Somalis in the United Kingdom

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Somalis in the United Kingdom
Total population
Somali-born residents
115,000 (2010 ONS estimate)[1]
Regions with significant populations
London · Liverpool · Cardiff · Birmingham · Bristol · Manchester · Sheffield · Leicester
Somali · Arabic · English

Somalis in the United Kingdom include British citizens and residents born in, or with ancestors from, Somalia. It is thought that the United Kingdom (UK) is home to the largest Somali community in Europe, with 101,370 Somali-born residents of England and Wales recorded by the 2011 Census, and an estimated 115,000 Somali-born immigrants residing in the whole of the UK in 2010 according to the Office for National Statistics.

The earliest Somali immigrants in the UK were seamen and merchants who arrived in the 19th century. A second small group came during the Second World War with the Royal Navy, and stayed in search of employment. During the 1980s and 1990s, the civil war in Somalia led to a large number of Somali immigrants, comprising the majority of the current Somali population in the UK.

The Somali community represents one of the largest Muslim groups in the UK. While faced with several social challenges, community members include notable sports figures, filmmakers and local politicians. It has also established business networks and media organisations.

History and settlement[edit]

Somali crew men on the HMS Venus.

The Somali community in the UK includes British citizens, refugeess, asylum seekers, persons granted exceptional leave to remain, irregular migrants, and Somalis who have moved to Britain after being granted refugee status in other European states.[2][3][4] Most Somalia-born residents in England and Wales hold a UK passport.[5]

The Somali-born population is on average young. 79 per cent of Somali-born residents in England and Wales were aged under 45 in 2011, compared with 58 per cent of the total population.[6] Around a third of those living in England and Wales in 2011 emigrated during the 1990s,[7] with over half arriving after 2001.[6]

Early migration[edit]

The UK has historically been close to Somalia, through its involvement in the British Somaliland protectorate. This link has given rise to a long tradition of Somali migration to the UK.[8] Mobility has played an important part in Somali culture.[8][9] The first Somali immigrants were seamen and merchants who settled in port cities in the late 19th century, mainly in Cardiff, Liverpool and London.[8][10] Many of these early sailors came from British Somaliland and worked in the thriving docks, whilst living in boarding houses run by other Somalis.[11][12]

A second, small group came during the Second World War with the Royal Navy and stayed in search of employment.[13] Most of these seamen considered their stay in the UK as temporary and had left their families behind.[8][14] Until the 1950s, Somali migrants were legally restricted to working in the shipping industry, were paid at rates 25 per cent below the pay of native British workers, and forced to settle only in towns and cities that were centres of shipping.[15] In 1953, there were about 600 Somalis living in the UK.[8] When the British merchant navy started to wind down in the 1950s, many of these migrants moved to industrial cities such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester, where labour was in great demand.[8][16] By the 1960s, there were still only a few Somali women in the UK.[10] After the expansion in British industry, Somali men brought over their wives and families.[8][17] Somali women subsequently began establishing community organisations in the cities where they resided, some of which still exist to this day.[8] In the 1960s and 1970s, Somali students from British Somaliland also came to study in the UK. Some chose to remain in Britain, while others returned to Somalia after graduating.[8]

Principal asylum applications by Somali nationals, excluding dependants, United Kingdom, 1999–2013[18][19][nb 1]
Initial decisions[nb 2] Final decisions
Year Applications received Granted asylum Granted temporary protection[nb 3] Applications rejected Applications rejected[20]
1999 7,495 130 55 120
2000 5,020 5,310 3,575 2,365
2001 6,420 2,910 1,995 3,525
2002 6,540 2,515 1,405 2,815
2003 5,090 1,665 550 3,835
2004 2,585 455 460 2,355
2005 1,760 660 195 1,000
2006 1,845 655 165 905
2007 1,615 805 105 700
2008 1,345 490 75 550 245
2009 930 410 75 565 220
2010 590 350 80 410 270
2011 580 355 55 175
2012 600 310 30 140
2013 450 230 10 160

Refugees and asylum seekers[edit]

During the 1980s and 1990s, the civil war in Somalia lead to a large number of Somali immigrants, comprising the majority of the current Somali population in the UK.[8][17][21] During the period 1988 to 1994, the favoured destination of people fleeing the civil war was Scandinavia, but by 1999 53 per cent of Somali asylum applications in Europe were made in the UK.[22] Many of these asylum seekers had fled from neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia before migrating to the UK.[8][13] Many of the refugees were not men, but women and children whose men had either been killed or had stayed in Somalia to fight, changing the Somali settlement from one of single seamen to that of refugee communities.[17] Between 1985 and 2006, Somalis figured among the top ten largest country of origin groups of people seeking asylum in the UK.[23] In the late 1980s, most of these early migrants were granted refugee status, while those arriving later in the 1990s more often obtained temporary status.[8] Between 2004 and 2012, 418 Somali refugees were also resettled in the UK under the British government-run Gateway Protection Programme, with the first of the migrants arriving in 2010.[24] According to the Home Office, irregular migration to the UK can be divided into several categories. These categories include people whose asylum applications have been rejected, but who remain in the UK. In 2010, 270 Somalis had their asylum claims rejected in final decisions.[25]

