Humiliation Experienced by Somali Refugees in Norway

Katrine Fangen

© Ressurssider om Norge og Somalia.


Life as a refugee attempting to create a new life in an unfamiliar country is filled with uncertainties. Due to a lack of language and cultural knowledge, misunderstandings occur. People in these circumstances are vulnerable to experiences of humiliation. The majority population's prejudices against strangers also contribute to newly-arrived refugees experiencing more humiliating situations than do others. This paper attempts to analyse experiences of humiliation among refugees, using Somali refugees as a case. The principal research question here is why and how refugees experience humiliation in exile. What kinds of situations trigger feelings of humiliation in refugees and why are these situations experienced as humiliating?

This paper attempts to develop a theory of humiliating experiences among exiles, based on interviews with 27 Somalis and 20 Norwegians, as well as participatory observations and meetings with a focus group. Refugees in a society vastly different from that of their home country might be vulnerable to intimidation, and might also be met in hurtful ways. Humiliation occurring in the home country might continue in the new country, and new types of humiliating situations might develop between individuals from the home country in the new setting. The theory set forth here identifies typical reactions of the refugees to certain humiliating situations, and offers some suggestions for ways to prevent humiliating experiences.


Life as a refugee attempting to create a new life in an unfamiliar country is filled with uncertainties. Due to a lack of language and cultural knowledge misunderstandings occur. People in these circumstances are vulnerable to experiences of humiliation. The majority population's prejudices against strangers also contribute to newly-arrived refugees experiencing more humiliating situations than do others.

The different kinds of humiliation that refugees might experience, may be categorized into other concepts such as discrimination, exclusion, derision, and stigmatization. The more general concept ‘humiliation’ is suited to the aim of this paper because all these different categories of experiences have in common the psychological feeling of being put down, of not being acknowledged as equally competent or of equal worth.

The principal research question here is why and how refugees experience humiliation in exile. What kinds of situations trigger humiliation in refugees? Why are these situations experienced as humiliating? How do refugees react to their feelings of being humiliated? What might be done in order to prevent such experiences from occurring?

As a sociologist, my focus is on the socio-cultural basis of humiliation. My starting point for interest in this topic was immigration studies, especially my present postdoctoral study of integration and identity navigation among Somali refugees in Norway. I learned that many Somalis felt intensely humiliated by the way they were portrayed in the media, and by the way they were met by officials.

According to most indicators of living standards, Somalis are the refugee group that has poorest ratings. They are more often unemployed than any other groups of first-generation immigrants in Norway . In 2001, 25.8 per cent of Somalis in Norway were employed, as against 38.3 per cent of first-generation Pakistanis and 64.8 per cent of persons without immigrant background. Nineteen per cent of Somali women had work, whereas 31.1 per cent of the men were working. The total income for Somali households in Norway is very low compared to that of other immigrant groups (ibid.). Many Somalis have great difficulty in finding accommodation; landlords are often reluctant to let to Somali families with many children. In a study of living conditions among immigrants in 1996, half of the Somalis reported that they definitely had been discriminated against when trying to rent or buy an apartment . Seventy-six per cent of the Somalis in Norway are living in rented accommodation; only 24 per cent own their own property .

Indicators of mental health also point to a worse position for Somalis. In a study of different immigrant groups in Norway, more Somalis than most other refugee groups reported that they had nervous symptoms As many as 54 per cent of Somalis in Norway report that they feel lonely . Of different non-Western immigrant groups only Iraqis more frequently report that they feel lonely than do Somalis. This is linked to the high percentage, 26.5 per cent, of Somalis in Norway who live in households of only one person . Literature from other Western countries, such as Australia, the UK, Canada and Finland, reveals very much the same picture of the situation for Somali refugees. Even though Somali settlement in Britain goes back to the early 1900s, the picture of those lowest in the hierarchy is used as a description , who has studied Somalis in London. Similar to the Somali situation in Norway, surveys show that the majority of Somalis in London are under 20 years of age, and as in Norway, there is a high proportion of female-headed households, while the average household is significantly larger than in the mainstream population. Chronic unemployment, poor housing, illiteracy and consequent problems in accessing mainstream social and educational services are typical for Somalis both in the UK and in Norway . The greatest difference in the situation of Somalis in the UK and in Norway is that Somalis in the UK have access to long-standing Somali communities including second and third generation Somalis, and that for many Somalis Britain means home. Recently-arrived refugees often have family links with Somalis settled in Britain, whereas this is seldom the case for Somalis arriving in Norway. The UK seems to be the main destination for Somalis leaving Norway, despite less generous welfare benefits. It seems that the attraction of joining a more established Somali immigrant community is given more weight than economic benefit ).

