December 20, 2010

Part III, New Information on the Shermeyateva 16, Refugees in Moscow Airport

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Contribution by Dani Grisby, Posted December 12, 2010
Good news! The Shermeyateva 16 is now down to 14. Two members have been resettled to Sweden.

Bad news: there are still 14 people stuck in the Moscow airport. We cannot stop writing Amnesty International, asking them to take this deserving group on as a focus case.
Here's an e-mail I recently received from Suheeb, one of the 16 stranded, which really expresses the severity of their situation.
Dear Dani,
We are doing good but are still in the airport. We were told we may get to go to Sweden but we're not sure.
Two of us have recently been sent to Sweden, they came to the airport before us. Now we are hoping insha Allah.

It will be very painful to be stateless for the new year. Especially as we have almost been here a year.

We don't know who to blame for this situation. But it's really bad when this huge planet cannot find room for you within any border, for no reason. We did not commit a crime, we are just seeking asylum. Maybe we can go to the planet mars, maybe life is better there.

Also, it's really hard for me to see what the two women who are with us have to go through. Most of us, we are men, But for the women to suffer, it really hurts me, too much. They have no privacy.

Any information you have from amnesty on our case?

Thank you,

Suheeb


If you've emailed on their behalf before, please do so, again. While we received a response from AI-USA (telling us to talk to the London office) we have yet to hear anything from London.

Send emails to: amnestyis@amnesty.org

"Hello!

My name is _____________, and I am writing to request that Amnesty International take up, as an urgent action, the case of 16 Somalis who, as victims of a smuggling scheme, have been stranded in the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow for the past ten months. The Russian Federation is required under international law to assist these Somalis and allow them to access courts and other mechanisms that would facilitate their right to asylum. So far, the Russian Federation has failed to meet even the most basic of its international obligations in this case. We, as members of the international community, thus have an obligation to stand in solidarity with the Somalis and to make our voices be heard.

Thank you for taking this case into consideration.

Sincerely,

Your Name Here"

Write to the author of this post Dani Grisby, Policy Intern, at grigsby@miracoalition.org

Update on the Somalis in Moscow Airport

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Shortly after posting my previous article, The Shermeyateva 16, Somali Refugees Stranded at Airport in Moscow, I was contacted by a woman who works in refugee assistance and who has worked to assist this group of Somalis for quite some time.  She has given me permission to repost some of her previous writings on the subject.



Originally posted at MIRA, November 27, 2010

“Because [they] slipped through and fell in a crack. Nobody likes staying in a crack because they're nothing. Nobody likes to be stuck in a crack.”–Frank Dixon, character from DreamWorks’ 2004 film, ‘Terminal’

In 2004, theater-goers were regaled with the fictional tale of Viktor Navorski—a man from “Krakoshia”, an artificial Eastern European state—whose country became engulfed in war while he was in transit to the US. Upon his arrival at US customs, his passport was invalidated, no longer recognized by the US government. He was forced to remain in the airport until his status could be determined; he could not return to his war-tattered nation, nor could he, legally, enter the USA.

Comedy, friendship, love and intrigue are artistically woven into Navorski’s story as he navigates airport life over the course of the film. An ever-resilient Navorski is finally able to return “home.” This humorous and intriguing story is intended to be a piece of mainstream entertainment, enjoyed and then forgotten. But the situation is all too real.

Suheeb Mohammad and his travel companions have been living the fictional horror of Viktor Navorski for the past six months. These young men and women, desperate refugees from Somalia, paid $3,500 USD each to an individual who purported to have the means to assist them in seeking asylum via Moscow, Russia. They learned that they had been deceived upon arrival to Moscow’s Shermeyateva Dva airport, 45 minutes north of the city, in May of 2010. Russian customs officials discovered their falsified documents and their visas were summarily revoked. Unable to officially enter or exit the Russian Federation, their fates are left in the hands of charitable airport staff and non-governmental workers in Moscow’s unofficial humanitarian services sector. Food, water, and clothing needs are met through daily acts of charity. Their future remains unclear, and their hope dwindles.

In Suheeb’s own words:

“We feel stress and we need a big help. . .it’s taking a long time, you understand? Being in an airport for months? I cannot describe it. It hurts so much to be in this place but we don’t have a choice . . . we don’t feel safe and worry for the future. All we ask is when will we be out of here? Please, please try to help us.”

Suheeb and his travel companions (deemed the Shermeyateva 16) are not the first refugees to fall victim to Russia’s inadequate asylum system, forced to remain captive within its borders. Refugees and other forced migrants have sought refuge in or via Russia in great numbers since the fall of the Soviet Union. Seen as a veritable portal to the west, Moscow’s emerging economy and seeming openness (Soviet d├ętente established ‘friendship universities,’ and recruited attendees from developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond) has captured the attention of the desperate asylum seekers from far abroad.

