Discussion on travel documents from Somalia with Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada

On October 18 2017, the IRB’s Research Directorate invited the Manager of Strategic Planning and Delivery from the Immigration, Refugees and Canadian Citizenship Canada to provide more insight into travel documents for Somalis. The Research Directorate regularly seeks expert opinion and research on countries of origin and other related issues that might impact a decision. The following is a full transcript of that discussion.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada facilitates the arrival of immigrants, provides protection to refugees, and offers programming to help newcomers settle in Canada. It also grants citizenship, and issues travel documents (such as passports) to Canadians.

Just as a brief introduction, I am a Manager in the Strategic Planning and Delivery Section of the International Network of IRCC. I am responsible for dealing with our missions with regard to risk and admissibility. So Somalia is a country that I have some interest in. My recent posting abroad was as Program Manager at the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria where we actually had a reasonably large Somalian movement and clientele.

I have been asked to talk about Canadian travel documents for Somalis. It is a slightly complex area. As you may or may not know, we have a number of offices abroad. I think the current number is 57, most of which are responsible for countries within their territory for issuing documents whether those are temporary resident visas or permanent resident visas or any other type of document.

For Somalia, the country of responsibility or the post of responsibility is Nairobi.  So if people are living in Somalia, then normally their applications would be sent to the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi. The way we do it now, we also have electronic applications so they are submitted online and again they would normally be triaged and sent back to the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi. If the person has residence or is resident in another country, it is possible that their application could be dealt with by one of our other posts.

So that being said, I think most of our Somali applicants are dealt with by the High Commission in Nairobi. And they also have a large refugee movement of Somalis who are currently in Kenya, so they are used to dealing with this clientele.

Somalia presents a problem for us especially for the process of temporary resident visas because the Somali passport has been designated as a document that is not acceptable for travel to Canada. This means that we do not accept the validity of the Somali passport. So in theory, there should be no temporary resident visas ever fixed to a Somali passport, ever, by any of our missions. So if you don’t see temporary resident visas in the passports, it is because we don’t put them there.

Very clear in that we are in the company of a number of other countries, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, a number of countries, most countries in the EU, but not Italy. So it is not as consistent as we might like it, but certainly Canada is not the only country not to recognize the Somali passport.

While I was not involved in the decision to designate the Somali document which has been designated now for well over 10 years, it’s probably close to the 20 years, my understanding is that it was based on the lack of confidence in the central issuing authority. At the time Somalia was in its current state of apprehended insurrection, passport blanks were freely circulating in a number of places and it was not clear who controlled the issuance of passports, and even now it is not clear on what basis passports are issued. So that is why we do not issue Canadian visas or fixed Canadian visas to any Somali passport.

That then brings the question: how would a Somali get a visa to come to Canada and we do have ways around this. If we are convinced the person is coming to Canada for temporary purposes, we can issue a visa on something called “a single journey travel document”. The single journey travel document is a piece of paper and on to that paper the visa counterfoil is affixed as well as a photograph of the individual and that document is good for travel to Canada and for entry as a visitor. Those documents are not particularly common, but they do exist and we will see them. They may also be issued to people who are Canadian residents who happen to be stuck outside Canada and don’t have a travel document to return.

So those are what we normally issue to Somalis. Obviously, there is also a large Somali diaspora in many other countries, and if they are in a place like Sweden or Denmark they would normally be travelling on refugee travel documents or certificates of identity issued by those countries. Those documents of course we can affix to TRVs into and we do.

Now with Somalia, the other situation is biometrics and this also complicates matters again. Biometrics are required from a certain number of countries, I think it’s around 30, and for us to consider an application it must have biometrics which are fingerprints of both hands taken. The fingerprints are normally submitted at one of our Visa Application Centres. There are Visa Application Centres in I don’t know, 150 odd places around the world. There is not one in Somalia; the nearest one being in Kenya where there is a Visa Application Centre in Nairobi.

So the person would have to go and submit their biometrics before we could issue a visa. Those biometrics are checked against the Canadian central database, so against previous immigration records, but also against the police systems. The return time for a biometric check is relatively quick. It is usually within minutes, but the standard processing time I believe is 72 hours in case there has to be manual intervention. But normally if the prints are clear and there is nothing in the system, we get a response back in a very short period of time. So in a place like Nairobi, someone would have to come in, submit their application, then come and get their fingerprints taken and then wait for us to make a decision before we decide to put a visa in a single journey travel document.

Q. And how much time can it take?

A. Our service standard is currently for temporary resident visas are supposed to be 14 days, but I can tell you that right now are only three of 57 missions that are within the 14 days, all the rest are longer and some are significantly longer. So I believe Lagos is something like 98 days or something; so very long periods of processing time.

