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Bashi's journey may signal a bigger refugee crisis to come

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Somali youthYoung Somali men participate in a vocational training and education program in Burao, Somaliland. But as Africa’s population grows, the number of people escaping conflict in countries like Somalia will continue to rise. Photo: UNDP Somalia

When you read news from Sicily and Calais and Greece, I hope you will remember Bashi*, a young African man among many currently in a migrants’ camp in Europe.

I first met Bashi in 2011 in Kenya. He was self-assured and articulate. As I got to know him, I never thought that he would join the young Africans undertaking perilous journeys to seek new starts.

Bashi’s story begins in Somalia. At age 14, he crossed the border into northern Kenya to get away from an intensifying conflict. He ended up in Dadaab, one of the largest refugee camps in Africa with more than 350,000 people.

After a few years, Bashi made another audacious journey to Nairobi to seek work and education. It is illegal under Kenyan law for refugees to leave the camp, but Bashi “camouflaged” himself in the predominantly Somali neighbourhood Eastleigh. He became a waiter by day, and a student by night, keen to ensure that the circumstances of his birth did not imprison his future.

2014 was a good year for Bashi. He opened his own small shop, selling clothes and “advancing fashion in Nairobi.” Bashi was christened the hipster of Eastleigh with his fondness for tight jeans and oversized glasses.

When I met him again in 2014, it was clear Bashi was concerned about his future.  Things had changed for Somalis in Kenya since the intensification of al-Shabaab activities. He worried he could lose his business and be deported. He seemed subdued, but maintained his entrepreneurial zeal.

Last month when I was back in Kenya, I asked around for news of Bashi. I received a message with a picture of the front page of an Italian newspaper, showing a well-dressed young man carrying a Syrian baby. It was Bashi, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

I learnt that Bashi had left Kenya in July, having saved US$4,500 for his voyage. He chose Sweden because he had heard it is a place of tolerance, opportunity and open access to education. He also has distant relatives there.

A series of “brokers”, essentially smugglers, took Bashi through different segments of his journey. The first leg was from Kenya to Iran, for which Bashi paid US$1,600.  During his voyage, Bashi met Syrians, Afghans, Sudanese and Eritreans, all united in their refusal to accept life as dictated by geography and circumstance.

Bashi’s journey – from Kenya to Iran, then to Turkey and Greece all the way through to Austria. Photo: UNDP Africa

Bashi walked 23 hours to the Turkish border, then travelled to Istanbul, and from there to Greece. In Athens, another broker facilitated travel through Macedonia, into Serbia.

In Belgrade, Bashi ran out of money. He called on his network of friends, who sent the US$1,550 he needed to get to Vienna. But then he was stopped on his way to Germany and sent to a “holding camp” in Salzburg, where he remains.

Bashi’s story is similar to those of millions of Europeans who migrated to the United States in the 19th century. Just like the migrants of today, those Europeans were escaping poverty, discrimination, and conflict. Bashi, like the majority of those people, will contribute significantly to any nation that will give him asylum.

As Africa’s population continues to grow, the number of people crossing deserts and seas will continue to rise. Responses have focused primarily on enforcement, but it is clear barriers and barbed wire will not deter people who are prepared to risk their lives.

There is no escaping the tough decisions required to absorb and integrate a significant number of the people who have already arrived in Europe and cannot be repatriated to countries in conflict.

 The Bashis of this world are not motivated by the European welfare state; they are attracted by peace, opportunities for development, employment and a legal system that promises equality and protection.

African countries must ask why their young people feel compelled to leave. Making the continent politically and economically attractive for young people must be a priority response.

Another positive move could be to ease restrictions for asylum seekers and economic migrants within African borders. Africa already hosts the largest proportion of African migrants, but often they struggle to gain citizenship or the right to work legally.

The international community must act in unison and redouble efforts to address the root drivers of migration: poverty, conflict, and lack of opportunity.

In an increasingly unequal and unpredictable world, the dispossessed refuse to suffer quietly. If their actions do not elicit increased investment in development, conflict prevention, and global solidarity, then the current crises will simply herald a bigger exodus to come.

*Bashi is a nickname, the use of which is common in Somalia

An extended version of this post was originally published in the Guardian.  Click here to read.

Mohamed Yahya Crisis response Jobs and livelihoods Human development report Poverty reduction and inequality Migration Africa Kenya Somalia Youth