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Somali Refugees Show How Conflict, Gender, Environmental Scarcity Become Entwined

Under international law, someone who flees their country because of conflict or persecution is a refugee, but someone who flees because of inability to meet their basic household needs is not. In the case of Somalia, it is increasingly difficult to make any meaningful distinction between the two.

Over the past two years, colleagues and I have been working with Somalis living in Canada to document how environmental conditions shaped their decisions to leave their home country.

The environment did play a role for many, and seems to have done so disproportionately by gender

Some spent time in refugee camps in Ethiopia or Kenya before being resettled here with assistance from the UN Refugee Agency and the Canadian government. Others made their way to third countries like China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, or Syria before being sponsored by family members or making their own way to Canada to lodge a refugee protection application.

In all cases, concerns for their personal safety and the wider impacts of political instability and internal conflict were their immediate motivations for leaving Somalia. But the environment did play a role for many, and seems to have done so disproportionately by gender.

Household Insecurity

In the context of a broader project on environmental conditions and international migration to Canada, we conducted three focus groups with 21 Somalis (9 women and 12 men) in Ottawa, including one women-only focus group. Participants had arrived in Canada in the previous 10 years; some had settled directly in Ottawa while others relocated after landing in other Canadian cities. They were recruited with the help of gatekeepers, and focus groups were held in the Somali language with the help of research assistants.

We were especially interested in the experience of the women. Some had come to Canada together with their spouses and children, but a large proportion were single mothers who lost their husbands to the conflict, were separated from a husband who stayed behind, or had been divorced.

For the complete article, please see New Security Beat.