey.
He pulled out a notebook and drew me a map. The plan was straightforward: He would cross the Ethiopia-Somalia border and meet with smugglers in Ethiopia. They would take him across the porous Ethiopian border with Sudan and on to Khartoum. From there, he would begin his journey into Libya. In Tripoli, he would board a boat and cross the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Sweden was his final destination. His cousin lived in Stockholm and promised to house him and help him find a job. He circled Sweden emphatically.
When I looked down, I couldn’t help but notice the crammed scribbles of quadratic equations on the opposite page. He was in his final year at university, hoping to become an engineer.
Two years later, I’m not sure where Liban is. I know he finished his degree in mathematics and is no longer in Somalia’s capital. But whenever I read about the horrific capsizing of boats loaded with hundreds of migrants off the coast of Italy, I think of our lunch that day.
I can’t help seeing an image of him in a rickety boat out at sea, crammed in with hundreds of others like cattle, sweltering under an unforgiving sun. I imagine him gaunt from dehydration, perhaps witnessing his fellow passengers turning on one another, or worst of all, surrounded by screaming, struggling migrants as their boat founders.
People often ask me what drives young men like Liban to take a journey that might very well lead to death. Are the privations of the journey, the abuse of traffickers and the risk of drowning worth the distant hope of finding a job as a janitor in Stockholm or picking tomatoes in southern Italy? Why would a young man, a university graduate, chance everything?
There is a Somali proverb that comes to mind: Poverty is slavery.
In Somalia, there is a population bulge of youths who live in a perpetual limbo of hopelessness, never moving forward, waiting for opportunities that never arrive, for a chance to give meaning to their lives. Like many of them, Liban did not face persecution or danger, just a life without purpose or hope. That is why he and thousands of others have risked their lives each year, and will continue to do so despite the recent headlines about hundreds of migrants drowned.
The European Union seems to be in disarray when it comes to dealing with the issue. Some Italian officials have called for stopping boats before they depart Libya, or forcing them to return before they land on Italian shores. Instead of addressing what is pushing these migrants in the first place, Europe’s response has been to increase the militarization of its maritime borders. The deaths of thousands of migrants, who are taking more perilous routes to avoid capture, have been the predictable result.
Addressing the root causes of unauthorized migration is one solution. While some fled civil war, many more of those who have died were simply seeking a better life. About two-thirds of Somali youths want to leave the country because they are unable to find work; in south-central Somalia, which includes the capital, the figure is as high as 87 percent. It is important to identify the communities at highest risk of choosing illegal migration and provide them the livelihoods they so desperately seek.
One successful model has been to train and support young people in starting their own businesses. Several organizations that promote entrepreneurship now exist in Somalia, providing young people with a way to earn an income. They include Shaqodoon, a Somali youth-led organization, and Silatech, which aims to support youth entrepreneurs in the Arab world. Silatech has partnered with money transfer businesses in Somalia to help finance youth start-ups.
On a Pan-African level, the Nigeria-based Tony Elumelu Foundation started a $100 million initiative this year to train and finance an eventual target of 10,000 start-ups across the continent. Of course, youth entrepreneurship initiatives are not an all-encompassing solution, but they can help reduce the number of people who risk their lives crossing the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean in search of work.
In 2013, the European Union pledged 650 million euros ($725 million) to Somalia as part of $2.4 billion in reconstruction aid from international donors. More of this money should be used to enable Somalis to earn a living at home.
As long as Somalia’s thousands of young people are stifled by poverty and condemned to hopeless, endless waiting, they will continue to risk their lives seeking better opportunities on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Mohamed Abdulkadir Ali, a 2013 New Voices fellow at the Aspen Institute, is the founder of the Iftiin Foundation, an organization fostering social entrepreneurship in Somalia.