The British government has a declared policy of not deporting failed asylum seekers to Somalia as it considers it too dangerous for return,[26] although it has forcibly returned people to regions of the country that are more stable and accessible by air, such as Somaliland.[27][28] In April 2014 the Home Office issued new advice to its case workers, suggesting that it is now safe to return people to the capital, Mogadishu.[26] However, in a test case in June 2014, a judge granted an injunction to halt that deportation of a Somali man to Mogadishu. Some Somalis had been returned to Mogadishu prior to the issuance of new guidance, and the returns were subject to criticism from members of the Somali community as well as human rights groups and organisations.[27] Of those Somalis whose asylum claims have been declined or whose temporary status had expired, some have voluntarily repatriated.[28] Many others have been subject to indefinite detention in immigration detention centres.[29]

Secondary migration[edit]

There has also been some secondary migration of Somalis to the UK from the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark.[30][31] An academic article published in 2011 suggests that, since 2000, between 10,000 and 20,000 Somalis in the Netherlands have moved to the UK.[31] The driving forces behind this secondary migration included: a desire to reunite with family and friends;[8][32] a rise in Dutch opposition to Muslim immigration; Somali opposition to housing policies which forced them to live scattered in small groups all over various cities rather than in a larger agglomerated community;[33] a restrictive socio-economic environment which, among other things, made it difficult for new arrivals to find work;[34] and the comparative ease of starting a business and acquiring the means to get off social welfare in the UK.[33] Research into this relocation also suggests that some Somali migrants in the Netherlands did not intend to end up there as a final destination. Their journeys may have been interrupted in the Netherlands, or they may have had little choice about their destination. As a result, some secondary migration can be seen in the context of the desire to complete an intended migration to the UK.[31]

Naturalisation and grants of settlement[edit]

Grants of British citizenship to Somali nationals, 1990–2012

Between 1983 and 1994, the number of Somalis granted British citizenship was generally low, ranging from 40 in 1987 to 140 in 1994. However, in 1995 the number of grants of citizenship started to rise significantly, reaching a peak of 11,165 in 2004, before falling somewhat in the following years.[35] In 2012, 5,143 Somali nationals were granted British citizenship, accounting for around 2.6 per cent of all naturalisations and making Somali the tenth most common nationality amongst those granted citizenship that year.[36]

According to the 2011 UK Census, 71.5 per cent of Somalia-born residents in England and Wales hold a UK passport. This is the sixth highest proportion amongst foreign-born groups.[5]

In addition to naturalisation, the British government can grant settlement to foreign nationals. This confers upon foreign nationals permanent residence in the UK, without granting them British citizenship. Grants of settlement are made on the basis of various factors, including employment, family formation and reunification, and asylum (including to deal with backlogs of asylum cases).[37] The total number of grants of settlement to Somali nationals was 4,505 in 2011, 3,102 in 2012 and 4,341 in 2013 (out of totals of 166,878, 129,749 and 154,689, respectively, for all foreign nationals).[38]


Population and distribution[edit]

Location Somali-born population (2011 Census)[39] Somalis regardless of birthplace (2003–2007 estimates collated by CLG)[40] Somalis regardless of birthplace (2006 estimates by ICAR)[41]
London 65,333 70,000
Birmingham 7,765 3,000–4,000 35,000
Bristol 4,947
Manchester 3,645 5,000–6,000
Leicester 3,209 10,000–15,000 15,000
Sheffield 2,372 3,000–5,000 10,000
Cardiff 1,672 10,000
Liverpool 1,249 3,000–5,000
Slough 1,247
Coventry 1,181
Milton Keynes 1,141

As of 2009, the UK is believed to have the largest Somali community in Europe.[42] The Office for National Statistics estimates that 115,000 Somali-born immigrants were resident in the UK in March 2010,[1] with Somali community organisations putting the figure at 90,000 residents.[23] According to the 2011 UK Census, there were 99,484 Somali-born residents in England, 1,886 in Wales,[39] 1,591 in Scotland,[43] and 88 in Northern Ireland.[44] The National Association of British Arabs also indicates that Somalia-born immigrants are the largest population of British Arabs, constituting around 0.2 per cent of total residents in England and Wales.[45]

