Somali boat people seek refugee status
PANAMA. Eleven Somalis who landed in Chiman last week, and have been held by the National Immigration Directive have applied for refuge...
PANAMA. Eleven Somalis who landed in Chiman last week, and have been held by the National Immigration Directive have applied for refugee status.
The group consists of eight men, two teenagers, and one woman.
Mohamed Osman, a 34-year old spokesman for the group and the only English speaker told La Estrella that their country has been forgotten by the world. “It is true we receive help, but we feel that the world does not care about what happens in Somalia. They worry about Palestine more.”
The horn of Africa, and even some sectors of the Arabian peninsula, are swamped with Somali refugees, with close to 300,000 Somali refugees only in neighboring Kenya.
Constant infighting in the country, often backed by foreign powers such as the US and the Soviet Union in the 1977 Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia, has left many deaths, as well as many AK-47s, in the country.
Today, says Osman, the infamous rifles are sold for $60-80 in Mogadishu, some of which have ended in the hands of the pirates, who according to Osman are “thieves who pretend to be the country’s coast guard but everyone knows are well organized and receive money from abroad.”
As a teenager, Osman saw a mortar bomb enter through the roof of his house, killing his father and injuring him and his brother. After the attack, as the eldest son, Osman became the head of the family and the main bread-winner.
Life for Osman was supposed to take an 180 degree turn when he met “coyotes” who offered to take him to the United Kingdom for $1,500, practically a fortune in Somalia.
“It was very tempting,” he said, “in Somalia, right now, there are two options, either you join the conflict or you leave the country. Plus, in London I could find a job and, eventually, bring my mother and my brothers.”
“We left by mid-February or the beginning of March,” he said, meeting the 10 other passengers once he was onboard.
“We were put inside poorly-lit small room? and a meal was given to us once a day through a small opening.”
The 11 Somalis remained in that state for three months. “It was the worst thing in my life,” he said, “nothing I’ve experienced in Somalia compares to it. If I could go back in time I would have never taken that ship.”
On Wednesday May 27, the Somalis were released by the crew. “We’re here. We are in the United Kingdom”, they were told. Once on deck, all they could see was “water all around them.”
The coyotes forced them to get into a small boat to be taken to coast, hitting them with big canes. They were in the small boat for almost two hours, and as they neared the coast, the coyotes said: “get out, walk, and when you find people tell them you are refugees.”
They stayed without food or water, and were attacked by insects, until Friday morning, when after seeing smoke from an area nearby, they found the police station in Chiman and asked for help.
The men were taken to the Immigration Office, in Curundu and the woman to a shelter in Avenida Cuba. The two teenagers are in the care of the Social Development Ministry.
Immigration officers are investigating their case, which is part of a wave of immigrants that end up in the country, including 14 Bangladeshis recently detained, suggesting Panama might have become a new route for human trafficking according to officials.
The Somalis, want to stay here. They see a grim future for Somalia and don’t want to return.
As Osman puts it: “I see my country in a civil war for 100 more years. There is too much hate on the streets. However, Allah is great, and can do anything.”
The Somalis have requested refugee status to the National Organization for the Care of Refugees.
”Isn’t this a democracy, a free country? Then why don’t we have liberty,” the Somali men wonder. “We are treated well here. We have a roof and food, but until today we haven’t seen sunlight,” they said.
“We are men, we want to work, we want liberty. We left our country looking for it and here we are, locked up.”