A study of Somali refugees in Canada shows that they encounter considerable difficulties during the initial stages of resettlement . They face social exclusion and multiple forms of disadvantages including high unemployment, underemployment, and overcrowding, as well as frustrations and despair that sometimes result in suicidal behaviour, particularly among the young males. Host language incompetence and recent immigration are some explanatory factors, but the study concludes that systems of institutional and everyday racism also have created formidable barriers for Somalis as they integrate into their new country (ibid.). In a Finnish study, Somalis faced more negative attitudes and experienced more racist crimes than any other immigrant groups Somalis in Norway have been stigmatized by both media and officials as the worst case group of refugees. A negative cycle might thus occur, where Somalis literally turn their backs on Norwegian society while Norwegian society turns its back on Somalis.

Norwegian–Somali Humiliation

Humiliation in Meetings with Various Authorities

Newly-arrived refugees find themselves in a position where they time and again must find their way to different kinds of state or municipal offices, such as the police station, Directorate of Immigration, a welfare office, employment office, national insurance office, child health centre, local refugee office and adult education school. Dependency on the help of officials is a new situation for Somalis when coming to Norway (except for the dependency on food aid etc. from international aid organizations). Public offices do not share the intimacy and warmth which other people of the same clan offer each other. Humiliating experiences in meeting with public authorities might occur among all refugees coming to a new country, but according to several of the officials interviewed for this study, Somali refugees are more prone to experience different situations as insulting than do other refugees.

Somali respondents say that they feel controlled by officials, they do not like being told things and they feel intimidated because they find that various public officials lecture them. Similar experiences of course might be typical of all people who during a period of time have been social clients or who have had other client roles in the social system. But in the accounts by Norwegian officials, this trend seems to be even more prevalent in the interaction between Somali clients and the Norwegian system, as they report that Somalis tend to be more easily intimidated by the officials' attempts to serve or instruct them. There thus seems to be a clash between the desire of social workers, refugee workers etc. to help or guide newly-arrived refugees, and the way some Somali refugees interpret these efforts. Somalis report that they feel strong negative emotions when they have to bow and scrape because of such lectures. When officials try to give information about ‘how things are done in Norway’, the result might be that a Somali walks away. The ways in which things are said are important.

Even though some of the lectures from the officials are probably well-meant, the result might nevertheless be that the recipient feels humiliated. Those who work with refugees in the municipalities tend to describe Somalis as ‘the most difficult immigrants to integrate’, but simultaneously as strong, proud and even elegant or aristocratic. Officials who work with Somali refugees often seem to view them partly with frustration and partly with admiration.

Expectations of the greener pasture, and the disappointment when it turns out to be dry is probably where it ‘goes wrong’ in the meeting between the expectant Somali who is ever attempting to increase his opportunities and the official who becomes appalled by what he sees as an ungrateful attempt to exploit the social welfare system (Gundel, personal communication). Humiliation in this case is very relative. Similar stories appear among a majority of the Somali respondents. They tend to view the authorities as rigid, suspicious and lacking in understanding or empathy. On the one hand, some surely experience that they are unfairly denied access to services; on the other hand, many situations experienced as humiliating are probably more due to unrealistic expectations of what or how much they rightfully should receive.

Humiliation in the Labour Market

Many respondents use the metaphor of being met by closed doors, in relation to the labour and the housing market. One respondent reflected on negative media images having an impact on exclusion of Somalis in the job market:

However, many Somalis have experienced discrimination by employers. In a study of living conditions among six refugee groups in Norway, the Somali group was the one who most often reported that landlords prefer to rent to Norwegians and that ‘foreigners are treated worse than Norwegians at the work place’ (Djuve and Hagen 1995: 101). One mother says she has no belief in education, after seeing so many well-educated Somalis who cannot even get a job as a cleaner. One woman was disillusioned after being fired from her job because she refused to take off her Muslim veil. One Somali doctor had been working hard to get the extra formal education needed in order to work as a doctor in Norway, but did not get any jobs because he did not speak Norwegian well enough. He has more or less given up, so that instead of working hard to improve his Norwegian, or instead of trying to get jobs within the health system, he now works with refugees who have just come to Norway, and tells them about the need to remain active. By talking all day with newly-arrived refugees, he is not in the best position to improve his Norwegian. And he has little confidence in his ability to get the type of professional job that suits his long education.