However, these estimates are complicated by the exchange of Somalis both arriving in the UK and those deciding to return to Somalia or elsewhere.[8] According to academic Laura Hammond, this mobility is common within the Somali diaspora, with many having residences in both Somalia and the UK. Somali immigrants from the more stable regions of Somalia often vacation in those areas for extended periods during the summer. The United Nations Development Programme estimated in 2009 that 10,000 Somalis were annually visiting the northwestern Somaliland region from the UK,[42] though Hammond argues that this total may also include people simply transferring through the UK.[46]

As with estimates of the total Somali population in the UK, estimates by city vary significantly between sources.[47] This problem is partly the result of defining "Somali", with some sources estimating the Somali-born population only, and others estimating the size of the ethnic Somali community, including second and subsequent-generation British Somalis.[48] The 2011 census found that 65,333 Somali-born people were resident in London.[39] Other sources suggest that Cardiff has the highest number of people of Somali heritage anywhere in the UK, though the number of Somali-born immigrants there is low.[49]

Sociologist Peter J. Aspinall argues that "the census is primarily designed to serve the needs of government and cannot meet the requirements of local authorities where particular groups outwith the category system may cluster. Examples include the Somalis and Yemenis in Sheffield, the City Council arguing that a new approach to capturing a wider range of ethnic groups is needed where their numbers are not significant nationally".[50]

As of 2011, the Office for National Statistics indicates that 36 per cent of Somali-born residents arrived in the UK during the 1990s.[7] The majority emigrated after 2001 (57 per cent), with around 25 per cent arriving between 2001 and 2003.[6] According to the 2011 UK Census, the Somali-born population in England and Wales is on average young. 79 per cent of Somali immigrants were under 45 years of age compared with 58 per cent of the general population. Since many of the women had emigrated with their children while their husbands stayed behind in Somalia, 61 per cent of Somali immigrant families consisted of lone parents with dependent children and the sex ratio of the Somali-born population was 78 men per 100 women. 7.6 per cent of the Somali-born lone parents were male, which was around half the proportion of all lone parents who were men. Due to the Somali-born population's younger age structure, 47 per cent of Somali immigrant families included three or more dependent children compared with a mean of 7 per cent for all families in England and Wales.[6]


Somali women at a Somali language event in London.

The Somali language is the mother tongue of the Somali people, and the official language of Somalia. It is a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.[51] The 2011 UK Census recorded 85,918 people living in England and Wales who spoke Somali as their main language. This represented 0.16 per cent of the population, and 2.06 per cent of speakers of non-English main languages.[52] However, Somali speakers were present in only a few wards (16 per cent).[53] The number of Somali speakers recorded in Scotland was 1,050.[54]

Some Somalis in the UK also speak Arabic, another Afro-Asiatic tongue and the other official language of Somalia,[55] with about 15 per cent of Somalis in England being completely fluent in it according to a 2006 report by the Foreign Policy Centre.[56]

According to the 2011 UK Census, 73,765 of a total 101,131 Somalia-born residents in England and Wales indicated that English was not their main language. Of those, 54,369 individuals indicated that they could speak the language well or very well, 16,575 indicated that they could not speak the language well, and 2,821 indicated that they could not speak the language at all. 27,366 of the Somalia-born residents reported that English was their main language.[57]


Nearly all Somalis in the UK and elsewhere are Muslim.[58][59] The majority adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shafi`i school of Islamic jurisprudence.[60] According to the 2011 UK census, 94,197 or roughly 93% of Somalia-born residents in England and Wales are Muslim. They constitute one of the largest Muslim groups in the UK. Of those Somali Muslim immigrants, 640 arrived before 1981, 39,019 arrived between 1981 and 2000, 41,771 arrived between 2001 and 2006, and 12,767 arrived between 2007 and 2011.[61] Mosques are the primary centres for religious and social gatherings, and also play an important role in sharing information. Traditionally, Somalis attended masjids established by the more settled Muslim communities, though there are now a small number of mosques operated by Somalis.[62]



Popular Somali singer Aar Maanta.

