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Dutch Somalis fear for their reputation

Recent bogus terrorism arrests concern Somali refugees in the Netherlands.

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."