For those Somalis who wish to integrate into the host society, their will to do so might be seriously impaired by such experiences. Resignation and anger become for many possible reactions to long periods where they have done everything to attain success, in the educational system and/or the labour market, without finding any open doors.

Humiliation at School and between the System and the Family

Some Somali children not born in Norway experience being teased or bullied at school. Because they do not yet speak fluently, and cannot explain what happened to the teacher afterwards, they often find that they are blamed, even when other children started the fight.

Somali respondents state that they doubt that Norwegians know best what a Somali family needs. They would therefore rather seek help or guidance from elder Somalis from the same clan. They experience the public officials as people saying they want to help, but who nevertheless do not understand what sort of help is needed.

This description accurately points out how positive purposes of the welfare system are experienced as controlling, humiliating, uncomprehending etc. by Somali families. Not being allowed to make their own choices regarding what is best for their own family is experienced as intimidation.

Humiliated by being Defined by a Sense of ‘Otherness’

Many Somalis in Norway, as in many other Western countries (cf. Ali 1995; Alitolppa-Niitamo 2004: 88), have a hard time handling the ‘Otherness’ attributed to their ethnic group by the media, by politicians and by the majority population in general. This is also an experience they share with many other immigrant groups. Klepp (2002: 7) has analysed presentations of Somalis in the media, and has found that from the beginning of the 1990s and up to 1998, there was a change in the way Somalis were represented by the media. There was an increasing negative focus on them as ‘difficult and conflict-producing’, both in Norway and in other countries (ibid., Alitolppa-Niitamo 2004: 93). Of the total number of reports about Somalis in the internet versions of the newspapers, 88 per cent had a negative focus (Klepp 2002).

Many Somalis feel humiliated by the public image of the dangerous, the criminal or the non-integrated Somali—they are reduced to a negative or exotic stereotype, rather than being presented as unique individuals. Some Somali women feel that because they wear a veil and have been circumcised, Norwegians relate to them only as victims. A male student in his 30s stated that he was afraid that his daughters might not have any pride in being a Somali.

As dark-skinned refugees they are continuously reminded of their minority position in relation to the white majority, and the underlying message that they might sense in the question ‘where do you come from?’ is ‘you do not belong here’. The question of national or ethnic identity might thus have the effect of placing the other in a context of non-belonging, even though the person who is asking perhaps only thinks of him- or herself as curious and positively interested.

Intra-Minority Humiliation in Exile

Humiliated by other Somalis because of Clan Membership

In the previous section, we saw that Somalis often find questions about where they come from or how they define themselves humiliating. However, also in Somalia, this kind of humiliation occurs. Both in Somalia and among Somalis living in different Western countries, knowing who you are and who the other is in clan terms, is often vitally important. Abusing members of enemy clans was a practice in Somalia long before the civil war. Severe humiliation of minority groups or castes such as the Rahanwein and the Midgan has always been present, as reflected for example in the poems of the Somali writer Mohamed Abdullah Hassan who died in 1920. According to Asha Samad, to be a Midgan means to suffer life-long indignities, to be deemed impure and thus meriting disdain, and the avoidance and abuse of others. Midgans in Somalia have been denied food, medical treatment and protection. The only other groups who have been treated in this manner are the Jareer and Bantu descendants of slaves brought from East Africa 1,000 years ago (Samad 2002). Somalia's former president, Siad Barre, actually gave Midgans positions in the government. This led to increased harassment and persecution of Midgans during the civil war and in diaspora. As Samad underlines, this post-war harassment is not only a continuation of their historical exploitation; it is also a result of the assumptions of some of the large, dominant clans that Midgans have been supporters of their rival and hated ruler, president Barre.

Several Somalis report that bullying because of clan also occurs in Norway. People from one clan might say things such as, we are better, and there are many political strategies on the basis of clan. Midgans especially may be severely humiliated. The leader of a Somali youth organization had been involved in helping young Somali girls who had problems. He described the case of a teenage girl who had become pregnant by a Midgan boy. Because of his background her relatives forced her, by means of violence, not to marry the boy. The Somali milieu excluded this girl from the community. This is the worst case the organization has had so far in their work with Somali girls.