This is a complicated case because it’s a single journey travel document. It would generally take longer rather than shorter. So 14 days is not possible, it will be longer than that. In addition, we do require to do a security check on Somalia, most Somali citizens. Those checks are done through the Canada Border Services Agency and our partners at CSIS. They can take anything from 14 days to longer. If there is an emergency, we can ask those to be hurried up so that is possible as well. So broadly speaking, that is how we issue visas and Somali documents so you will not see these in Somali documents. They will be on a piece of paper and yeah, that is how we do it.

Q. So if I may?

A. Absolutely.

Q. A person who wants to have this type of document most likely will have to go in and out of Kenya?

A. Correct or somewhere else.

Q. So how can we get in touch with them?

A. Normally we would be in touch with them by email.

Q. By email?

A. Yeah. Our system does things by email and that is what we found the most effective way of contacting people. It is not fool proof, but it is certainly the best way that we have and it works in most places.

Q.  And I presume the permit might differ in terms of time, six months or what?

A. Yeah. Normally we would issue a temporary resident visa. A temporary resident visa would be valid in this case for a single entry for a stay in Canada for up to six months. However, we can issue a multiple entry for a period of time of up to three years. But with the single journey document, probably it would be better to get a single each time.

Q. The people who are in camps like for example in Dabad, is it possible that they can go and ask, or apply?

A. Anyone can ask for a visa When we make a decision on the visa, we have to determine if the person is going to go to Canada and then leave Canada at the end of their authorized stay and have the ability to re-enter their country. So if someone has limited status in a country like Kenya, chances are we would not consider them if they would not be able to go back to Kenya. We would need to have some guarantee that they could go back before we would consider the issuance of a document.

Q. What identity documents are they giving you to obtain TRVs?

A.  Documents in Somalia are generally questionable, so it is very difficult for us to say what documents we accept. As a general rule, we in immigration  like old documents. The older a document is the happier we are about it because that means the story has been consistent over a long period of time. But identity documents, very difficult. They are probably going to present their Somali passport; we will look at that. We will look at other situations. We will look at letters or any affidavits that someone might  have, but it is very difficult for us because documentation is so poor.

Q. Do you have a team or a group as to the fraudulent documents?

A. All of us are responsible for fraudulent documents and we have officers who are specifically tasked with that job, yes, and so you would look at a document. In my experience having dealt with Somali refugees in Pretoria  going to Canada in the refugee program, we did not give any weight to any  documents. We interviewed the person, we compared our interview with that of the UNHCR and looked for consistency over time. Because if I  asked for a document, it would surely be produced but I would get  documents in English and no, there is no way a document is going to come  in English. So it was not worth much.

But documents are often issued if they are resident in a second country as a  refugee claimant. For example, there may be documents in Kenya or South Africa that are issued. For example, we saw birth certificates issued in  South Africa to children born in South Africa; that we had seen. Ultimately, the UNHCR would have documents because they had dealt with someone over a period of time and again if there are changes to family configuration, that would be reflected on the RRF.

Q. In terms of the age group of the people who are asking or are claiming or that eventually are accepted to receive those documents, do you have information about that?

A. I don’t. I would say that it’s going to be an uphill battle for someone to convince us to issue a TRV from Somalia.So they would have to give us a very good reason as to why they would want to go back home before we would issue a TRV. We had issued the TRV in a single journey documents for Somalia officials coming to visit Canada for various things. They have a good reason to go home, but having not served in Nairobi, I can’t tell you what other kinds of TRVs are issued but I would suspect very few.

Q. You do not accept the Somali passport, you didn’t mention the United States. Do you know if they accept it?

A. I do not believe that they accept Somali passport either. I am only 90 % sure on that, but I know that the Italians do and they were the odd one out.

Q. Have you seen the new national identity cards?

A. I have not. The Somali applicants that I dealt with had mostly been out of Somalia for quite some time. I do not know the basis on which that document is issued.

Q. There are new biometric documents produced by Somalia now, example the Somali passport, I presume there may be doing other more secured documents, can you comment on this topic?

A. The question would be “what is the process that meets to the issuance of a good document?” Our concern would be that we would not know how they are issued or on what basis. Normally for this kind of thing, CBSA would do a site visit and try to find out from the passport issuing authority under what circumstances they issue documents.

Q. Even the biometrics?

A. Yes because the biometric, if it issued it to anybody, if there is no  rules or there is no supporting documents it’s a beautiful genuine document, but is the identity correct? We don’t know.

