Cultural explanations of Somali youth crime

What has happened to the very patriarchal culture of the Somalis? And Why the Somali youth crime has become a global issue? Or was youth crime present (as an integral part of the cultures of the host countries) long before the Somalis have settled in the West? Or has the multi-agency approach, which has not considered the importance of culture in addressing youth crime, taken by Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) contributed to the high rate crime activities — both offending and re-offending — among the Somali youth in England (and UK)?

The terms Somali and crime are becoming interchangeable in many right wing newspapers and blogs in England today. It, misleadingly, when combined with over two decades of civil war, gives the impression that the Somali culture celebrates or at least, tolerates violence and deviance. 

(BSMG) L Obsiye — While on a long walk with my uncle on his first visit to London from Nairobi, he was surprised to see so many young Somali boys with lowered jeans that exposes their bottoms and patterned baseball caps smoking openly outside a busy indoor Somali shopping centre. As he passes, one boy just stares at him with a smirk and my uncle holds his gaze on him. The boy gazes back and my uncle then smiles and says, “You’re too young to intimidate me. Should you not be channelling your efforts to other things?” The boy did not reply and we walked on.

On the way back my uncle had clearly been affected by the boy and he asked me, “Why are they proudly on the streets? Where are their parents? Why are they so disgustingly exposing their bottoms?” Then before I could reply he concluded that, “There must be Shaytan (the devil) in England that the rains can’t wash away.” With a giggle we made our way home.

A week later an aunt called me to visit her home urgently. It is always urgent with Somali aunts but this time her voice seemed to confirm the claim. When I arrived I was introduced to a friend of my aunt whose son was in custody awaiting sentencing for possession and supplying class A drugs in London. This worried mother sent her son to his father in London because he was becoming unmanageable and as far as she had known he was attending college and planning to go to university and not committing the crime that now inevitably was going to send him to prison. I explained that the crimes her son was accused of were too serious for him to not get a non-custodial sentence and this was confirmed by his solicitor’s letter. Whatever the length of time, he was going to prison. Nothing that the mother or anybody else could say or do would be able to interfere with the national sentencing guidelines that deems possession and sale of class A drugs as too serious for anything other than imprisonment.

“Muxuu waxan u sameeyey? Maxaa ku kalifay? Walaahi inanka Ilaahay ayaa iIa og in aan isku dayey,” cried the mother. “Dhibaatada inankaasi noo gaystay Ilaahaay ayuun baa og.” [1]

It would have been difficult to answer this distraught mothers question had this been an isolated incident but unfortunately for a community already facing social exclusion and poverty in Britain, their woes are compounded by a large number of their young men entering criminality and then the criminal justice system as a consequence. This is not to say that all young Somali men are criminals but to acknowledge that a large percentage of them are been lured into criminality for many different reasons.

Somali youth crime is now a global issue. Wherever Somalis have settled in the West, youth crime is present. The Sun newspaper in August 2011 reported that nearly a third of young criminals who have served in Feltham Young Offenders Institute in West London, which is one of the top youth offender institutions in the UK were born outside the UK. There were Jamaicans, Afghanis and Nigerians who served their time there but topping this shameful list were young Somali offenders. Many in the community took offence with this data arguing that some Ethiopians and even Eritreans claim to be Somali when seeking asylum in the UK but the reality is that even if this was the case, it is an undeniable fact that many young Somalis are languishing in facilities like Feltham because of their actions. I put the community member’s concerns to a former Feltham inmate who is now married and living in London with his young family.

“Somalis in Feltham are close and at the time I was there, there were a lot of us,” said the former inmate who did not want to be named. “Most were there for drug dealing, violence and even sexual assault. There were some African Muslims but they never claimed to be Somalis and even if they did we’re not stupid we would know.”

The widely publicised European Court of Human Rights ruling that is now blamed for allowing dangerous foreign criminals to remain in the UK was initiated and given in favour of two prolific Somali serious criminals, Abdi Samad Adow Sufi and Abdiaziz Ibrahim Elmi, who had their planned deportation to Somalia on the orders of the British government halted by the Court which argued that deportation would breach their human rights. This case and others as well as the growing prison population, clearly shows that Somali youth crime is not a conspiracy but a reality that the Somali community as a whole must come to grips with and help tackle.