To be labelled in such a way is a common form of bullying reported by Somali girls. Even though they find that they have more freedom than is usual among female Pakistani class-mates, they must even so adhere to strict moral codes. Wearing of veils among Somali women is a new phenomenon that has followed an increased religious conservatism, following the breakdown of the Somali state, which, even a dictatorship, was quite secular compared to many other Muslim countries (Haakonsen personal communication).

Some Somali girls who violate behavioural norms (not drinking alcohol, not going to Norwegian parties or pubs, not having sex before marriage) are sent back to Somalia in order to ‘relearn’ the culture. Some are also forced into marriages (cf. Fangen 2002). Forced marriages are, however, not an extensive problem among Somalis in Norway. Perhaps a reason for this is that even when a girl is forced to marry, divorce is to a large extent accepted among Somalis if the marriage is not successful (cf. Fangen 2002).

Reactions to Humiliation

This paper has described several instances of humiliation as experienced by Somalis living in Norway. So how do Somalis who feel strongly humiliated in exile react?

The effects of humiliation are probably universal, whereas the means are culturally dependent (cf. Lindner 2000: 374–375). Some common reactions are (a) depression, (b) the use of drugs, (c) flight into religion and (d) aggression (ibid.). All these reactions are seen among Somali refugees in Norway.

(a) Depression and withdrawal is the more self-centred reaction to humiliation. Many respondents report on Somalis who react to humiliating experiences by distancing themselves from everything, and state that this reaction takes the form of a kind of mental disease. According to Klein (1991), the experience of humiliation and the fear of humiliation are implicated in a variety of mental illnesses and engender rage that is manifested in anti-social behaviour, murder, and suicide. In a study of living conditions among refugees in Norway, Somalis were the group (out of six immigrant groups) with the highest frequency of mental problems (20 per cent) (Djuve and Hagen 1995: 88). Such mental problems might of course be the long term result of traumatic war experiences or traumatic experiences in refugee camps and in transition. However, many Somalis report that they feel more distressed by humiliating experiences linked to their new situation in Norway.

(b) Many Somalis regard it problematic that Somali men chew so much qat (a mild narcotic plant) in exile. However, such chewing of qat was also customary in Somalia before the war, even though it was banned by Siad Barre in the early 1980s. With the breakdown of the state in the late 1980s qat chewing increased to dramatic proportions, at least among men (Haakonsen personal communication). New studies show that there is a relationship between regular qat-chewing, war traumas and mental illness, which may explain, in part at least, the higher frequency of mental problems among Somalis (Odenwald et al. 2002). The same over-use of qat is seen in London, according to Griffiths (2002: 81). Somalis themselves state that this is a reaction to their sense of hopelessness, depression, frustration and anger. They chew qat all the evening, and sleep all day.

(c) Many Somalis were not particularly religious in Somalia, or during their first period in Norway, but after a while became extremely religious and rigid in their views, and use religion in order to justify a very negative view of the Norwegian culture.

Other respondents also conclude that many Somalis are much more religious here in Norway than they were in Somalia. More women use the veil than was usual in Somalia before the war. Some tell of husbands who use religion in order to keep their wives in place, so that they do not feel humiliated by a wife who suddenly goes out, meets other people and learns to know the new society. In a study of Somali women in Australia, the same pattern was found, that Islam had become more important because of their experiences with persecution and violence during war, and the hardships of replacement. War and exile lead to increased importance of religious faith, and Islam sustains them during times of emotional distress (McMichael 2002: 172–173).