Q. Does CBSA go and visit sites in Somalia to know?

A. No. But they do when other countries issue new documents. We try to get in, to see. Not all countries will let us in to their passport issuing authorities, but CBSA does try to go and visit those. And certainly when we are looking at the visa lifts, we need to be happy that the documents are issued in a proper way.

Q. Sir, is there a way to tell which documents are like forged or made up or something like that?

A. No, not easily. And I don’t have it with me because I left it in South Africa, but I had a Somali passport.

Q. As a Somali diplomat?

A. No. I did have just a regular Somali passport.

We had a visit from the Minister of Immigration about 20 years ago in Nairobi and one of the drivers went down to the market to see if he could buy a Somali passport and for 100 bucks, and he got a boxful. So everybody got one. So you know at that point we are saying, is this document worth anything? That’s the old document and it is not like the new one and I am slightly facetious, but the problem is not the quality of a document iself, it’s the quality of the process that leads to the document.

Q. So what is the criteria to determine the spontaneity of TRV applicant?

A. It would depend. Everything is relative to each case and is looked at individually. What we have to balance when we make a TRV decision is the reason to go to Canada versus the motivation to return home. And the motivation to return to Somalia is not high for most people because most people, and if it were for any of us, we know where we would want not to be.

So you have to look at the reason to go back. It would depend. We would look at where they are flying from, in Somalia, depending on the military and other situations. So if it is a more stable area, we are more likely to issue a visa. We look at their personal situation, their job, their financial situation in Somalia, of their connections to the country and that is what we do for all TRVs, and balance that.

Documentation is an issue. If someone has a business in Somalia, but businesses do have web presences; so it is one way to look. A lot of stuff we have seen in the telecommunications business, they have some proof, but it is not usually documents from Somalia. But those are documents that they present, because they think we find them more credible and they are right.

Q. One important element in Somali refugee claims is that some say that I am part of such or such clan. And I have more problems because I am from a minority clan.

A. Clan, yes. Well, is it a topic which is addressed during your with the person. For a TRV, no; for refugee status in Canada, yes.

So if you are processing a refugee application, you are going to ask what clan, what sub-clan they are, where they are geographically and try to put that information in the context. Ah yes, there is a lot of this clan in this area or no there aren’t very many. So yes, we look at that in the context of refugee applications, but not in a TRV.

Q. Would you be able to tell about any statistics in terms of the number of TRV applications?

A. I don’t have that.

Q. Between our embassies let’s say Addis Ababa or Johannesburg

A. Pretoria.

Q. I presume you exchanged some information on the practices, and the new tricks of the smugglers, can you talk a bit about that?

A. We do but again, we are not going to see that many TRV applications. In South Africa, I was there for five years, we had a substantial Somali population. I think I saw three applications for TRVs in five years, and my CBSA officer saw dozens of Somalis travelling from South Africa to Brazil and South America presumably to make their way north. But people applying for TRVs, almost none because they knew that their chances were not good. When I was in Europe, we used to see Somali applications frequently but these would be people with resident status in one of the European countries.

Q. My question would be from your experience with South Africa, as most of the claimants we see here they have come from South Africa. They seems to come through Brazil and South America, Central America, Mexico, then the U.S.

A. Yes.

Q. You said no one has actually shown on its refugee documents from South Africa?

A. That’s because they don’t want to.

Q. If a person lived and was registered in South Africa as a refugee, would the South African authorities have those references?

A. Yes, the South African authorities would have the records somewhere. Whether they would be able to find them to share them with us is an open question. Sometimes we got that information, often we did not. Everyone who has been in South Africa and has applied gets a document from the South African Government.

So in South Africa, when you apply for asylum, the first thing they do is they give you a temporary permit to allow you to stay in the country and that’s valid until they look at your application. So everybody should have one of those or a copy of that, and if they don’t then they are not telling you the truth. Then they will either gain status or not. If they gain status, again they will get a document from the South African Government granting them effectively status for a period of time, usually three years, that is renewable more or less infinitely or they will be given a refusal and then they can appeal that refusal. And all of those things are documented. The South Africans provide papers. My Somali “clients” in South Africa would have the documents usually laminated with them at all times.

Q. Do they have biometrics in South Africa for the refugee claimants?

A. Not yet. They were hoping to do so when I was there. But I am not sure how far that has progressed. I have been gone a year, it could have changed. Again, whether they would exchange that information with us pursuant to their Privacy Laws, I do not know, probably not.