Prominent Somali musicians based in the UK include Aar Maanta, who produces an eclectic mix of styles blended with traditional Somali music, such as the classical oud-centred Qaraami ("love songs" in Arabic) style of the 1940s.[63] Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), whose father was Somali, was a member of the punk rock band X-Ray Spex, and later a solo artist.[64]


The BBC Somali Service is a radio station transmitted in the Somali language around the world. The majority of Somalis in the UK listen to the BBC Somali Service for news and information.[65] While many listen at home via satellite radio or the Internet, others listen in groups at Somali shops, restaurants or mosques.[65]

Somali Eye Media is a media organisation based in London and set up in 2003 by Adam Dirir, a prominent member of the Somali community. It publishes the magazine Somali Eye quarterly,[66] and operates Somali Voice Radio, a radio station, through Sound Radio 1503 AM.[67] Two other UK-based Somali radio stations are Somali On Air[65] and Nomad Radio.[68] Bristol Community FM features a weekly chat show that is hosted by Somali Women's Voice.[27]

There are also a few weekly and monthly Somali newspapers available in the UK in both Somali and English, including Kasmo, Jamhuuriya,[69] and The Somali Voice.[70] Other magazines and newspapers have failed due to poor readership figures.[69] A 2006 survey by the International Organization for Migration suggests that Somalis in the UK prefer to read newspapers such as Metro to improve their English-language skills, although listening to radio was more popular.[69] In 2007, five emerging Somali authors (including Adam Dirir) published Silent Voices, an anthology about Somali life in Britain.[71]

Prominent Somali media figures in the UK include Rageh Omaar, a television news presenter and a writer, and advocate for the Somali community. He received the 2002–2003 Ethnic Multicultural Media Academy award for the best TV journalist.[72] Omaar was formerly a BBC world affairs correspondent, where he made his name reporting on the Iraq War.[73][74] In September 2006, he moved to a new post at Al Jazeera English, where he currently hosts the current-affairs programme, The Rageh Omaar Show.[75] Yusuf Garaad Omar is a Somali journalist and former head of the BBC Somali Service.[76] Other Somali media figures include Mo Ali, a film director born in Saudi Arabia,[77] who debuted in 2010 his feature film, Shank, set in a futuristic London.[78][79] Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed's debuting novel, Black Mamba Boy (2009), won the 2010 Betty Trask Award, and was short-listed for several awards, including the 2010 Guardian First Book Award,[80] the 2010 Dylan Thomas Prize,[81] and the 2010 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.[82] In 2013, Warsan Shire was also selected from a shortlist of six young bards as the first Young Poet Laureate for London, part of the London Legacy Development Corporation's Spoke programme in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the surrounding area.[83] Additionally, visual artist and writer Diriye Osman's short stories have garnered literary recognition,[84] as has comedian and actor Prince Abdi's stand-up.[85]


Mo Farah at the 2010 London Youth Games Hall of Fame and Awards Evening.

Somali athletes in the UK include Mo Farah, a long-distance runner who won the gold medals in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres at the 2012 London Olympic Games.[86][87] Farah was born in Mogadishu but grew up in Djibouti and moved to the UK aged eight.[88] He generally competes in the 5,000 metres event, having won his first major title at the European Athletics Junior Championships in 2001. Farah also competes in cross-country running, where in December 2006, he became European champion in Italy.[89] He holds the British indoor record in the 3000 metres. In 2010, Farah earned Great Britain its first ever gold medal in the 10,000 metre event at the European Athletics Championships, as well as a second gold in the 5,000 metres.[90][91] Other prominent Somali athletes in the UK include paralympic bronze medalist Abdi Jama, who was born in Burao and plays wheelchair basketball internationally for Great Britain,[92] and footballer Leon Osman of Everton, whose grandfather was Somali.[93]


Social issues and solutions[edit]

One of the main barriers to integration facing Somalis is language, which has an effect on housing and health conditions.[94] The issue of youth crime and gang violence within the Somali community is often covered in the media.[95][96] In response, community youth forums have been established, which work closely with law enforcement to deter vice. Women's groups have also started to form, and the Metropolitan Police recently hired its first Somali female officer.[95] Additionally, the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre (SYDRC), a Somali community-reach organisation based in Camden, has joined forces with the Metropolitan Police's Communities Together Strategic Engagement Team to establish the London Somali Youth Forum. The initiative provides an outlet for the city's young Somalis to address security-related issues and to get engaged with the local police. The SYDRC has hired numerous youth ambassadors for the purpose. As of December 2009, 16 young Somalis had been specifically trained in community engagement.[97]

In addition, due uncertainty over what services are available under the National Health Service, how to access that care, and what to expect it from it, Somalis in the Manchester area often seek medical treatment in Germany. The German healthcare system was perceived by them as being very professional and responsive, with rapid access to specialist care and modern scanning technology.[98] German doctors have also advertised on Somali television for many years, and this has developed as the main medical tourism route for the Somali communities.[99]


According to reports, over 95 per cent of Somali immigrants in the UK live in rental accommodation, and of this group, about 80 per cent live in social housing.[100][101] However, this representation is numerically very small in relation to the total number of social tenants in the UK; 72,800 of the 92,200-person Somalia-born community reside in social housing compared to 8.4 million UK-born social tenants.[101]