The price of Somali youth crime is severe and has wide ranging implications for everyone. For the individuals and their families the loss of liberty and lives through violence is the obvious one. Wasted potential is another.  However for the community it continues to fuel the stigma, stereotyping and discrimination many of them already suffer at all levels of society which compounds their social isolation and developing intergenerational poverty.

Somali Culture and crime

The terms Somali and crime are becoming interchangeable in many right wing newspapers and blogs in England today. It misleadingly, when combined with over two decades of civil war, gives the impression that the Somali culture celebrates or at least, tolerates violence and deviance. However, this false assertion built on dangerous stereotypes could not be further from the truth.

Looking at the Somali youth offender statistics now, it could be hard for anyone to understand that in the Somali culture which is strongly based on the Islamic values of honour, honesty and integrity, criminality has always been a shameful taboo. A taboo that if committed even for necessity,  led to collective familial and even tribal stigma and in the most serious of cases, the ostracising of family members.

“I once stole some pastry from a shop in Mogadishu as a dare and when my father was told he marched me back to the shop, made me apologise and then in front of the neighbours broke of a branch from a tree and made me almost bleed every letter of the word sorry,” remembers a pensioner in Bristol. “It was a horrible experience that I felt I left behind but when I asked to marry my father still worried about the incident and the refusal it could bring from the family I sought to marry a woman from.”

“There are good and bad families in Somali culture and nothing in the middle,” said Abdi Mohammed, a London businessman. “If the family is seen even to this day as loud, illiterate and problematic it is hard for them to earn the respect they would need to hold their heads high in the community. Potential suitors for their daughters would be deterred; the Dowry payment for marriage reduced and in some cases families would refuse to marry from good families with problem individuals. This is a great shame and it can be brought on by just one stupid act from a family member. ”

“Too many youngsters smoke weed on the streets openly today and many more sell it,” said a local imam in Bristol who did not want to be named. “In Somalia, Vice or Balwad in our language, was done by only a minority and in secret. Selling it? Not only is it a crime here but always unacceptable under any circumstance in our culture.”

What is obvious from all of this is that crime and even vice, like most other groups, is abhorred by the Somali people as it not only offends their culture but also destroys their own standing within society. None of the young former offenders I spoke to have a family member with a criminal record in the UK. So why with such a strict culture that would even devalue the price of a potentially brilliant female within the family’s dowry, are Somali youngsters today committing crimes?


Somalis have a very patriarchal culture. Traditionally Somali young men wherever they were and still are carry the hopes and dreams of their families on their shoulders. They are the standard bearers and future leaders of the family and even the whole tribe sometimes. It is they who give away their sisters to another family for marriage in the absence of their fathers if they are responsible enough and it is they who carry on the family name long after their sisters have married into others. They are obligated to be the protectors and breadwinners by their religion and community members even in the Liberal Western nations. This is an enormous task for an individual and expectations are always high. However, unlike their young sons who are growing up in the developed world today, their father’s grew up in the relative peace of their homeland sheltered by a communal culture that sought to educate and protect them from vice and criminality. They grew up in homes mainly consisting of extended family members who  strived  together to equip the young men of the home with the skills, education and advice they needed to be able to fulfil their future roles as leaders of their own homes and communities.

“We were not the richest family but we lived together as one. All three generations,” remembers one man in a coffee shop in Bristol. “My grandma used to teach me the Koran, dad used to help me with maths and my uncle used to teach me about cars. For most children in my generation we had a guided, well-structured childhood where we were told that only education could enrich us.”

“Even orphans were integrated into the wider family network and the family had to simply work together to survive and protect its name,” adds another man sitting in the next table. “Families used to be proud of their academics and children were pressured to compete and succeed. If this was not for them, in many cases, families would raise funds to open a business for the young men or directly employ them. Everything was done to make sure they succeed and honoured the family name.”

“Divorce and family breakdown were alien concepts that only happened to bad families,” continued the first man in the coffee shop. “The religion and culture promoted strong families and this protected most of the children from my generation from the negative effects of it.”

