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Driving past the British Rail station in the West London suburb of Southall, you go past the round-about entering The Green, a busy commercial area.
Hundreds of people are milling around in the street that was once an extended urban area of white-owned shops that gradually exchanged hands, with Indian immigrants turning it into Little India comprising Indian-owned shops.
But London’s growing Somali community ventured here over two decades ago and acquired commercial space that today is dotted with restaurants, foreign exchange bureaux, small grocery shops and a number of mafrishes or khat cafes. The area is now called Little Somalia of London.
A fine crop of young educated and professional Somalis have been demanding a ban on khat but a majority, mainly the elders and their jobless children, still cling to their habits brought from their homeland.
Scores of men of all ages congregate socially every day in Southall and other parts of London to enjoy khat, the narcotic drug that has now been banned by the British Government.
Mohamed Hassan, who comes from Mogadishu, says: “I come to this market because here you find a very good variety of khat but I am afraid that many of us will go out of business if we are not able to buy our supplies here. I have a very good customer base in Coventry where I supply.”
Most of the traders are migrants mainly from Somalia but a few who have lived in Kenya have also been involved in the trade. A good share of the miraa is imported from Kenya.
The prohibition will come into force from early July, but there is a lot of fear among the khat users’ community and the trade is rapidly going underground.
The Government has now succeeded in classifying khat as a class-C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Amendment) No 2 Order of 2014. Class C drugs are the “least harmful” but still illegal, according to UK classification.
The ban was approved on May 12, affecting not just miraa users in the UK but also farmers in Kenya.
Khat is now illegal and those in possession can be sentenced to up to two years in prison and unlimited fine.
Dealers and suppliers could face up to 14 years in jail.
With this law now in force, the multi-million pounds khat trade has officially been snuffed out. According to official figures, 2,560 tonnes of khat worth £13.8 million were imported officially into the UK in 2011-2012.
Britain earned more than £2.5 million in taxes. This is according to figures by the Home Office.
Innovative ways are being used to sell khat in Britain. Bristol resident Hussein Ali offers deals on wheels to a 10,000-strong Somali community, selling khat from his car and causing traffic problems.
Young Somalis have been hanging around chewing khat. Ali lives under the shadow of being arrested for illegal trading if he continues with his trade.
Omar is a young Somali who has been advocating for a ban on khat which he calls a “virus that will kill our society.” He alleges supplies still come in flights from Kenya and are cleared out of customs by agents with insider contacts and paying big sums of money to them.
“Even now they are sold openly to the community but hidden away from prying outsiders,” he says, adding, “Within the community, they are not afraid of selling khat.”
He says the supply chain still exists in Southall.
“You can get it in the small shops, in the market stalls run by Somalis. You can also buy it at Number 17, which is well-known to our community in Southall.”
To escape detection, a growing number of khat users in Britain boil the leaf and drink the hot water or mix it with a hot beverage.
Users are undeterred. As they spoke, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report the UK has become a key smuggling route for miraa into Europe and North America. Britain hopes the ban will stop traffickers from using its ports for trafficking. It is trafficked from Africa, according to the report.
But Mohammed Ismael, 66, a retired khat dealer previously known as the “King of Khat”, told Reuters the ban would have little effect.
“Khat is everywhere in this country,” said Ismael, who came to London in the 1980s from Yemen.
“Go to East London and ask where to buy some. Everyone will point in every direction,” he said.
In the UK, khat has also been gaining popularity among the ethnic white and Caribbean communities in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham.
Last week, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Hamwee warned the Government against banning anything of “cultural significance”.
Khat is used in traditional Yemeni weddings and banning it, warned Baroness Hamwee, risked driving a wedge between the police and the already marginalised communities.
Somali community leader and leading anti-khat campaigner Abukar Awalle and a delegation of Somalis met Home Secretary Theresa May on May 20 seeking to allay the community’s fears. She assured them that their concerns would be addressed.
In the days it was legal, a weekly khat market was held in an industrial area in Merrick Road, Southall, attracting consumers and traders from all over the country and as far away as Cardiff in Wales and Glasgow in Scotland who came to buy supplies packed in boxes.
Today, however, the presence of strangers is treated with suspicion as Somalis are a very close-knit community and frown upon outsiders making inquiries about khat.
“Go down to the arches near Southall British Rail Station and you will see many Somalis sitting in their cars in the car park or with their friends merrily munching away on khat,” says Omar.
A local dealer in Brent Road supplies khat to those who have the cash for it. He refuses to take calls.
In Southall’s Scott Road, nicknamed the “Swahili Corner”, scores of Kenyan Somalis mostly from Mombasa and Nairobi gather to chew khat.
“It is a Maskani Majlis built for khat chewers and here you will find all Kenyans enjoying it,” says ex-user Shariff who gave up the habit a year ago.
“I must stress that most Kenyan Somalis here work and so they only go to the Swahili Corner in their free time. For them it is just to pass time but for those from Somalia, it is another thing. Chewing khat is a cultural indulgence affiliated to tribes. They are the ones who chew this leaf for three days non-stop.”
A similar Majlis Maskani in Romford Road, Forest Gate, East London has also opened its doors to local Somalis to pop into the social hall and chew khat.
They pay around £5 a bundle and some of the chewers go through four bundles a night, raking in a bill of £20.
They sit in groups with ample supplies of khat and plates of nyama choma, enjoying a bubbly chat and a high.
London factory worker Hassan says he sees no harm in chewing khat because “it has always helped me to do night shifts at work. I don’t see it as addictive because I gave it up for a year and I am an occasional user. Yes, there is a danger to health if you chew it daily.”
Kenyan farmers have been seriously hit by the loss of the miraa exports to the UK. In last week’s House of Lords debate, the opposition Labour criticised the Government for making its decision without what it called sufficiently “robust evidence”.
A motion calling for review of the impact of the reclassification of khat and for the UK Department of International Development to work with the Kenyan government to mitigate the effect on the Kenyan economy was defeated by 215 votes to 125.
– Standard Media