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The Bajuni People of Southern Somalia and the Asylum Process
by Brian Allen, Expert Witness
Brian Allen, born in Dublin, worked as a missionary in Kenya and Tanzania for over twenty years and is a fluent Swahili speaker. He has lived and worked among the coastal people of Kenya and studied their culture, music and anthropology. In the UK he was accepted as an expert witness for Somali Bajuni nationality testing in several appeal courts and the tribunal. He has carried out nationality testing interviews with over 100 Bajuni.
The Bajuni Background
The Bajuni tribe is a minority group from Southern Somalia. They live mainly in the town of Kismayo and on the islands off the south coast. Many of them are simple, peace-loving fisherfolk, and few have received any formal education. They are mainly devout Muslims, and most of their children attend madras, religious education offered by mosques, where Swahili and Bajuni languages are mixed with the Arabic of the Koran. Their ethnic origins are a mixture of Arab, Bantu, Portuguese and perhaps Malay. They speak a mix of Swahili and Kibajuni, a Swahili coastal dialect. As a minority tribe with features and language that are easily distinguishable from Somali majority clans, they have always been regarded with suspicion and scorn, and demeaning terms such as Tiku (slaves) have often been cast in their direction.
In 1991, an uneasy peace in Somali descended rapidly into anarchy, and the warlords of the southern part of the country, having armed themselves with AK47s and other weapons, had increasing freedom to terrorise and devastate minority communities. From the early 1990s these larger tribes, who were armed, began to attack and raid the defenceless Bajuni people. Since then, they have been increasingly subjected to sudden attacks on their homes: beatings, murders, kidnapping, looting and rape becoming prolific. Many Bajuni at first refused to leave their homeland due to this intimidation, but as the situation has deteriorated and family members been killed or kidnapped, many more have fled, seeking refuge in an outside world largely unknown to them.
Numerous Bajuni have fled to neighbouring Kenya, some since the early 1990s, but their situation there has been uncertain at best. As Somalis are the traditional enemies of Kenya, the presence of the Bajuni refugees is hated by civilians and police alike. Consequently, many Bajuni are in constant fear of attack or extortion from Kenyans, and have been sometimes forced to return to Somalia. This situation has led to a minority, those able to raise sufficient funds, seeking the help of an ‘agent’ who promised to take them to a safe country. Many Bajuni escape with a small amount of family gold which is often hidden in the home, and this wealth is handed over to the agent without any real discussion of its worth. Although the exact details vary, the ‘agents’ generally organise all the travel arrangements and abandon their charge once arriving at their destination.
Bajuni Asylum Seekers
Bajuni refugees from Somalia sometimes find themselves in UK or Ireland. Typically, they will not know which country they are fleeing to, and arrive as extremely vulnerable people who do not speak English, may be illiterate, and have no idea of the legal and social processes that they will be expected to get involved in. They are also often traumatized; many of the women have been raped, many have lost close family members, many have been tortured and had their homes burnt or looted. When they claim asylum, it frequently happens that their claim is refused because of lack of clarity of nationality testing, language difficulties or other misunderstandings.
I began to meet Bajuni asylum seekers when I was asked to interpret for various solicitors in Leeds, England. Having lived and worked on the Kenyan coast, I had been aware of their existence and sometimes met them on Lamu Island, right on the Somali border. Their Swahili was usually very good, and it was not difficult for me to understand some of the Bajuni dialect, having lived and worked with coastal peoples in East Africa for some years. Gradually, I began to piece together the threads of their stories, and realised that many of them were being subjected to terrible injustices through misunderstandings in the asylum system. After consulting with a few legal experts, I decided to do my own research and to see how I could help to bring clarity to a very confused situation.
