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UNHCR calls for broad protection of Somalis, highlights religious and gender violence

May 22, 2010

UNHCR’s latest guidelines call for a broad application of refugee protection to Somali asylum-seekers, listing multiple groups likely to have valid refugee claims in southern and central Somalia in particular, including nearly all but the most powerful members of society:

  • Individuals perceived as supporting the TFG, AMISOM or the ENDF
  • Individuals perceived as contravening Islamic laws or decrees
  • Civil society actors (human rights defenders and humanitarian workers) and journalists
  • Members of minority clans
  • Members of minority religious groups
  • Individuals belonging to a clan engaged in a blood feud
  • Individuals forcibly recruited to militias
  • Women and Girls
  • Children
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals
  • Victims of trafficking

UNHCR is subject to criticism by refugee rights advocates for its refugee status determination procedures. But UNHCR’s substantive interpretations of refugee law are generally more inclusive than the approaches of many governments, especially on issues related to non-state persecution and gender. UNHCR guidelines are non-binding on states, but should be in force in all UNHCR offices.

Among other issues, UNHCR concluded that Somalis could face a genuine fear of persecution if Islamist militias believe they have violated extreme interpretations of Islamic law. In Somalia, the al-Shabaab militia has at various points banned music, playing soccer and other games, school bells, cinemas, and dancing, as well as mandating the veiling of women and observance of prayer times.

According to UNHCR, some “married women whose husbands or fathers were unable to pay for the hijab were forcibly divorced and re-married to members of al-Shabaab.” UNHCR noted that private violence against women is widespread in Somalia, including “early and forced marriage, domestic violence and female genital mutilation.”

UNHCR considers that many Somali women … from southern and central Somalia are at risk on account of their membership of a particular social group.

UNHCR advised against returning asylum-seekers to Puntland or Somaliland unless they actually originate from those regions. On May 21 UNHCR’s spokesman called for governments to refrain from deportations to Somalia generally.

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