Second class all the way: Pain of Kenyan Somalis on IDs, passports

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By Fuad Abdirahman

Thousands of persons are trapped in their homes in the counties of Garissa, Mandera and Wajir, the reason being that they are unable to obtain national identity cards commonly referred to as kipande. For this reason, many face arbitrary arrests when they fail to produce identity cards on demand by security officers.

Investigations by the Nairobi Law Monthly reveal that acquiring ID cards is either restricted or limited across the three counties. Where, in other part of the country, registration of ID cards is a regular process that is done every working day, in the former North Eastern Province, it usually happens at a specific time of the year and only targets a certain number of persons; it ends abruptly as soon as the targeted number of persons is reached, with the rest having to wait for the next exercise. The interval between one exercise and the next varies, often extending beyond one year.

The consequence of this selective registration is that it has, among other things, denied hundreds of students the chance to join university as crossing to other counties without identification means arrest for “staying in the country illegally”. As well, most universities won’t admit without the vital document. The ID is also important because it is required for functions like opening a bank account, getting passport, seeking employment or getting basic public/government services.

Every day, hundreds of hours are lost in the roads of NEP as police seeks to separate “Kenyans” from “non Kenyans” distinguished only the possession – or lack of – the ID card.

Refugee label

What is more, many youth from three counties are unable to get the document for the reason that their fingerprints have appeared in the refugee database – not because they are refugees but because many families registered as refugees in 1991 because of famine in order to get UNHCR food rations.

Residents are now lamenting that they cannot even register as voters because of this hindrance. Said one resident: “All we wanted was food after suffering during prolonged droughts. For that we had to register as refugees, and now that has come back to haunt us.”

In response, Government launched an exercise to expunge the fingerprints of residents from the refugee database in December last year. However, owing to the large numbers of people who turned up, the deployed officers became overwhelmed and centres were shut down after a few days. And so the residents can only hope and wait.

Another vex for the few who manage to get ID cards is that they get a hard time obtaining passports. Unlike ID cards registration the passport is done online and applicants are asked to physically submit forms after the online applications are received.

‘Your name betrays you’

According to the immigration website, it will take at least 10 working days to get a new passport. But a closer analysis shows that the 10-day period does not apply uniformly. It takes much longer for a significant minority of citizens to receive their passports.

After speaking to number of frustrated applicants, the Nairobi Law Monthly established that there is a lot of selective discrimination for applicants of Somali origin. They are required to part with huge bribes to expedite the process. This is particularly true when the immigration officials realise that applicants have got to travel.

In the course of compiling this story, we spoke to middlemen, popularly known muqalis. This is a group of men who are known to arrange deals between the passport applicants and immigration officials. According to them, the immigration department is where they “earn” their income. They act as conduits between the screening officials and the applicants where allegedly, a third of the bribe goes to pay the officials.

Somali passport applicants often face unprecedented delays in acquiring their documents. Their passports are withheld until and unless they part with a bribe.  The illegal payment may be made directly to the official withholding the passport or through the middlemen. This has created an atmosphere of mistrust between the officials and the Kenyan-Somali applicants. These actions may be motivation for many young people to join criminal outfits out of feelings of disenfranchisement.

Ahmed, a Kenyan from Wajir, narrated the hardships he has undergone since applying for a passport. When he went to present his form as was required, his troubles began. He was instructed to answer all questions in Kiswahili, which he diligently did. He was then repeatedly asked for his date of birth, and patiently repeated his answer for the female clerk at Counter 6. Submission of the forms in counters takes an average of three minutes but his took 20.

When they finished, he asked the lady when it would be ready. To his surprise, he was given a number and asked to “talk” about it later. He would later learn that was the number given to people to be “interviewed” – ostensibly another step in the process.
According to the Immigration Department, it is compulsory for all passport applicants to undergo an interview but further investigations reveal that it is only Muslims, Somalis in particular, who are obligated to undergo the interview.

Ahmed did not call the number he was given but instead contacted the Immigration Department on Twitter, asking if he could collect his passport since it was over 20 days since he submitted his application forms.

He was advised to visit Counter 15, which happens to be the “interview room”. There, he met a woman in her fifties and presented his receipt. Two men then entered the room and interrupted his session with to the lady. They spoke in what appeared to be a coded language, which he couldn’t follow.

Wait and see

Afterwards, he was informed that his file did not reach them. This, he learnt, is a delaying tactic. One of the two men who entered the room offered to help, explaining that if the applicant paid a “fee”, he would book an interview for him. Ahmed promptly walked out.
A month later, his file is yet to be located and since he is not willing to part with a bribe, he has found almost impossible to get assistance.

For now, he has resolved, he will wait.

In another incident Samad Jamal, a Mandera resident, was stunned after a photographer in the immigration office started questioning why he needed a passport, to which he responded that these questions has been asked by person at the counter. The photographer responded by becoming hostile, and asking him to leave or he would call security on him. He had to “make peace” to avoid the risk of having his application rejected.

When the Nairobi Law Monthly sought comments from the Immigration office at Nyayo House, the officials we spoke to were friendly until they realised what direction our questions were taking, at which point she told us she was not authorised to speak on behalf of the Department. Numerous calls to Director of Immigration Major (Rtd) Gordon Kihalangwa’s office, were met with stonewalling and, later, curt responses that the matter “was under review” and that a comprehensive statement would be issued soon.

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