Factors that account for the high uptake of social housing in the community include generally lower household incomes that make it difficult to buy property; a preference for living in London, where property prices are higher and there are proportionately more social tenants from all communities; and a high proportion of new arrivals in the Somali community, with newcomers least likely to have gathered the savings that are required to buy property.[101] Another contributing factor is the proportionately larger family sizes for which to find affordable and appropriate accommodation; about 10.8 per cent of Somalia-born households have five or more children as compared to 0.3 per cent of the UK-born population. Foreign-born populations in general tend to have larger families than the UK-born average.[102]

Most Somalia-born immigrants are eligible for social housing, as they have either refugee status, settled status or UK or EEA citizenship.[103] Social housing and support for asylum seekers is allocated by the UK Border Agency (UKBA),[104] and expires after an asylum claim has been processed.[105]


According to the Lambeth Research and Statistics Unit, no reliable nationwide statistics are available on the size and educational attainment of Somali pupils in the UK. Data on the students has often been aggregated under a broad continental African variable, which obscures the students' unique characteristics and requirements. This in turn has inhibited targeted policy making and practice developments at the national and local level. To redress this, various London local authorities, where most Somali pupils attend school, have started gathering and monitoring data on the Somali student community.[106]

As of 2008, there were over 35,000 Somali pupils attending London schools in 32 local authorities (LAs). Key Stage 2 (KS2), Key Stage 3 (KS3) and GCSE trend data from several LAs indicated that Somali students on average underachieved compared to the national average of their peers from other ethnic groups. Girls also tended to outperform boys in English and other subjects in Key Stage 1 (KS1) and KS2, but only in English by KS3. This general pattern has been attributed to a number of main factors, including a lack of understanding of the local educational system by both students and parents, high pupil mobility, negative teacher perceptions, and inadequate parental engagement in and by the schooling process. A lack of fluency in English has in particular served as a significant barrier to academic attainment, with about 87 per cent of Somali students in Lambeth not fluent in the language. Despite this trend, considerable differences in performance among Somali students in different local authorities have been observed. A 2008 Lambeth Research and Statistics Unit study of 10 ethnically diverse primary and secondary schools in London with the highest achieving Somali student populations noted a number of distinguishing characteristics that positively affect the achievement of Somali pupils. Among these factors is inspirational leadership by the headteacher and capable staff support; liaison workers and educators from Somali and other ethnic backgrounds who understand the needs of students; high quality teaching based on rigorous assessment of performance; and a proactive approach by all the schools to ensure that their Somali students acquire fluency in English as rapidly as possible. Data shows that once Somali children have obtained a competent command of English, they learn more quickly, can more readily attain higher marks, and generally outperform English, Scottish and Welsh pupils. Of the Somali students who are fluent in English in the London local authorities, 95 per cent attained KS2 compared to only 11 per cent of Somali pupils with a beginner's command of the language. Many Somali parents also pay for extra tutoring for their children after school and on weekends. Once these positive attainment factors have been implemented, as in the case studied schools, evidence shows a consistent upward trend in achievement by Somali students in GCSE exams and key stage tests.[106]

Based on the GCSE averages from 10 London local authorities, the Lambeth Research and Statistics Unit estimated that 34 per cent of Somali students in England gained five or more GCSEs at grades A*–C in 2006. This inferred nationwide proportion had increased to 42 per cent by 2007, based on a larger sample of the averages of Somali students in 28 London local authorities. The score compared with a 62 per cent A*–C GCSE average for all pupils in England over the same period.[106] According to La Sainte Union School, the GCSE results for Somali students in Camden schools steadily rose from 2010 to 2012. In 2012, 59 per cent of Somali pupils there scored 5 or more A*–C grades including Maths and English. This was equal with the local average for all pupils, 6 percentage points higher than the Somali students' score in 2011, and 21 percentage points higher than their score in 2010. The proportion of Somali pupils in Camden gaining five or more A*–C GCSEs, regardless of whether those included Maths or English, was 62 per cent in 2010, 66 per cent in 2011, and 70 per cent in 2012.[107] In September 2000, Somali community groups in conjunction with the Camden Council, police and the voluntary sector established the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre in order to provide advice, information and activities to Somali youngsters, with the aim of promoting educational achievement, after only one Somali pupil gained five good GCSEs in the borough that year.[108][109] This centre lends books and mentors pupils and is credited with helping significantly improve Somalis' GCSE performance.[108] The Camden Education Commission subsequently noted that Somali pupils were among several immigrant student populations whose average educational attainment rose significantly in 2011, with more than 50 per cent earning five or more good GCSEs, including in Mathematics and English.[110] Additionally, the Camden Council and Tower Hamlets local authorities reported that Somali pupils in the two London boroughs were performing in line with the overall student population in those boroughs between 2011 and 2012.[111]

