Hassan (not his real name) was born in the Kenyan town of Mandera, on the country’s borders with Somalia and Ethiopia, and grew up with relatives who had escaped the Somali civil war in the early 1990s. When his aunt, who fled Mogadishu, applied for refugee resettlement through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she listed Hassan as one of her sons – a description which, if understood outside the confines of biological kinship, accurately reflected their relationship.
They were among the lucky few to pass through the competitive and labyrinthine resettlement process for Somalis and, in 2005, Hassan – by then a young adult – was relocated to Minnesota. It would be several years before US Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced DNA tests to assess the veracity of East African refugee petitions. The adoption of genetic testing by Denmark, France and the US, among others, has narrowed the ways in which family relationships can be defined, while giving the resettlement process the air of an impartial audit culture.
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
A former prime minister of Somalia, Abdiweli Ali, tells a story that demonstrates the pervasive influence of al-Shabab, even in areas ostensibly controlled by the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabab collects taxes – reportedly as much as the government, and certainly more efficiently. This includes a payroll tax, described as a ‘contribution’, which salaried personnel – government staff among them – are obliged to pay. Abdiweli describes how a defector from al-Shabab who went to work for the government received a visit from a man who told him to pay his ‘contribution’. ‘How will I know whom to pay?’ he asked. ‘You will know,’ the messenger replied. At the end of the month, he went to collect his salary from the cashier at the bank. The cashier said: ‘Now let me receive your contribution.’