The East End's forgotten people: Refugees who fled from Somalia are living here in misery and despair, ignored by the welfare agencies. Nick Cohen and Mark Gould report
Sunday 23 August 1992
A remarkably self-critical inquiry into their fate by Tower Hamlets, the inner London borough that houses the largest concentration of Somalis in the country, has discovered that thousands of refugees have not so much fallen through the welfare state net as missed it completely.
Violence, near-total unemployment, homelessness and a lack of medical and psychiatric care have greeted them in Britain. 'The long-term neglect of moral and stautory duties . . . is a source of much bitterness and discontent,' the council's investigators reported.
The refugees' life is far better than in Somalia. But it can still be appallingly bad by any civilised standard.
The Tower Hamlets inquiry, by Somali social scientists, listed a host of administrative failings. Victims of war met 'extreme difficulties' in getting NHS treatment. Somalis who could not speak English did not know how to approach doctors and few interpreters could help them. Tower Hamlets Health Authority had hired no Somalis, the inquiry found, though the refugee community included unemployed doctors.
The result was that hundreds suffering the physical and psychological consequences of torture, battlefield injuries and infectious diseases from refugee camps had no one to advise them on how to get treatment or help them overcome the psychological effects of losing their families in the bloodbath.
Meanwhile, the report accuses police and the council of 'consistently and complacently' failing to take action against the organisers of racist attacks on Somalis and the Home Office of refusing to respond to the 'acute levels of deprivation' by authorising special spending.
The investigators found that to the agencies responsible for every vital aspect of life - health, security, education, housing - the East End Somalis were all but invisible. No one knew or had tried to find out how many lived in east London, used its schools or went to its hospitals. No one had collected figures on Somali homelessness or unemployment.
There were no statistics on which to base an assessment of the refugees' condition. The inquiry tried to fill the gap. It estimated that 15,000 Somalis were living in Tower Hamlets - about 10 per cent of the population. The overwhelming majority had fled as refugees since 1988.
Eighty per cent of a random sample of 360, who were examined closely, were sleeping three to a bedroom in flats which were often damp and vermin-infested. Many were caring for distantly related children whose parents had disappeared in the civil war. About 80 per cent of 24 to 50-year-olds were unemployed.
'There is an atmosphere of despair, a pervasive sense of communal depression,' the report concluded. 'An urgent response is needed to avoid a social catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions.'
Signs of despair can be seen in the concrete square of the Cleveland estate, which, when the red buses are not passing by, looks as if it is in Africa rather than the London docklands. As there is no Somali community centre or social club in the East End, the square is used as an open-air information exchange and post office by Somalis, who walk round picking up what information they can from a grapevine stretching thousands of miles.
Men making the trip to the refugee camps in Ethiopia are given letters and money to take to families who have been left behind. News of the latest blows is passed around. Last week there was consternation when word spread that Ethiopia had decreed that air tickets must be bought with US dollars. Relatives in the camps can only buy dollars at extortionate black market rates and will, all predicted, find it almost impossible to find the money they need to get out.
Tales of misery are commonplace. Anab Goodsir, a Somali with a British passport who married a Scotsman, told of repeated attacks on the notorious Teviot estate in Poplar. Her neighbours regularly dump rubbish on her doorstep, she said. She has eight stitches in her stomach, the result of dogs being set on her. 'We don't go out,' she said. 'I keep the children locked in. It's not our country, that's why they beat us up.'
The inquiry quoted examples of five- year-olds being stoned and beaten and of a Somali pensioner who was arrested for trying to defend his wife and children from a gang of white youths.
Apart from the fate of relatives, health is the overriding concern for the promenaders in the square. Ali, a painfully thin young man who has tried without success for eight months to get treatment for a permanent stomach infection he picked up in a refugee camp, said: 'Life here is harsh. Some of my friends are running psychotic down Whitechapel Road and nobody wants to care for them.'
To the Somalis, these signs of madness are the most shocking consequence of the war and their life as refugees. Three people from a culture which absolutely prohibits suicide have killed themselves in Tower Hamlets in two years. Abdillahi Hassan, who runs a support group for women who have lost limbs in the bombing or been tortured, said that single mothers found it all but impossible to cope with the loss of the large extended families who supported them in Somalia before the war.
'They are walking the streets of the East End, battle-scarred and ignored,' she said. At first glance the neglect of the Somalis is as surprising as it is shocking. Africans from the former British protectorate in northern Somalia have been established around the London docks since the turn of the century.
But the small community was in no position to put pressure on the public services to help the refugees, and found it was hard pressed to provide aid itself when Somalia began to tear itself apart.
The overwhelming majority were retired sailors from the merchant navy. Illiterate and unorganised, they did not have the resources or political clout to cope with the thousands of Somalis who have arrived in London since Siad Barre, the Somali dictator, launched his bombardment of northern cities in 1988.
Many of the new refugees are doctors, engineers and civil servants. But they too have found it hard to make headway in Tower Hamlets.
The borough is one of the poorest in Britain and has deep racial divisions between whites and Bangladeshis. During the 1980s the Liberal Democrats, who control the council, were accused by the Commission for Racial Equality of discriminating against Bangladeshis and there seemed to be a danger that local politics would split into a conflict between a largely white Liberal Democrat Party and a largely brown Labour Party.
Since then, the Liberal Democrats have tried to build bridges. But limited resources have been focused on helping Bangladeshis. In the schools, for example, efforts at teaching English as a foreign language are concentrated on Bengali. This 'totally unbalanced' approach meant the needs of 4,000 Somali children for help with English were being ignored, according to the report.
Faisal Mohammed, a Somali officer for the Bridge employment training project, said: 'There are no Somali councillors and just six Somalis in council jobs. There is no one for Somalis to go to when things go wrong.'
Tower Hamlets said in a statement that it 'accepted there are problems' and promised to look constructively at the areas highlighted by the report. This positive response alone led some Somalis to say they are optimistic about the future.
But others predicted that the combination of racism, poverty and powerlessness would cause violence sooner or later. Mrs Goodsir said that when she found out who had set the dogs on her, Somali men would go round and 'attack them back'.
The council inquiry said it could foresee race riots as Somali youths followed the example of Bangladeshis, organising gangs to protect themselves. 'Somalis are by no stretch of the imagination pacific people,' the investigators pointed out.
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