According to the 2011 UK Census, out of a total 89,022 Somalia-born residents aged 16 and over in the UK, 55 per cent had completed up to a lower secondary education (Level 2), 25 per cent had completed up to an upper secondary education (Level 3), 20 per cent had completed up to the first stage of tertiary education (Level 5), and 0.3 per cent had completed up to the second stage of tertiary education (Level 6). By comparison, 29 per cent of total foreign-born residents aged 16 and over had completed up to a lower secondary education, 24 per cent had completed up to an upper secondary education, 46 per cent had completed up to the first stage of tertiary education, and 0.9 per cent had completed up to the second stage of tertiary education.[112]


Occupations by year of arrival of Somali-born residents aged 16 and over in employment, England and Wales, 2011
Occupations All Somali-born Arrived before 1981 Arrived 1981-1990 Arrived 1991-2000 Arrived 2001-2011
Managers, directors and senior officials 5.0% 7.7% 6.6% 4.6% 4.9%
Professional occupations 10.1% 24.2% 14.8% 11.4% 7.7%
Associate professional and technical occupations 7.7% 13.5% 12.3% 8.7% 5.9%
Administrative and secretarial occupations 6.8% 8.7% 8.6% 7.3% 6.0%
Skilled trades occupations 4.5% 10.6% 4.1% 4.1% 4.8%
Caring, leisure and other service occupations 14.4% 9.7% 13.0% 14.3% 14.8%
Sales and customer service occupations 11.4% 5.2% 11.1% 11.8% 11.2%
Process, plant and machine operatives 14.2% 8.4% 14.8% 16.3% 12.3%
Elementary occupations 25.9% 11.9% 14.8% 21.5% 32.3%
Total 26,926 310 2,297 11,577 12,742

Somali-born migrants have the lowest employment rate among all immigrants in the UK.[113] Figures published by the Office for National Statistics show high rates of economic inactivity and unemployment amongst Somali immigrants. In the three months to June 2008, 31.4 per cent of Somali men and 84.2 per cent of Somali women were economically inactive (the statistics include students, carers and the long-term sick, injured or disabled in this group).[114][115] Of those who were economically active, 41.4 per cent of the men and 39.1 per cent of the women were unemployed. Employment rates were 40.1 per cent for men and 9.6 per cent for women. The male employment rate in 2008 had, however, risen from 21.5 per cent in 1998.[114]

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research attributes the low employment rate to the newness of the Somali community and to the fact that most immigrants came in search of asylum rather than through labor migration channels. Data suggests asylum seekers in general appear to have more difficulty accessing employment.[100] This includes many skilled professionals who, while constituting a high proportion of Somali immigrants, have not all been able to find work in their field. According to a 2002 study by the Africa Education Trust and London Learning and Skills Council, although around 20 per cent of 350 Somali refugees and asylum seekers interviewed had higher degrees compared to 12 per cent of general refugees and asylum seekers, they were proportionately just as likely to be working in semi-skilled or manual labour positions than would be expected given their employment experience and education.[116] Many have had difficulty getting the qualifications that they have gained in Somalia recognised in the UK, with only 25 per cent of Somali immigrants with a professional background able to find work comparable to the positions that they previously held.[116][117] Other main employment barriers included lack of references and prior work experience in the UK, unfamiliarity with the UK job culture, discrimination, over-reliance on word-of-mouth for job openings rather than employment centres and classifieds, and lack of fluency in the English language.[117] Analysis of Labour Force Survey (LFS) data by academic Lavinia Mitton suggests that 22 per cent of Somalia-born adults in the UK have experienced difficulty finding and keeping work due to a lack of English-language ability.[118] Mitton and Aspinall also argue that logistic regression analysis of LFS data from 2003, 2006 and 2009 indicates that an ethnic penalty existed for Somalis even after other factors impacting employment, like English language proficiency, work experience, health, age, religion and marital status, had been taken into consideration.[119] Additionally, asylum seekers are also not normally allowed to work for payment while their claims are being processed, although they can request permission to work if they have waited longer than 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim.[120]

According to the Home Office, 64 per cent of Somali refugees had a low level of English language skills at the time of their asylum decision in the UK, which hindered their ability to find employment. A further 28 per cent had medium fluency, and 8 per cent had high proficiency in the language. Employment rates also steadily increased over time, with 20 per cent of the refugees in employment 8 months after the asylum decision, 28 per cent in employment after 15 months, and 39 per cent in employment after 21 months.[121]

