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Somalia: ONLF Member Transferred to Ethiopia Was Terrorist, Regional Threat

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The government of Somalia is defending a controversial decision to hand over a prominent Ogaden rebel leader to authorities in Ethiopia.

The transfer of Abdikarin Sheikh Muse, a top member of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), has sparked a social media uproar and protests against the government by nationalist politicians. Small demonstrations took place in Mogadishu on Monday and at Kenya’s Dadaab camp for Somali refugees on Tuesday.

Muse, who is in his sixties, was detained by security forces August 23 in the Somali city of Galkayo. His supporters say he is a dual Somali-Ethiopian citizen who fought in Somalia’s 1977 war against Ethiopia.

Following a cabinet meeting Wednesday in Mogadishu, the government described the transfer as “a legal step taken to remove a security threat.”

Speaking to reporters in Mogadishu, Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman said Somalia and Ethiopia reached an agreement in 2015 that designates both the ONLF and Somalia-based al-Shabab as terror groups.
“The agreement recognizes the armed groups … to be a threat to the security and stability of both nations and, therefore, both countries should collaborate in the fight against them,” Osman said.

“This individual was an ONLF member who was involved in activities destabilizing the security of both nations and had a close relationship with al-Shabab,” he said.

Osman declined to take questions from the journalists.

The previously-unknown agreement was signed for Somalia by the former head of the Galmudug region, a former Somali communications minister and the former minister of state for presidential affairs, the statement said.

Two of the men mentioned in the statement spoke to VOA’s Somali Service and said there was no federal-level agreement on handing over ONLF members.

“It was a very strange and mistaken decision committed by the Somali government when they handed over a Somali citizen to Ethiopia, and now they did another mistake,” said Abdulkarim Guuleed, the former governor of Galmudug. “That agreement cannot be used as a justification for the handing over of Muse to Ethiopia because it had nothing to do with ONLF or exchange of criminals or prisoners.”

Guuleed acknowledged he signed a security agreement between his region and the Somali region of Ethiopia.

“Ethiopian officials mentioned ONLF during our meetings, but I do not know any agreement that we signed concerning ONLF and I was not representing the federal government of Somalia,” he said.

Mahad Salad, Somalia’s former minister of state for presidential affairs, also denied the existence of a federal-level agreement.

“We were representing people in the region and went to Ethiopia in search of a solution for a regional conflict. The agreement was collaborating on security in general and pacifying the local people, but ONLF was not in the eight-article agreement we signed,” Salad said. Like Guuleed, he said he was not a government representative.

Handing over prisoners

In July, more than 100 Somalis released from Ethiopian detention facilities and handed over to the Somali government arrived in Mogadishu.

Ethiopia is planning the release of more Somali prisoners in an effort to improve relations between the Horn of Africa neighbors.

The Ogaden regional conflict goes back to 1963, when ethnic Somali guerrillas started an insurgency after Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie rejected their demand for self-government.

Somalia invaded the Ogaden in 1977 in an effort to annex the region, but Ethiopian troops drove them out with the help of Cuban soldiers and Soviet arms.

In 2007, the ONLF attacked a Chinese-owned exploration facility, killing 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers. That attack prompted the Addis Ababa government to intensify its anti-insurgency campaign in the region.

The Ethiopian government considers the ONLF a terrorist organization, but the United States and United Nations do not.

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Bangkok’s Somali refugees persecuted and living in fear

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Bangkok, Thailand – “I’ve never experienced cold like this,” says RK, a 19-year-old Somali refugee, as he sits in a downtown Bangkok alley one December morning.

It is 20 degrees, and opposite is the Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center, an office building concealing thousands of undocumented migrants.

It is a stone’s throw from Bangkok’s gregarious tourist district, and RK’s wife and nine-month-old daughter are being held inside.

“They kicked my door down and took my family when I was away,” RK says, referring to an immigration raid at his home three months earlier, as part of a crackdown on undocumented migrants.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told Al Jazeera that Bangkok is home to a growing community of approximately 4,500 refugees and 2,000 asylum-seekers from more than 50 countries.

Regarded as “illegal aliens” under Thai law, RK’s wife and daughter face a period of indefinite detention. They will only be released by relocation to a third country, a lengthy process.

An undocumented migrant and former detainee himself, RK relies upon volunteers to relay messages of hope on his behalf.

An exact breakdown of the origins of refugee communities in Thailand is not available.

But compared with Europe, Thailand is in seen as being in easier reach and more hospitable among Pakistani, Somali, Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian migrants and refugees – all of whom flock to the Asian country.