The first such noted case of airport detainees was documented in the Moscow Times in 1992. A group of over sixty refugees were held in a Moscow airport for months before finally being returned to their country of transit.

International conventions, to which Russia freely submits, set forward standard operating procedures to ensure the rights of forced migrants like Suheeb. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention recommends that governments “continue to receive refugees in their territories and that they act in concert in a true spirit of international cooperation in order that these refugees may find asylum and the possibility of resettlement.” What’s more, disallowing the Shermeyateva 16 access to the court system is, too, in direct violation of international standards set forward in the 1951 Convention.

This real-life drama, grimly mirroring fabricated situational comedy, unfolds day by unchanging day for these refugees. How it plays out depends very much on the tenacity of the cast of characters involved. Global advocates must step-up, forgive the pun, to the international stage. Decision makers, law enforcers, and politicians must unite in political prowess on behalf of the Shermeyateva 16.


Join us in asking Amnesty International to host a worldwide letter writing campaign to grant these individuals equitable access to asylum proceedings. Write or call Amnesty International USA and offer your support of this campaign: (212) 807-8400 or submit the following email to: aimember@aiusa.org and please cc: ellenp@alum.dartmouth.org.

Dear Amnesty International USA:

Please take up the case of the Shermeyateva 16 as a special focus case. This group of 16 refugees have been unofficially detained in Moscow’s Shermeyateva Dva airport for the past six months without access to legal support of any official asylum proceedings. We urge you to allow us to unite and take action under Amnesty’s esteemed reputation, in order to reach a broader global support network and assist in ensuring these refugees are afforded their full, deserved human rights.

For more information, please contact Danielle J. Grigsby, Shermeyateva 16 Coordinator, at grigsbyd@bc.edu or 801-710-7148.

Respectfully,

Your Name Here

December 9, 2010

Does the Traditional Land Use System, Xeer, Have a Future in Somalia?

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Everyday the world is confronted with abrasive images of the violence in Somalia, yet attempts to analyze and explain the aggression are generally slimmed down to explanations of tribalism.  It is true that the geo-political history of the 6 primary clans does play a large part in the constant fighting, however there are additional social factors that can undermine or facilitate a potential end to the violence.  With IDP camps scattered across the country, planning efforts to stabilize and rebuild this exhausted landscape will need to build upon a history of tribal, religious, colonial, and government efforts to control the land.  Xeer is perhaps the oldest land use tradition in Somalia and deserves special attention.

According to a UN-Habitat study in 2005, Xeer has 11 primary commandments:
  • Land and any resources found on it are common assets of the clan or the primary lineage that permanently lives on it.
  • Pasture is free for all pastoralists irrespective of clan affiliation in time of need.
  • Pastoralists should preserve, and not burn, deserted thorn pens for animals.
  • Generally nomads can not settle in the grazing valleys, however, in some regions pastoral hamlets may not be allowed to settle in the middle of grazing valleys.
  • Individual pastoralists should not destroy shared pasture and fruit bearing trees
  • Neither visiting grazers, nor local pastoralists, may establish commercial camps on grazing land.
  • Private enclosures or farms on grazing lands are prohibited.  No one is allowed to cut grass and transport it into another area.
  • Visiting grazers must respect Xeer and maintain peaceful co-existence with the host communities.
  • A committee of elders from the visiting group and the local community is empowered to resolve conflicts.
  • Kinsmen should assist each other in hard times, particularly during long migrations.
  • To reserve an old pen for private use, the head of the pastoralists group should clearly leave leave a mark in the front of the pen.
A quick review of these 11 tenants reveals the fluid nature of land use and its exchange between clans, sub-groups, and individuals.   As Somalia hosts extreme environments and the economy is historically rooted in animal husbandry, this fluid exchange is essential for the survival.  Nonetheless, these rules could quickly get messy in an urban environment where public space and private property blur the lines between social and personal use.  

In an urban environment, how do the the concepts of Xeer take on new meaning?  Can one interpret a vacant plot of land or an apartment available for use?  Does an individual acquire the private right to a piece of property by means of long term occupation?   It is likely that the role of Sharia Islamic law becomes an important element in negating these difficulties, yet as Sharia often has a focus on family and tribal rights, it is difficult to determine if Sharia can provide the appropriate tools to transgress private property disputes.  