According to the 2011 UK Census, there were 26,926 Somalia-born residents aged 16 and over in employment in England and Wales. Of these immigrants, the majority worked in elementary occupations (26 per cent) and had arrived in the UK between 2001 and 2011.[122] These were the second most common occupations among foreign nationals,[123] and the most common occupations for individuals who were non-proficient in English.[124] The next most common occupations among Somali immigrants were caring, leisure and other service occupations (14 per cent), process, plant and machine operatives (14 per cent), sales and customer service occupations (11 per cent), professional occupations (10 per cent), associate professional and technical occupations (8 per cent), administrative and secretarial occupations (7 per cent), managers, directors and senior officials (5 per cent), and skilled trade occupations (5 per cent).[122]

Community organisations[edit]

A Somali community center in London's East End (yellow brick building in the middle).

Somali community organisations exist in a number of British municipalities.[125] Among these is the Somali Family Support Group (SFSG), a London-based NGO catering to the UK's Somali community.[126][127] Founded by Hanan Ibrahim, the SFSG promotes inter-faith dialogue and understanding, and advocates for greater female participation in various issues. It also offers a variety of social services, including a family advice center, health awareness drives, job-search assistance and skill acquisition workshops.[127]

Additionally, Somali community groups led lobbying to have khat made a controlled substance in the UK.[128] The flowering plant is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where khat chewing is a social custom that dates back thousands of years.[129] Although the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs cited insufficient evidence that the plant caused serious health or societal problems to warrant governmental control,[128] parliament eventually acquiesced to the Somali community groups' wishes and reclassified khat as an illegal class C drug in the UK in June 2014.[130][131]

In 2011, the Council of Somali Organisations (CSO) was established to collectively represent the Somali community institutions, to coordinate their activities, and improve their operational effectiveness.[125]


The Somali community has become increasingly engaged in local politics.[132] Mark Hendrick, who is of Anglo-Somali descent, previously served as a member of the European Parliament before being elected a Labour Co-operative Member of Parliament for Preston in a by-election in 2000.[133][134] Hendrick increased his majority in the latest general election, in May 2015.[135] Mohamed "Jimmy" Ali became the UK's first Somali councillor in 2004.[116] Councillor Ahmed Omer, who was the civic mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2009/10[136] (a largely ceremonial post made by appointment rather than through direct election[137]), was the first Somali to be appointed to the annual position in London and England.[138][139] Around 17 Somali candidates stood in the 2010 local elections. Of these, at least seven Somali councillors were elected,[132] including Gulaid Abdullah Ahmed,[140] Abdifatah Aden,[141] Awale Olad,[142] and Abdul Mohamed of the Labour Party,[143] as well as Asad Osman of the Liberal Democrats, a former chairman of the Somali Youth Development Resource Centre.[132][144] In the 2014 local elections, nine Somali councillors were also elected to office.[145] Among the officials was Hibaq Jama, a Labour Party Ward Councillor for Lawrence Hill, who is Bristol's first Somali woman councillor,[146] as well as Amina Ali, a Labour Party Ward Councillor for Tower Hamlets, who in February 2015 became the first Somali woman to be selected to contest a seat in the Parliament of the United Kingdom.[147] Ali was chosen from a shortlist of three women but resigned three days later, indicating that she did not want to disrupt her children's upbringing by moving residences.[148][149] For the 2015 elections, Somali community activists in Bristol set up a taskforce to encourage British Somalis to vote.[150]

Academic Laura Hammond argues that the Somali British community's transnational activism responded effectively to the 2011 drought in East Africa, with members quickly mobilizing resources in the form of increased remittances to support family members in Somalia. They also pooled funds to support NGOs working in camps for displaced persons in Mogadishu, Ethiopia and Kenya.[46] A survey conducted by Hammond in South-Central Somalia also found that 68.2 per cent of providers of social services there were returnees.[46]

In February 2012, the British government held a consultation with representatives of the UK's Somali diaspora based around the London Somalia Conference's three main themes of political transition, security and the role of Somalia's regions. The summit was held later the same month in conjunction with the Federal Government of Somalia.[151] Additionally, Somalis with dual Somali-British citizenship have significantly contributed to the reconstruction process in Somalia, particularly to the nation's reconstituted political system. As of June 2014, 50 of the 275 Members of the Federal Parliament of Somalia had repatriated from the UK.[145]

Business and enterprise[edit]


A Somali restaurant in the London Borough of Waltham Forest.

