The Somali community in Australia is relatively new. A small number of students began arriving between 1971 and 1991. However, the vast majority of the Somali population has arrived as refugees since 1991 following outbreak of the civil war and collapse of the government. By 1996, there were 2,061 Somali-born people in Australia, most of whom were processed through Nairobi, Kenya and settled in Melbourne. Many were single women and children and some belonged to minority groups, such as Somali Bantus.
Almost half of the current Somali population in Australia migrated in the 10-year period between 2006 and 2015. The government granted 1,515 humanitarian visas to Somalia-born refugees between 2012 and 2017.1 Most Somalis living in Australia have had to leave their country due to the civil war, breakdown of law and order, difficult economic conditions, drought or famine. Terrorist attacks continue to indicate that it is unsafe for many Somalis living in Australia to return. Further displacement in the region is expected to continue as the situation remains fragile.
Most Somalis living in Australia are refugees who were accepted through Australia’s humanitarian programme. Almost all have arrived from a third country in the region, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea or North Sudan. They have usually spent many years (sometimes over a decade) in these countries, living in refugee camps waiting to be processed. It is common for Somali refugees to be born in refugee camps in surrounding countries.2 Therefore, the number of Somalis in Australia is often underestimated as statistics often only take into account people born in Somalia.
It is important to understand that the impact of long-term displacement in the region means that many Somalis may have never seen Somalia or have not returned in many years. Therefore, their perception of Somali society or culture may differ from that of people who currently live in Somalia or have visited recently.
Experience in Australia
Somali refugees may experience ongoing challenges settling in Australia due to post-migration stressors such as unemployment, English proficiency and news reports of continuing violence in Somalia. Some Somalis also express disappointment about the lack of education and awareness within the Australian public about their country and the Horn of Africa. They may also encounter negative stereotypes of their people as ‘pirates’ or ‘criminals’ amongst the Australian public that affects their settlement experience.
Somalis generally see themselves as a single community in Australia, and prefer to set aside clan politics or divisions. Their unity has been visible in a practical sense through community mobilisation. The Somali communities have been some of the most self-reliant and self-sufficient African refugee communities in Australia.
Unemployment is identified as a key issue for the Somali community; people commonly struggle to find work appropriate to their skill set (regardless of the profession). For example, many men who have years of experience as manual labourers back in Somalia can only be offered unpaid apprenticeships in Australia due to their lack of formal qualifications.
Some Somali refugees who arrived in Australia years ago have now been able to sponsor members of their family to migrate. However, many are still separated from family who remain in refugee camps where conditions are often dangerous and uncertain. The safety of these family members can be a source of deep anxiety. For example, it is reported that some Somalis living in Australia have received demands for ransom over the phone by criminals who have captured and tortured family members displaced in Libya.3 Such tragic news can impact the settlement experience of Somalis living in Australia.
Despite the challenges the community faces, the Somali Australian community has been very resilient. Many do what they can to support the Somaliwhilst contributing to their home country. It is common for people to become entrepreneurs, open businesses and pursue higher education options. Somali restaurants and shops have been able to provide many with a connection to their culture. mosques in Australia also help develop a sense of universal connection to the Muslim world. Melbourne has become home to the biggest Somali community in Australia, with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 migrants living there.4
1 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017
2 Moret, Baglioni & Efionayi- Mäder, 2006
3 Waters, 2017
4 Rawlinson, 2016