Dutch Somalis fear for their reputation

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands — The news that Dutch police had arrested 12 Somali men suspected of plotting an imminent terrorist attack made global headlines.

But within days of the December arrests, all of the accused were freed without being charged. Now some are planning to sue the police after what appears to have been a false, and perhaps malicious, tip-off to the intelligence services.

Of course the men’s release attracted less media attention than their arrest, which Somalis living in the Netherlands fear damaged their reputation.

"Somalis already had the label of being pirates, now overnight we are being associated with terrorism as well," complained community representative Mohamed Elmi.

He also fears the arrests may increase resentment among young Somalis and fuel support for Islamic radicals with genuine terrorist intentions.

"The incident makes things worse. The radicals can point to this incident and make use of it. This is the best propaganda for those sorts of people," said Elmi, who is administrative secretary of the Federation of Somali Associations of the Netherlands.

There are about 27,000 Somalis living in the Netherlands, a country of 17 million. Most came as refugees, taking advantage of liberal Dutch asylum laws to flee from the civil war that has raged in their homeland since 1991.

Their presence is less visible than other immigrant groups. This southern city and the surrounding province are home to almost 4,000 Somalis. In the neighborhood where many of them live and attend mosque, the market square is surrounded by Turkish, Chinese, Polish and Moroccan businesses that bear witness to the area’s multicultural makeup. But the only sign of the Somali community is the handful of men lining up inside a money transfer office to send money home.

December’s arrests turned the spotlight on the Netherlands' Somalis with media reports asking if the community had become a breeding ground for terrorists.

Already in 2009, the Dutch Interior Ministry had commissioned a report into the level of radicalization among Somali youth.

“We did not find strong signs of radicalization at the community level,” said Hans Moors, one of the report’s authors. “But among a few Somali young people we do see a tendency to fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy.”

Moors, a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Policy Research of Tilburg University, added that many Somalis have struggled to integrate into Dutch society.

They fare worse in education and the labor market than other recently arrived immigrant groups. Dutch authorities are concerned that youths disenchanted with their poor prospects can fall under the influence of radicals linked to Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-allied insurgent group that is fighting Somalia’s Western-backed government.

Elmi, a law student in his late 20s, says Somali youths often also feel torn between the strict Islamic culture of their homeland and the more liberal Dutch society.

“For some Somali youngsters there is a problem growing up with two cultures,” he explained. “They have a split personality, with the Somali culture at home and the Dutch culture everywhere else."

Somalis who came to the Netherlands in the 1990s in the early stages of the civil war have generally fared better. They were often well educated and relatively affluent. Among them was the controversial woman’s rights campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was elected to the Dutch parliament in 2003.

Many later arrivals grew up in their homeland knowing nothing but war and find it especially difficult to adapt to life in the Netherlands.

Elmi says a change in Dutch attitudes has also made it harder for the newcomers to settle. Political support for anti-immigration politicians has increased and the current minority center-right government is dependent for survival on the anti-Islamic Party for Freedom.

“Back in the 1990s people felt they were welcome here. When they arrived, they would be invited in for coffee by their Dutch neighbors,” Elmi recalled. “Now things have changed. The government is trying to keep out refugees. It’s much harder to get refugee status and people arriving now are feeling less and less at home.”

In the early 2000s, thousands of Somalis left the Netherlands for Britain.

Prospects of an English-language education, plus Britain’s lower taxes and less bureaucracy for small business people, have been cited as reasons for the move across the North Sea.

Others felt concern about the perceived growth of intolerance in the Netherlands and dissatisfaction with the Dutch government policy of promoting integration by housing asylum seekers in communities spread around the country rather than allowing them to concentrate in particular cities or neighborhoods.

Many headed for the English city of Leicester where Somalis make up about 4 percent of the population. However in recent years the trend has reversed, with Somalis heading back to the Netherlands because they are disillusioned with Britain.

"Somali people are nomads, and that can be a problem,” said Elmi. “Some went to England to start a business. Others saw that their friends did well and went over without any plan and ended up on welfare. A lot have come back and this has been a disruptive experience.”

Despite the problems, Elmi is upbeat. He says growing numbers of young Somalis are succeeding in the Netherland and points to the strong community spirit generated through the work of more than 50 local Somali groups that work with his organization.

"One of our tools is to use all those boys and girls who are doing well," he said. "There are a lot of them going to university, getting good jobs who could become role models, they can show that it is possible to integrate."