Facilitating Legal Migration: The Challenge of Somali Statelessness

A disabled skiff containing 52 Somali migrants viewed from aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain in the Gulf of Aden, 24 May 2009 (Wikimedia Commons) The collapse of the state of Somalia in 1991 set the stage for over two decades of human insecurity and the consequent exodus of over one million Somali migrants and refugees, many of whom continue to be resettled in Western countries. Tragically, this protracted statelessness has also made the official identification and marriage documents recognized for regular admission into most foreign countries unavailable to generations of Somalis. Married couples in particular have suffered enormously as a result, given their inability to prove their family relationship through widely accepted alternative means, such as DNA testing. For this reason, many who are desperate to be reunited with their families have felt compelled to resort to tortuous irregular migration channels known as “tahrib.”

Despite these challenges, recent positive political developments may warrant some optimism. A transitional Somali government has begun to gain greater—albeit still limited—recognition from foreign governments, and has also commenced issuing new national identification documents. Overall country conditions have improved sufficiently to permit the tentative repatriation of small numbers of Somali refugees. Meanwhile, various host governments have responded to the problem of Somali documentation by adopting more flexible immigration policies. Somali couples have been allowed to prove their marriage through testimony and secondary evidence of their relationship (family photographs, sworn statements from relatives or other community members, records of shared resources or prior cohabitation, etc.). In addition, Somali refugees have been able to prove their identity through travel and other identification documents issued by prior host or transit countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or even the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But these alternative admission policies still leave out a number of Somali migrants. Those who were raised abroad in non-Somali communities, for example, might have too little knowledge of their homeland or cultural tradition to provide persuasive or detailed testimony about their relatives’ background—or their own. Furthermore, the process put in place by key transit countries to identify Somali refugee populations remains flawed, most notably by failing to consistently record family relationships. Some refugees find themselves unable to comply with confusing host country registration laws while others simply choose—often understandably—not to live in camps in which UNHCR registration of refugees commonly occurs.

To make matters worse, recent concerns about terrorism perpetrated by al-Shabaab as well as widespread fraud in past asylum and resettlement applications have prompted new barriers to Somali family reunification. This has weakened the Somali diaspora’s traditional social networks, making it more difficult for refugees to find reliable expatriate community members to testify on their behalf in immigration proceedings. The reforms could also hinder migrants’ ability to fully integrate into their host societies, where “integration deficiencies” are a well-known motivating factor of radicalization. Meanwhile, efforts to block funding for terrorism by targeting the “hawala” money-transfer system, through which Somali expatriates send remittances to dependent family members, threaten to deny a vital source of income to around 40 percent of households in Somalia. This possibility could worsen the country’s persistent humanitarian crisis even further, and could also increase the push toward emigration.

There are certainly no easy solutions to these challenges. However, the international community and host governments in particular should manifest greater solidarity with the Somali people by taking concrete steps to facilitate their rights to freedom of movement and family unity. This could be accomplished, first, by increasing the transparency of the criteria used to decide particular admission cases involving Somalis, and, second, by developing international best practices or a uniform international procedure based on a concerted reassessment of those criteria. These or similar measures would, hopefully, help to correct the perception of arbitrary discrimination against Somali migrants while simultaneously improving equity across multiple national immigration systems.

Amien Kacou is an attorney in private practice specializing in immigration law and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University's Global Security Studies program.