Q. My other question is: do you know if the refugee claimants in South Africa are also registered with the UNHCR?

A. Most of them do not, but they can. Most of them apply directly to the South African Government.

Q. In South Africa you said they can be renewed indefinitely as they gain status. Do you know what the process is to renew or is it discretionary?

A. If you have been granted refugee status in South Africa, they will continue to renew three years, three years each time, unless there has been a significant change in the home country. So when I was there, the only groups that they were not renewing were Angolans. Sorry, Angolans? Yes, Angolans, who had been in the country for 15 or 20 years.

It is also possible in South Africa to apply for permanent residence on the basis of having been a refugee. So if you have refugee status in South Africa, you can apply for permanent residence. It is a difficult process, but it does exist and so we do see some people who gain South African permanent residence and then once they have permanent residence, of course citizenship is possible as well.

Q. Is there any way would IRCC know or be able to find out if somebody has earned a residence in South Africa?

A. I don’t believe the South Africans will tell us in a way that we can release. That would require us to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding, either with the CBSA and the South African Government or IRCC, and we have not done that.

Q. To deliver documents to Somalians, I presume they must show proof that they have money, a sort of bank account, that they have money or that they may have property. So how do you deal with that? Can we trust this?

A. Property, we would almost never accept as proof because property is property. You can be out of the country and still own property, so having property, in and of itself, is not a draw to return. Finances, we would look, and we would probably look more at indirect measures of financial ability rather than direct. Where else have they travelled? If they travelled a lot, that probably means they got a bit of money. If they never travelled before, it probably means they don’t have any money.

So again, the quality of documents inside the country is bad. If they had money outside the country, that would be looked at separately and we would probably weigh that more heavily.

Q. Are the autonomous regions of Somaliland plan issuing passports?

A. Not to my knowledge. I think they issue Somali passports.

Q. So, would passports from Somaliland be considered?

A. No, again, we wouldn’t consider those acceptable because there is no recognized country. So again, we are forced back to the single journey travel document.

Q. The people who are asking to come to Canada, do you know if they mostly come from Somaliland which is a more secure or richer area?

A. I don’t know. It’s probably not something that is recorded in our processing system.  My gut reaction is that Somaliland being more stable, it would be more likely to issue a TRV to someone living there than someone living in Baidoa.

Q. About smugglers who are working in / from South Africa, could you comment on that at all?

A. There is a reasonably sophisticated smuggling network that moves people from South Africa through South America up to North America. There are people who operate in South Africa. South Africa is quite a corrupt place, so there are people who are corrupted at the airport which allow these people to leave without having their documents stamped by the South African exit authorities, and then they move on from there. South African border is also very porous.

So when I was in South Africa interviewing refugee claimants, it wasn’t unusual for them - it wasn’t unheard of for people - to have gone back to Somalia, and then back to South Africa more than once, the travelling back and forth between the countries, so yes.  The other thing is the South Africans aren’t too worried about the smuggling network because it is taking people out of the country. So out they don’t care; in they are worried.

Q. And do you have more details about documents used to travel to the West?

A. I don’t. I think it would depend on the circumstances, but I don’t know the documents that they are using. They often in that instance would have a Somali passport with the visa issued by a country like Paraguay or Bolivia and so they are travelling to Asuncion.

Q. Okay. Would those visas be genuine?

A. Yes, but probably improperly issued, probably issued for a fee.

Q. --- THIS IS IN FRENCH --- Le problème de documents, étant donné qu’il y a un pays à côté qui est le Djibouti, est-ce que c’est le même problème? Ils ne sont pas affectés par le problème de la Somalie?

--- THIS IS IN FRENCH --- R. Comme pays, c’est beaucoup plus sécure, et là c’est une ancienne colonie française où il y avait une documentation qui est assez bonne. Par contre, on sait bien qu’il y a toute sorte de gens du Djibouti qui clament être des citoyens de la Somalie au lieu d’être Djiboutiens. C’est quelque chose qu’on a entendu dire depuis des années.

A. So the question was whether Djibouti was more stable.  The answer is I think that Djibouti is a more stable country, a former French colony, much better documented because the French were very good at documenting things. However, anecdotally we are aware of people from Djibouti who have come to Canada claiming to be from Somalia and that is very difficult to prove one way or another because they are ethnically close to Somalis, different clans up there but it is still Somalis.

Q. Do you know if IRCC or CBSA have any assistance with verifications from Scandanavian countries?

A. The Scandanavian countries are generally more amenable to giving that information to us. The Dutch, for example, will not.  The Danes, the Swedes and the Norwegians are better and all three countries have very substantial Somali diaspora.

Q. As the time flies a lot, extremely interesting, so thank you very much.