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The Somali Diaspora in the Twin Cities: Engagement and Implications for Return Policy Report

Ryan Allen, Assistant Professor
Carissa Slotterback, Associate Professor Kadra Abdi, Research Fellow
Ahmed Muhumud, Research Fellow

Key Findings

December 2014

  • With the increasing stability in Somalia in recent years, Somali diaspora from North America and Europe appear to be making return trips to the country in substantial numbers. Interviews with members of the diaspora from the Twin Cities suggest that so far these trips tend to be temporary in nature. The fragile nature of the stability Somalia has achieved and the lack of important infrastructure, such as health care, in Somalia help to explain the lack of permanent return on the part of many Somalis in the diaspora.
  • Return migrants from the Twin Cities Somali diaspora tended to be self-selected individuals with high levels of human capital and substantial records of civic engagement achievements in the Twin Cities community.
  • Members of the Somali diaspora in the Twin Cities of Minnesota who had made a return trip to Somalia often found positions in the government and civil society sectors, with relatively few starting new businesses. On the other hand, many Somali diaspora who had made a return trip had ideas about potential business ventures in Somalia.
  • Somali diaspora from the Twin Cities who had made a return trip to Somalia recognized the lack of capacity that char- acterizes many institutions in Somalia and sought to increase capacity through their efforts in government and civil society institutions.
  • There may be room for the U.S. government, working on its own or in partnership with other governments or appro- priate civil society organizations, to support Somali diaspora who wish to make contributions to Somalia. This support could involve facilitating the return of skilled Somali diaspora as a development strategy; increasing access to venture capital for Somali diaspora who return with ideas for new businesses; working to diffuse tensions between return mi- grants from the diaspora and non-diaspora in Somalia; sponsoring new infrastructure projects in Somalia; and engag- ing the Somali diaspora community more deeply to address important community issues within the U.S.


Anecdotal evidence from the media, conversations within the Somali diaspora community and observations on the ground in Somalia reveal that significant numbers of Soma- lis who left the country following the civil war have returned since conditions in the country have become more secure.1 The return of members of the diaspora to Somalia may have important implications for the Somali government, economy and civil society institutions, but how return migrants will affect these aspects of Somalia remains an open question. While it remains unclear how many members of the Somali diaspora have made a return trip to Somalia, the phenom- enon of return migration may be a bellwether of increased stability and prosperity for the country.

This policy report presents the findings of a multi-nation- al research project that focused on the phenomenon of re- turn among the Somali diaspora. Funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this project included researchers from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in Oslo, Norway, and the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) in Mogadishu, Somalia.2 At the Humphrey School, the project sought to answer four primary questions:

1. How do Somalis involve themselves in short-term, circular or more permanent return to Somalia? What are the motivations for return?

2. What kinds of contributions do diaspora returnees make once they are in Somalia?

3. How does the experience of diaspora in their countries of reception influence the kinds of contri- butions they make or hope to make in Somalia?

4. What barriers do Somalis experience in making contributions once they have returned?

Protesters in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday were loud and angry as Ethiopian leader Abdi Mohamed Omar addressed thousands of local supporters at a hotel. Photo: Anthony LONETREE • anthony.lonetree@startribune.com, CameraStar Tribune photo galleries
Protesters in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday were loud and angry as Ethiopian leader Abdi Mohamed Omar addressed thousands of local supporters at a hotel.
Photo: Anthony LONETREE • anthony.lonetree@startribune.com,
CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

The findings and recommendations presented in this report are based on interviews conducted between September 2013 and September 2014 with members of the Somali di- aspora who had made a recent return trip to Somalia. Inter- views focused on motivations for returning to Somalia, con- tributions that returnees made or intended to make while in Somalia, and larger impressions about the impact of diaspora engagement in Somalia. The findings and policy recommen- dations highlighted by this report are based mostly on inter- views with 27 Somali-Americans who had recently traveled to Somalia and were living in the Twin Cities of Minnesota at the time of the interview.3 About one-third of the Somalis select- ed for inclusion in the sample in the Twin Cities volunteered to participate in the project after hearing about it through social media or through presentations by members of the research team at various community events. Two-thirds of Somalis included in the Twin Cities sample agreed to partic- ipate after a member of the research team learned they had returned to Somalia and invited them to participate. Nearly all of these interviews were conducted by researchers from the Somali diaspora community. Some areas of the report also incorporate relevant findings from interviews conducted by PRIO and HIPS and compare the experiences of Somalis from Oslo and the Twin Cities.