Although many of these issues have been explored and expanded upon in depth in cities of Somaliland and Puntland, it is less certain how these problems will be resolved in places such as Mogadishu and Kismayo in the future.   I suppose if the nation were to be united under a Sharia based system, there would be a basic framework to construct new land use laws that are consistent with past systems.  However if a new, secular constitution is in place, that may create a new problem as the importation of techniques abroad might appear too much like an act of colonialism.  

Ultimately it seems that viable land use laws need to build upon the intrinsic, informal systems that have dominated the geography of Somalia for centuries.  Yet as long as border disputes and a weak government prevail, there are limited means to update the antiquated systems to engage a global economy.  In future blog posts I will continue to investigate the the role of Xeer, in particular in relation to Sharia and secular law, as tools for future stabilization and reconstruction efforts.

The Role of Land Use Laws in Architectural Planning and Design for Reconstruction, Refugee, and IDP Camps

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When the earthquake immediately happened in Haiti, I recall having several conversations about the creation of IDP camps and popular criticisms regarding a slow reaction by aid agencies.  Time and again, as natural disasters strike, displaced populations are forced to seek temporary shelter  while various actors struggle to put the pieces beck together.  A key, yet heavily under discussed element of this process, is the role of land use laws and ownership.

Land ownership is a messy situation in impoverished countries, as formal systems of documentation and ownership found in the wealthiest countries simply do not exist, or are incredibly corrupt and complicated.  Economist Hernando de Soto even advocates that much of the world is trapped in poverty primarily because populations lack access to the articles of ownership and leasing of property.  Without deeds, leases, or contacts to facilitate transactions of property, the greatest commodities are the least utilized.   Without these mechanisms, land use and ownership laws vary by culture and economy, such as in Somalia where the traditional Xeer system is founded upon the interests of nomadic pastoralism. In much of Somalia, Xeer works alongside  secular state law and Islamic Sharia law to form a loosely understood system of Somali Common Law.  While it is a challenge for outsiders to penetrate these complex, informal systems, it is often just as difficult for residents to pursue the formal channels of land ownership in their on countries.

Given the range of land use laws that exist in a single site, it is no surprise that humanitarian action can be slow and difficult.  In an emergency, the rights and regulations of land use and ownership are not suspended, but must be integrated in the recovery process.  This of course does great disservice to the most vulnerable populations, who are left seeking safety along public transportation roots and government land.  To complicate matters further in Haiti, many citizens to not hold land ownership but rent or sharecrop land from an often absent landlord via informal agreements that have been in place for several decades or longer.

If informal arrangements dominate the settlement of displaced persons in Haiti, how can designers, architects and planners advance the reconstruction of Port Au Prince and surrounding regions?  Whereas the city organically developed by means of these loose arrangements, can a western system of design and planning facilitate the reconstruction?   Clearly it is possible to introduce new housing and urbanism solutions, but then a new complication will arise, as it demands the finding and rightful compensation to existing land owners.   Of course this process takes time, and under the constraints of a pending crisis time always appears to be the one resource that is never available.

December 1, 2010

Somalia's New Army already has a History

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Today a story was released by the associated Press that a 1,000 man army is in development in Somalia's northern region of Puntland to fight against Piracy.  It is funded by anonymous Muslim nations is operated by the private security organization Saracen International.  This immediately brings to mind two points:

1. Saracen International?  Seriously?  Saracen was a an ancient Roman term used throughout the Crusades in reference to Arab and/or muslim populations.  The name stuck around forever, one can even find it in Mark Twain's Pilgram's Progress as he travelled across the Middle East but it continued to be used in a negative fashion.  Considering it carries negative, perhaps even racist connotations, I'm surprised that a mercenary group would name themselves as such.

2. According to Associated Press, Saracen International is the rebranding of the mercenary/private security organization Executive Outcomes.   If you by chance have read the book Dogs of War, you are aware of the attempts by Simon Mann to seize and control distressed African nations.  After he staged a coup in the Canary Islands, he later used  South-African company Executive Outcomes to sieze territorial control in Angola in the early 90s.  Executive Outcomes, and Mann's other venture Sandline International, faded out of the mercenary business sometime around 2000.  However it looks like they're back in business.

In the meanwhile, unknown donor nations attempt to control the piracy problem on the coast, the primary conflict in Somalia continues to escalate and millions of people continue to search for safety.  In the last 3 years a section of displaced peoples from Mogadishu have been establishing a new settlement known as the Afgooye corridor.  Satelite photos have revealed an astonishing degree of settlement recently as the regional violence continues.   I also embedded additional videos below from UNHCR on the Afgooye Corridor.

Afgooye Cooridor, Ceelasha Somalia, October 2007
Afgooye Cooridor, Ceelasha Somalia, July 2010

UNHCR Video mentioning the Afgooye corridor.