All the mentioned support and the need to promote and protect family honour may have helped their fathers succeed in Somalia and in some cases in the West, but the tragedy today for young Somali offenders is that, they are still expected to become leaders of their community and carry the family name proudly into the next generation with very little or no support at all.

Young Somali men, unlike their fathers before them, have very few role models at home and in the community. The male figures in many families who should be passing on advice, skills and support have disappeared and the expectations of leading their family in the future still looms over their heads. This great expectation without the necessary support has driven many into resenting the Somali culture and adopting deviant subcultures that provide them with the status and materials they crave.

“It is hard to do well in school when you have very little support at home and in school,” said a reformed former youth criminal. “You come home, too many kids, mums stressed and life is just tough you get me. You want to look bling on road, link girls and yeah get a good job in the future. But all these are just not possible sometimes when you are in our situation.”

Peer pressure and continuously evolving youth culture further complicates things for young Somali boys because in the absence of a strong family, a cohesive community and structured local support in areas such as education and employment advice which most of their parents benefited from in Somalia, they like most young people go through a period of exploration and experimentation.  This creates enormous tension within the conservative families and the wider community and these young people if they refuse to obey and change their ways, are then negatively labelled and sadly many go on to fulfil the prophecy of the label.

The most alarming thing of all is the explanations of Somali male youth crime provided by some members of the community and the families directly affected.  According to members of this group Somali youth crimes rise can be attributed to greater western freedoms given to children, legal restrictions on parents physically disciplining them, the breakdown of the family and cultural and religious values. When challenged to discuss their role in all this, it is shocking how many parents and community leaders did not acknowledge the parts they played and continue to play as individuals and organisations.

The need to be a real man and an asset to the family name is not lost on young men in the Somali community who are involved in crime. But many struggle to succeed legitimately to achieve their goals and ambitions as a result of poor education and very few real opportunities. This drives many who feel inadequate and have very little family support to seek deviant cultures and activities that give them the status they crave but find hard to attain legitimately.

“Everyone I have known wants to be legit even the most dumbest and violent of street thugs,” said another young Somali reformed offender. “But how do you do it? Who will help give me a job in a nice place? I am not saying everyone can have it all but you know when you are been treated different.” It is this feeling of difference and the racial and class obstacles to achieving his goals starting in school that have made him enter crime in the first place.  He fondly remembers that in his time as a drug dealer he had a life that most ordinary people would never dream of let alone have. Nice hotels, cars, girls, parties and travel. However, although he does not regret the past, he has set himself up on a different path and is now in education in a UK city.

One of the key draws of criminality for young men is the career structure it offers. Contrary to popular believe, many still feel crime pays and many more make it pay. Whereas in a legitimate job ones chances of attainment and progress may depend on links, education, class and colour, the criminal career ladder is far more meritocratic. Status, wealth and responsibility always depend on performance and even those with the deepest underworld connections do not survive if they fail to meet targets. In addition there are many role models and a very supportive environment where instead of been labelled a runner, employee or drug dealer the aspiring young criminal is given membership of the “family” and all the benefits that come with it.

Many young reformed offenders interviewed felt that while criminality was a way of both securing their material and social status, they could not hide the fact that it was dangerous, sometimes violent and in the end a cat and mouse game where all were caught and many served time in prison. This is even more regretful for some of these young men because now “not only have you shamed yourself, your family and all your distant relatives in some dusty Somali village but no one would give you even the ugliest of their daughters” a young man who was recently released laughed.

It is wrong for some members of the community to suggest that the Somali youth criminals have lost interest in their culture, values and religion. Many love it still but are disappointed by the enormous expectations placed on them with the minimal support they receive. This is proven by the fact that a few interviewees entered criminality as a result of a desire to alleviate their family’s poverty by buying the designer goods they wanted with their own cash. Even though it was ill gotten, the idea was firmly within the Somali culture as these young individuals because of their silly pride and a need to be self-sufficient decided to enter low level criminality which escalated with time. The reality is far from abandoning their cultural heritage; many young Somali men seek its protection, acceptance and education. They want to succeed first and foremost for themselves and their families but they want the cultural advantages their parents had growing up in their home country.