Overall, the interviews provide deep insights into the person- al experiences and observations of return migrants. Excerpts, including direct quotes, from these interviews are highlight- ed here as representative perspectives from the interviewees. Interview excerpts were carefully selected to illustrate com- monly noted reflections and are presented along with rele- vant context.

Somalis who were interviewed for the project represented a select group within the Twin Cities Somali diaspora commu- nity. About half of the Somalis interviewed in the Twin Cities were older than 40 and one-third were women. Somalis in- terviewed in the Twin Cities for this project tended to be very well educated. The vast majority of the Somalis who were interviewed in the Twin Cities had at least some college. Giv- en the expense and length of time associated with a return trip to Somalia it is perhaps not surprising that the Somalis interviewed for this project had high levels of human capital, which is associated with more wealth and access to jobs that allowed them to take an extended leave of absence.

While we do not claim that the sample of Somalis interviewed for this project represents the actual population of Somalis from the diaspora who have made a return trip to Somalia in

recent years, the characteristics of the Twin Cities sample sug- gest that returnees tend to be skewed toward older male So- malis who have relatively high-levels of education. Of women who had made a return trip to Somalia it is notable that they tended to be either younger without children or older with grown children.

Types of Return

Almost universally, return migration within our sample oc- curred among Somalis who had obtained citizenship in either Norway or the U.S. In interviews, Somali diaspora reported that citizenship status was a necessary precursor before a re- turn trip could occur. Somali diaspora believed that without a Norwegian or American passport their ability to return even- tually to their country of resettlement became more difficult. This was a particular concern given that the security situation in Somalia is fragile and could deteriorate relatively quickly, making return to the West an important option. Because of uninterrupted residency requirements for applying for citi- zenship, leaving Norway or the U.S. for an extended period of time prior to undergoing naturalization may jeopardize the ability of Somalis to obtain citizenship, making it less likely that they return to Somalia prior to obtaining citizenship. Finally, without citizenship Somalis felt that obtaining visas became much more difficult (and expensive) and as a result their ability to cross multiple national borders was more lim- ited.

Overwhelmingly, Somalis from the diaspora returned for lim- ited periods of time rather than permanently. The vast major- ity of Somalis from the diaspora returned to Somalia for less than three years, with most returning for less than one year. A common type of return was characterized by circular migra- tion where Somalis from the diaspora returned to Somalia for a month or less on a regular basis. When combined with the fact that very few return migrants interviewed in Somalia by the HIPS research team had settled permanently in Somalia, these findings suggest that temporary return is currently the most common type of return for Somalis from the diaspora who have made a return trip.

The duration of stay in Somalia for return migrants was in- fluenced by a number of factors. First, a lack of security still pervades many parts of the country and can make freedom of movement difficult for many Somalis from the diaspora who believe that they are especially vulnerable to security threats. While the establishment of a permanent government and the departure of Al-Shabaab from most major urban ar- eas of Somalia have significantly decreased the incidence of violence, security threats remain a concern. Second, many of the opportunities that Somalis from the diaspora took advan- tage of once they were in Somalia, such as working for the Somali government or working for an international non-gov- ernmental organization, were temporary positions. Without more permanent employment opportunities, long-term or permanent stays were not an option for most. Third, many Somalis from the diaspora retained jobs and families in the Twin Cities and were hesitant to uproot their families and resign from employment positions that often times provided com-fortable salaries.

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