The British, Danish and Dutch Fact-Finding Mission
It came to my attention that the report produced by this mission to Nairobi Kenya, dated 17 – 24 September 2000, is used in many of the Bajuni asylum cases. Unfortunately, this report is inaccurate in various aspects. The conclusions of the report are often cited in the refusal letters of those asylum seekers claiming to Bajunis from Somalia. I therefore decided to write my own report on the sections which produce some confusion. I have included some of my findings here together with the references to the report:
5.1 The report states ‘The Bajuni elders described the Bajuni as a united people that are not divided into sub-groups’.
If this statement means that there is no in-fighting or division among the Bajuni then it is true. But if it is taken to mean there are no sub-clans among the Bajuni people, then it is simply incorrect. The Bajuni sub-clans such as the Khazarajia, Wafailia, Wachanda, Ausia are well known. A Bajuni person, when asked, can normally say what clan he or she belongs to, and also name other clans. This misunderstanding of terminology would easily happen if the people conducting the mission were unfamiliar with the languages and customs of the coast of East Africa, and if interpreters were being used. The misunderstanding comes right into court, where sometimes cases have been refused on the basis that a Bajuni asylum seeker names his or her clan.
5.2 ‘Most Bajuni speak some Somali’.
This statement is sometimes used as grounds for dismissing cases where the Somali language is not spoken by the claimant. However, implicit in the statement is that some Bajuni speak no Somali at all. My research has indicated that it may well have been true that most Bajuni spoke some Somali when the ‘elders’ left Somalia in the early 1990s, but since that time, because of hostile attacks, there has been increasing separation between the Bajuni people and the larger Somali speaking tribes. This meant that a growing number of Bajuni people, especially the younger generation, were not exposed to the Somali language. The result is that some Bajuni know almost nothing of the Somali language. The other flaw in this statement and its interpretation in courts is that it fails to point out that Bajuni women normally lead extremely sheltered lives and would not have been exposed to Somali language. This issue was further investigated in an interview reported by another ‘fact-finding mission’ in 2004. In this report, Abdalla Bakari, one of the ‘elders’ (a Kenya resident since the early nineties) suggested that Bajunis from Kismayo would have knowledge of Somali. This statement was not made on the basis of any recent evidence, and runs counter to expert witnesses, academics and other professionals who work regularly with Somalis seeking refuge in UK and Ireland.
5.3 The British-Dutch-Danish report states that ‘the main language spoken by the Bajuni is Kibajuni’.
This is certainly not true today, though in the past this was more likely. Kibajuni is a dialect of Kiswahili. Its structure is very similar to Kiswahili but many words are either pronounced differently (eg Mtu ‘a man’ in Kiswahili is pronounced ‘Ntchu’ in Kibajuni) or are completely different (eg ‘small’ is ‘Kidogo’ in Kiswahili but ‘Nkatiti’ in Kibajuni). The language now spoken in most Bajuni homes is Swahili. The older generation tend to use and know Kibajuni but young people prefer to use coastal Swahili. This means they are less isolated, and can read newspapers, listen to radio reports and communicate with the many other tribes along the coast of East Africa where Swahili is the main language. The Kibajuni dialect is gradually dying out. The younger generation have no desire or even need to speak it. However, most Bajunis will understand some Bajuni words when they hear them. In ‘Ethonologue: Languages of the world’, Swahili is listed as the language of the Bajuni people in southern Somalia.
In the light of all the above I believe that the Anglo-Dutch-Danish report is flawed in various areas. In modern East Africa the views of the ‘elders’ are often out of touch with the realities of modernity, and the life style and world view of the youth who typically constitute well over 50% of the population. This is particularly true when the elders have lived in another country for some time, and those interviewed had been in Nairobi during the recent time of unrest. In today’s society, the men known as the ‘elders’ are frequently less than representative of the cross-section of society. The elders met by the delegation are recorded as having all ‘left the Bajuni islands in the early 1990s’. Only one man had made a brief return visit since that time. Given the turbulent situation, much has changed since the time of their experiences and that of the report. Furthermore, all the elders are recorded as having come from the islands, despite the importance of assessing the situation in Kismayo.
I have carried out extensive interviews with over a hundred Bajuni, and met with many established refugees and expert witnesses. I am convinced that a fair and thorough system of nationality testing needs to be introduced to the asylum process in Britain and Ireland in order to avoid the misunderstandings, distress and waste of time and money that have gone into many cases. I appeal to the decision makers in both countries to consider the weight of evidence that exists, and to make a fresh effort to ensure that the Bajuni, a people group that have been victimised and marginalised for many years, be given a chance of a just and truth-based hearing of their cases.
 Joint Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and British Fact-Finding Mission to Nairobi, Kenya, 7-12 January 2004.
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