“Nobody really wants to be a saaqid (failure) or hidden when relatives come to visit like some kind of disease that your parents don’t want spreading,” said one reformed youth juvenile who is currently studying at a university in London. “I understand that I have lost some standing in society but I am working hard now to legitimately succeed so that I can make up for some of my past mistakes.”

When listening to sociological explanations of ethnic female success in comparison to their male counterparts, I am always astounded by the lack of real understanding of it. We are told that society has improved and greater equality within it has allowed women to succeed and that this has had a profound affect on the fortunes of young ladies today. Or that they are not violent or devious enough or have too many female hormonal obstacles safeguarding them against allowing teacher expectation in schools to hold them back. Well some of these may be true in some contexts but what is almost always never said is that because of the breakdown of their cultures and values and the supportive extended family that helped to keep families together, young ethnic women have realised that unless they empower themselves they may end up like many single mothers today within their communities. Somali girls are no different and the thought of been an illiterate, unemployed and unsupported single mother in the UK  like many of their mothers were and still are  is a key drivers of their success today in education and to some extent in professional employment.

Unlike their sisters, the breakdown of the family and the collective nurturing culture in which their fathers grew up in upon their arrival and during their stay in the western nations, has resulted in many of Somali young men losing their way. The crisis in young Somali male identity today is having the most devastating impact on this community. But those it hurts most are the young men who are expected to adhere to the strict Somali culture through the acquisition of education and skills that will allow them to fulfil their roles as leaders of their homes and communities without any real support from those who expect most from them.

The way forward

The multi-agency approach taken by most Youth Offending teams is effective but cannot alone reduce or end reoffending especially where Somali criminals are concerned. However, they are not helped by a Somali community that just wants to criticise its youth in public meetings with the Police on Somali television networks. It seems that these critics are always looking up to the authorities for solutions and wishing for the problems to magically disappear. If they keep doing this, they will not only sacrifice social credibility but they will lose their sons to the more supportive, understanding street families (criminal networks).

The importance of culture in addressing Somali youth crime is understood by families who regularly send their wayward children back home to the peaceful parts of Somalia or neighbouring East African States such as Kenya for Dhaqan-Celis (Cultural re-education). However, while sending them back to these places may make some understand and appreciate their luck in life and come back reformed many others just enjoy the extended holiday fully funded by their parent’s remittance money and even spread their wayward ways to the decent locals. Instead of Dhaqan-Celis what’s desperately needed is Dhaqan Bar (learning of culture) while in their homes in the West. It takes a community to raise a child and it is the collective responsibility of the Somali community to help rehabilitate and inspire their children and future leaders. It is no good just looking after your own as just one simple criminal act by an individual child can reflect badly on an entire group when it hits the news headlines.

Community leaders continuously argue that they are hampered from providing the services required on a permanent basis by a lack of resources and facilities. Chief among this is the lack of community centres run by local groups for local people. However, a building is just a man-made structure and even if the community leaders acquired it they would have to be mature and intelligent enough to let it be run by young role models within the community that can provide a non-judgemental service that would attract and sustain the interest of the target group.

A golden window of opportunity may open up for the Somali community members and groups that want to help educate and rehabilitate their young male lost members out of a life of crime if the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s rehabilitation revolution comes to fruition. However, any rehabilitation programme cannot ignore the important role culture plays in a young Somali man’s life. Rehabilitation does not happen overnight but one of the quick victories an understanding of their culture can provide for the Somali community is that if expressed and taught well to the statutory bodies, it can help to tackle the inequity in the justice system that they feel sends too many of their young men to prison. If they can be financially rewarded for it while rehabilitating their wayward young men under Clarke’s proposed Payment by Result scheme, it would be even sweeter.

Rehabilitating young Somali criminals will not be easy and nor is there a single magic bullet to deter those on the verge of entering the criminal justice system. An understanding of their culture and support in fulfilling its expectations of them will certainly be a good start. However, without strong families, parental engagement and involvement in a child’s life and a strong network of community support young Somali men will not only continue to enter criminality but they will abandon an enduring and increasingly hypocritical culture which expects so much from those it gives so little to.

Liban Obsiye.


Twitter: @LibanObsiye

[1] “Why did he do this? What’s the reason behind it? Only God knows I tried my best with him,” cried the mother. “The problem he has brought to our family only God knows.”

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