(d) Feelings of humiliation might lead to acts of humiliation. The dynamics of humiliation play an important part in perpetuating international tensions and violence (cf. Klein 1991). There have been many instances of violence among Somalis in Norway, both domestic violence and street violence. Street violence has mostly occurred among young Somali men who experienced failure in school, and sought comfort in criminal gangs. Domestic violence and abuse is not a new phenomenon in Somali families, but it has, according to Scruggs (2004), increased because of the civil war. Women were granted many rights under the 1979 constitution, but all progress was erased by the war. Children were traditionally well protected within the family network. However, Scruggs asserts, societal disintegration has left these two groups particularly vulnerable. Even though violence seems not to be unusual in Somali families, some of the instances of wife battering in Norway seem to have been triggered by a feeling of frustration and anger at not coping with one's own situation in diaspora. Men might feel threatened by the many rights women have in the new country, and by the new economic independence of their women, due to their rights to welfare benefits from the state. This is seen in several cases of wife battering among Somalis in Norway. A Somali woman who worked as a helper for Somali women with problems, reported many instances of Somali women who were beaten by their husbands, because the husbands felt humiliated by the wives' economic independence because of welfare benefits given by the state. In Somalia the men had a role as breadwinners, often along with their wives; in Norway they feel superfluous. These men try to retain a feeling of being in power by keeping their wives down, not allowing them to go out, or even bullying them for their appearance, saying they are ugly.

For some, different experiences of humiliation in exile might lead to a reorientation into their own traditions and culture, and to living a life on the margins of the Norwegian society, by seeking the company of other unemployed Somalis, in organizations or cafés. For others, such negative experiences lead them away from Norway and further on to other countries, where they think that things might be easier. The implication of such uprooting is a failure to find a sense of belonging anywhere.

What Prevents Humiliation among Somalis in Norway?

There are several ways to heal humiliation. The kind of solution depends upon what kind of feeling is triggered, the reaction to this feeling and the current situation between the parties in the aftermath of the humiliating act. On a psychological level, to stop seeing oneself as a victim and focus so much on the humiliators, and instead attempt to build up one's own sense of dignity is the best way to be healed (cf. Lindner 2002: 133). In some NGOs Somali as well as Norwegian volunteers (and in some cases employees) work with self-help groups in order to increase empowerment among Somali refugees. In such groups, emphasis can be placed on learning to understand what one rightfully deserves from the system, and what one does not have a right to. Learning to deal with the system seems to be a buffer against feeling humiliated, and also decreases the number of humiliating situations.

Another humiliation-preventing factor is the use of so-called natural helpers, that is, resourceful persons—who might not have formal education—from the Somali community who can function as bridge-builders in meetings with authorities. These might be seen as an active form of witnesses, if we return to Klein's model for the humiliation dynamic. Such culturally sensitive intervention involves utilizing the resources inherent in the Somali community (cf. Davies and Webb 2000: 552). In order not to humiliate Somali families, the message from many Somalis is that authorities should avoid arrogance and ‘I know best’ attitudes, and let the Somalis themselves decide over their own lives. Generally, recognition that gives new self-confidence and hope is the antithesis to humiliation (cf. Lindner 2000a).

On a more structural level, increasing one's living standard might lead to less vulnerability to humiliating experiences. Work, a place to live, marriage/family, after many years perhaps also wealth, are mentioned by Lindner (2000a) as humiliation-preventing factors. According to my observations of Somalis in Norway, one factor especially seems to be important in order to make humiliating experiences seem less important, and that is a good and rewarding network, including both Somalis and Norwegians.


This paper has discussed several kinds of humiliation-triggering situations, some of which occur in the interaction between the minority and the majority, and others within the minority. The humiliation-triggering situations we have found might fall into the following categories:

In general, more use of clear and informative vocally transmitted welcome information, culturally sensitive follow-up, and use of bridge-builders—natural helpers with the same minority background—are useful methods in order to decrease humiliation.

Experiences of humiliation will likely be typical of all refugees in their first phase of settlement. Some of the conclusions on how refugees should be met and followed up in a better way, might also prove useful in work with other refugees. Somalis in certain respects might be more vulnerable to humiliation than many other refugees, because of a poorer standard of living, and because they lack recent experience of a state infrastructure, in contrast to most other refugees. They have less experience of a structured welfare society and more experience of war than many other refugees. Thus they might be more vulnerable to humiliation, although they are not alone in experiencing this. Better information, a more culturally-sensitive welcome and the use of bridge-builders in the follow up work are useful prescriptions for preventing humiliation with all new refugees.

Although my own as well as other studies illustrate that settlement seems to be harder for Somali refugees than for many other refugees in Norway as well in other host countries, it is worth noting that for most Somalis these experiences do not overshadow the fact that they feel safer in exile than in today's Somalia with its lack of governance, its poverty and its continuing violent conflicts. The main task must be to find ways to better their new lives in exile.

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, PO Box 1096 Blindern, N-0317 Oslo

© 2007 Katrine Fangen



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