The COVID-19 pandemic has, understandably, gripped the attention of the world. All nations are now, rightly, focused on how we can, collectively, prevent the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable amongst us. Unfortunately, other grave problems affecting nations throughout the world will not, for the foreseeable future, simply go away, even if they are now seen as secondary.
A crisis affecting life in Somaliland since before the coronavirus is irregular migration. With outflows of people from Somaliland trying to reach Europe, and inflows of foreigners from bordering countries like Ethiopia transiting through en route to Yemen and the Gulf countries, Somaliland has been profoundly affected by the current global phenomenon of mass migration.
Gudoon Ahmed Mohamoud, a prosecutor in Burao, Togdheer Region, conveyed the enormity of the impact of irregular migration, colloquially termed tahriib, on Somaliland:
“Tahriib has affected every family in Somaliland. If your brother or sister haven’t attempted to go, your cousin definitely has.”
The Discussion Paper published today, Tackling Tahriib In Somaliland: The Legal Response to Irregular Migration, documents research Horizon Institute undertook from November 2017 to December 2019 to determine how the government is responding to this challenge. The findings are based on 167 interviews with migrants, family members, prosecutors, judges, Immigration and other government officials, and show that the criminal justice system is at the centre of the search for solutions.
Key to the government’s response is the prosecution of suspected smugglers. The courts in Hargeisa, Gabiley, Borama, Berbera and Erigavo, amongst others, have all prosecuted alleged smugglers, some since 2013. The impact of these prosecutions in actually curbing irregular migration is yet to be seen, given the current obstacles. The drawbacks include the absence of Somaliland-wide coordinated efforts to arrest and prosecute, and the lack of a legal framework specific to smuggling migrants.
And, by all accounts, including that of Judge Mohamed Omar Dhimbiil, the accused are only low-level smugglers working as recruiters or drivers.
“We do capture some smugglers, but they are the low-ranking members of a criminal network. We catch drivers and others who are assisting the head smugglers. Unfortunately, the smugglers we prosecute are often very poor and simply asked to take people from point A to point B.”
Somaliland government also faces difficulties in finding effective strategies for stopping would-be migrants. Without a network of social workers or non-custodial detention centres, Faysal Hiis Elmi, who is a spokesperson for the police, sees the only available option to stop Somalilanders attempting to migrate irregularly is for the police to arrest and hold them at police stations, subjecting people to the criminal justice system for non-criminal behaviour.
“Keeping migrants in the police station is for their security. It is the only option we have. We know what they are doing isn’t a crime. But there’s nothing else we can do but arrest those who are trying to migrate and keep them until their families come and get them.”
Immigration and the police force are also limited in what they can do to help families to track down family members suspected of migrating. If someone reports a loved one may have left on tahriib, Immigration and police can alert border crossings and check points, but are not equipped to carry out complex missing person searches. Once a migrant crosses into another country, there is nothing at all law enforcement can do. This was the experience of Basra Mohamed Abdi, a mother whose 18-year-old son left from the port in Berbera.
“I went to the police station and asked if they knew whether a boat with youth had left for Yemen. They said they were informed of a boat leaving the night before but that it was already too late to bring them back. [The police] told me there was nothing they could do now because the boat was in Yemeni territory. I left crying and went home to mourn for my son.”
Law enforcement officials cite the lack of technology, and effective partnerships with neighbouring countries, such as Djibouti and Ethiopia, as the reasons they cannot help families locate missing persons suspected of migrating irregularly.
Despite the enormous hurdles, the gravity of the situation has prompted the Somaliland government, in common with countries all over the world, to confront irregular migration. Law reform efforts, albeit imperfect, are in the final stages, a move that will substantially improve prosecutions. There is also a Migrant Response Centre (MRC) in Hargeisa that provides humanitarian services to foreign migrants.
There is no doubt that Somaliland can improve its legal response to irregular migration. Equally clear is that law enforcement measures, however much a deterrent, should only be one part of a multifaceted government strategy to discourage and combat tahriib. If irregular migration is to be dealt with effectively, criminal justice initiatives should not be seen as the key to the solution, since the causes of migration are rooted in social and economic issues.
Clearly, much more needs to be done. The steps Somaliland has taken to date present the wider region of the Horn, and the international community, with an opportunity to partner with an origin and transit point to expand on initiatives that are proving successful. The establishment of MRC offices in the regions, which could be used as an alternative to the detention of would-be Somaliland migrants at police stations, and at well-known border crossings, could be a first step.
Horizon Institute is publishing Tackling Tahriib In Somaliland to encourage dialogue and coordination between the relevant government institutions in Somaliland, between Somaliland and regional bodies responsible for responding to irregular migration, and to urge international actors to invest in local initiatives that are proving effective.
Horizon Institute is working to advance the rule of law and human rights. Our reports and discussion papers explore issues identified through our work. They provide information and analysis intended to stimulate debate among the public, government institutions, the media, human rights groups, NGOs, independent bodies and donors and promote government policies based on respect for human rights, the rule of law and the encouragement of self-reliance.
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