An Al-Shabaab military base in Kismayo, a Somalian city where many Bajuni people live
It's not difficult to empathize with failed asylum seekers. The usual story is as follows: flee your home country and put yourself in the hands of human traffickers, risking your life to travel thousands of miles—only to find your plea for asylum falling on deaf ears. Then, after becoming the unwitting star of a government PR drive to appear tough on immigration, you're either detained indefinitely or put on the next flight back to wherever it is you spent so much time and effort fleeing. Now imagine all that, but with the threat of being deported to a country that you don't even come from.
This miserable chain of events is what's happening to the hundred or so Bajunis currently seeking asylum in the UK. Hailing from islands off the coast of southern Somalia, they spent the majority of their time in their home country fishing, and the rest of it being the victims of tribal persecution and threats from the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab.
Having sought asylum in the UK, the Bajunis are facing possible deportation to Kenya and Tanzania, countries where they have no heritage or current familial links. This is because the British government is refusing to acknowledge the Bajunis' Somali identity, thanks to the results of Language Testing for the Determination of Origin (LADO) tests—a type of "forensic linguistics" designed to assess the validity of nationality claims.
The Bajunis I spoke with told me that these decisions were made on the basis of their interviews with language analysts, and claimed that they had to speak mainland Swahili, rather than their mother tongue of Kibajuni.
Three Bujani refugees (Photo via Bajuni Campaign)
The Unity Center in Glasgow, a charity that has assisted the Bajunis with their asylum claims, alleges that the LADO reports have dismissed official academic guidelines and independent expert findings. They argue that political decisions are being made through the use of evidence from Sprakab, the Swedish company that conducts the reports. The center believes that this is far from a bureaucratic mistake, and instead a way of getting around the legal barriers—under EU human rights law—involved in sending people back to war-torn Somalia. Essentially, it would seem that the British government wants rid of the Bajuni refugees, and, unable to deport them back to their home country, are making selective use of Sprakab analysis in order to send them elsewhere.
According to Jasmin Sallis, one of the centre's organizers, "It is a deliberate tactic. It is no coincidence that the [British government] insists these Somali Bajunis are from countries with no barriers to deportation. Lack of objective knowledge of the Bajuni Islands and differences between individuals from the mainland is a key reason [these] tactics work so well towards this minority group."
When I chased up the British Home Office to ask about Sprakab and its reports, officials refused to comment on individual cases, but did confirm that the company has worked for them since 2000. Sprakab also failed to comment on the questions I asked them.
A Bajuni fishing boat, photo taken on an old camera phone
"It's a huge waste of taxpayer money and resources," said Brian Allen, who is an expert witness in the tribunal courts for Bajuni language testing. Having seen over 400 Sprakab reports, he criticised their methods, saying that obscure and misleading questions are often asked in Kenyan Swahili, rather than Kibajuni.
"You have to bear in mind that the Bajuni are a remote people, and not formally educated," he told me. "They aren't going to answer questions [about] the names of parliamentarians or the names of mainland landmarks." Referring to Sprakab's testing methods, Brian said, "It's unprofessional and intimidatory. Not only do the interviews not speak to the Bajunis in their native tongue, but a lot of the interviews were quite aggressive.
"There's a huge lack of transparency, and complete anonymity for Sprakab analysts, whom the Home Office are keen on supporting," Allen added. "It makes it very difficult to understand how testers come to their conclusions, or the qualifications they have in the first place." Surprisingly, Allen says that, in a rare conversation with one of the company's managers, they told him that their reports shouldn't be used as an authority to make asylum decisions.
And it's not just Allen who has questioned Sprakab's practices; Alison Harvey, the legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioner’s Association, said, "Language analysis cannot tell you a person’s nationality. It is relied upon by those who prefer the comforting certainties of pseudo-science to the responsibility of exercising judgement and weighing the evidence in a particular case."
A Bajuni hut
Regardless of this expert criticism, language analysis remains a vital device in deciding the future of the Bajunis, most of whom are currently on limited support on the condition that they are making preparations to deport themselves. Nineteen-year-old Abdul Rahman, who left the islands after losing his uncle, told me that, despite attempts to prove his Somali origin, the British government still expects him to go to Kenya.
When I asked about the testing, he told me the Sprakab analyst didn't speak Kibajuni to him, but the Kenyan dialect Swahili, while the questions asked were so vague that it proved "[the analyst] knew nothing about Somalia." He added, "They try to trick you into telling them the answers they want to hear."
Like a number of other Bajunis, Abdul receives a very small allowance each week to spend on necessities, putting him in a better situation than the few who refused to accept voluntary deportation and have been left to rely on the help of charities and refugee organizations.
Difficult as life in the UK is for the Bajunis, accepting deportation isn't really an option, considering—as I was told—they are regularly subjected to beatings and lootings by gangs, and in some cases even rapes and murders. Mohammed (a pseudonym), one of the Bajunis I interviewed, left the islands in 2006 after his family "couldn't take it any more," first seeking refuge in Kenya, before eventually coming to the UK.
"They killed most of my family while they slept, and we used to hear rumors that they terrorized other island communities, too," he said. "I wanted to stay in my home for as long as possible, but we didn't have any guns or real weapons. I had no other choice but to leave." He said of his time in Kenya, "Those who went to Kenyan refugee camps were ignored most of the time—given little food and water, too. They didn't like us at all, and would only give orders in Swahili, a language that the refugees had no knowledge of. They had to learn it to survive."
Unfortunately for the Bajunis who made it to the UK, the country has only been a little more hospitable. But in spite of all the difficulties, The Unity Center's Bajuni Campaign remains optimistic. According to Jasmin, "As the campaign has gained an online presence, contact by other Bajunis also facing disputed nationalities in Germany, The Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland has been made. The desirable outcomes are very basic: the right to work, and the right to be recognized as Somalian."
Follow Hussein on Twitter: @HKesvani