The Somali people have a strong tradition in trade, with a long history of maritime enterprise stretching back to antiquity that includes possible commerce with ancient Britons based on rare commodities such as tin.[152] In recent times, several Somali multinational companies have their headquarters in the UK, such as Omar A. Ali's Integrated Property Investments Limited,[153] Alexander Yusuf's Villa and Mansion Architects, and Invicta Capital, which has an investment capital of £1.4 billion.[154] A 2008 study on immigrant business in Britain highlighted that the level of community support enjoyed by Somali traders was high in comparison to other immigrant groups.[155] Somali enterprise has also begun replacing previously Indian-dominated business premises. Southall, for example, now features several Somali-oriented restaurants and cafés.[156]


The Somali diaspora is inter-connected via information exchange and informal money transfer systems.[157] Somalis in the UK operates various business networks, with the Somaliland Chamber of Commerce having an office locally. Another Somali business network, the Midlands Somali Business Association, a non-profit organisation centered in Birmingham, offers commercial advice to Somali businesses based in the city. It also publishes a quarterly newsletter and runs workshops and conferences for the local Somali business community. Additionally, the number of Somali businesses in the UK is increasing, ranging from restaurants, remittance companies, hairdressing salons and travel agencies to, especially, internet cafés. Although some of these businesses cater to mainstream British society, most are aimed at a Somali clientele. However, the Midlands Somali Business Association has recognised the potential benefits of penetrating the larger British business community, and is encouraging stakeholders to tap into this sector. The organisation is also exploring opportunities for transnational businesses.[158]

A study on Somali business owners in Leicester found that they were highly motivated and wielded substantial social capital. The researchers suggested that this in turn made it easier for the entrepreneurs to establish themselves in the area, hire personnel, exchange information regarding local business opportunities, and pool funds. However, they argued that this was contingent upon under-capitalization, market barriers and related spatial and sectoral restrictions. Consequently, the Somali establishments followed what they posited was the standard ethnic minority business paradigm of being mainly concentrated in very competitive markets, with finite return on investment and uncertain durability.[157]

In 2014, the Fiiri Bandhiga entrepreneurial convention was also launched in London to showcase young Somali-owned businesses in the UK.[159]

Money transfer operators[edit]

Some Somali businesses with a presence in the UK, particularly in the remittance sector, already operate internationally. The latter include Dahabshiil, Qaran Express, Mustaqbal, Amal Express, Kaah Express, Hodan Global, Olympic, Amana Express, Iftin Express and Tawakal Express. Most are credentialed members of the Somali Money Transfer Association (SOMTA) (or its predecessor, the Somali Financial Services Association (SFSA)), an umbrella organisation that regulates the community's money transfer sector. The bulk of remittances are sent by Somalis to relatives in Somalia, a practice which has had a stimulating effect on that country's economy.[158]

Dahabshiil is the largest of the Somali money transfer operators (MTO), having captured most of the market vacated by Al-Barakaat. The firm has its headquarters in London and employs more than 2000 people across 144 countries, with 130 branches in the UK alone, a further 130 branches in Somalia, and 400 branches globally, including one in Dubai.[158][160] It invests 5 per cent of its profits into community projects aimed at improving schools, hospitals, agriculture and sanitation services, and sponsors a number of social events, including the Somali Week Festival and the Somali Youth Sports Association, which help to promote understanding and cooperation through Somali art and culture and sport, respectively.[160] In 2008, Dahabshiil's CEO, Abdirashid Duale, a Somali who has British citizenship, was awarded Top Manager of the Year by the International Association of Money Transfer Networks in recognition of the services the firm offers its clients.[161] This was followed in 2010 with the Mayor of Tower Hamlets award for excellence in the community, which recognises the "outstanding contribution" Dahabshiil has made to the local, national and international Somali community over the last 40 years.[160]

After Dahabshiil, Qaran Express is the largest Somali-owned funds transfer company. The firm has its headquarters in both London and Dubai, with 175 agents worldwide, 64 agents in London and 66 in Somalia, and charges nothing for remitting charity funds. Mustaqbal is the third most prominent Somali MTO with branches in the UK, having 49 agents in the UK and 8 agents in Somalia.[158]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Figures are rounded to the nearest five.
  2. ^ Note that a decision is not necessarily made in the same year as the application it relates to, so decisions do not sum to the number of applications.
  3. ^ Exceptional leave, humanitarian protection or discretionary leave.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Hopkins, Gail (2006). "Somali community organizations in London and Toronto: Collaboration and effectiveness". Journal of Refugee Studies 19 (3): 361–380. doi:10.1093/jrs/fel013. 
  • Hopkins, Gail (2010). "A changing sense of Somaliness: Somali women in London and Toronto". Gender, Place & Culture 17 (4): 519–538. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2010.485846. 
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