These were among the considerations that drew RK to the city. Three years earlier, when he was 16 years old, he fled Mogadishu, the Somali capital, after his father was killed in an al-Shabab car bomb attack.

Fearing for his life, RK’s family paid smugglers $2,000 to escort him on a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the few countries where Somali citizens do not require visas.

From there, he was transported 1,500km in the back of a truck on a three-day journey up the Malay Peninsula to Bangkok – home to UNHCR’s Regional Office for Southeast Asia, and a city from where he could apply for asylum.

“They told me it would be safe to live and work here until I got accepted into another country,” says RK, talking of his smugglers.

But misinformation and false hope are the currencies that sustain the smuggling industry, with the reality on the ground remaining far bleaker.

Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and Thailand’s Immigration Act does not distinguish between refugees, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

Consequently, all undocumented migrants remain at the mercy of immigration officials who regularly arrest and incarcerate anyone unable to produce valid visas.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this approach is central to the Thai government’s immigration policy informed by the magnet effect; a belief that making conditions as inhospitable as possible for refugees and asylum seekers will deter future arrivals.

As a result, they face crippling government-imposed restrictions on access to healthcare and education. Most debilitating is the inability to earn money legally.

UNHCR in Bangkok told Al Jazeera that due to financial shortfalls, the agency uses panels to assess the needs of refugees and “target assistance on the most vulnerable”.

Most are employed illegally and exploited.

“I received 1,500 thai baht ($47) for working 60 hours a week in a kitchen,” RK explains. “But my boss even took this away after three months because he was scared of getting caught.”

With the threat of arrest and detention constantly looming, avoiding unwanted attention from authorities is the foremost daily consideration.

With the vast majority of migrants confined to poorer Thai communities on the city’s outskirts, keeping a low profile is a must. Most spend long days confined to crowded and squalid apartments.

“Immigration [officials] bang on the doors almost every week shouting ‘Somalis come out!’. Sometimes they come inside and take people,” says 18-year-old Abdirahim, a member of a minority clan threatened with violence in his home city of Mogadishu. He arrived in Bangkok alone at the age 15.

He shares a single-room apartment with four other Somali men, none of whom are older than 20 and all are also members of minority clans in Somalia at risk of violence. The men estimate that there are seven other apartments in the building housing people of African and Middle Eastern origin living in similar circumstances.

This consigns them to a life subsisting on irregular handouts from increasingly stretched refugee support networks

Despite having had their claims of asylum verified through extensive interviews and background checks as part of UNCHR’s Refugee Status Determination – with all carrying identity cards stating as much – Abdirahim and his roommates remain too frightened to leave their home unless absolutely essential.

“I’m scared to go out or I will be arrested and locked up again … I’m powerless to do anything to help myself so I just sleep,” he says.

Life inside immigration prisons offers a different kind of misery.

With access heavily restricted, accounts of abysmal conditions are known only from the testimonies of former detainees released on a now-defunct bail system that was operated at the discretion of immigration officials until mid-2016.

“I was in a cell with 120 men, only three times as big as this room,” Abdirahim explains, gesturing to his cramped apartment of 350 square feet. “Food was rice and soup twice a day. I would sleep on the concrete floor and only saw the sun every three days.”

Despite several attempts, representatives of the Thai Immigration Bureau for comment did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Immigration detention of refugee and asylum-seeking children in Thailand violates the rights of children under international law.

Although he was a minor, Abdirahim spent two years in these conditions between the ages of 15 and 17 before being bailed out by a refugee support charity.

This practice of indefinitely detaining children among adults concerns rights groups. HRW says it violates Thailand’s obligations under international law and puts children at risk of sexual and physical abuse..

When Al Jazeera visited a detention centre, this reporter witnessed at least five children aged up to 10.

The Thai government has publicly affirmed its commitment to ending some immigration practices. In September 2016, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha pledged to end the detention of refugee children during a speech at the US-hosted Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis.

But UNHCR said it was unable to access figures for the exact number of minors in immigration prisons in Thailand and was unaware of a definitive end date for this practice.

In practice, the future for Bangkok’s refugees and asylum seekers remains precarious.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, told Al Jazeera that the Thai government has “dragged its feet for decades” on the issue of immigration reforms.

Some officials simply believe that “migrants and refugees do not deserve any better”, he said.

With returning home tantamount to a death sentence for most, receiving asylum in a third country remains perhaps the best hope.

“I wish I never came here,” says Abdirahim, standing on his balcony overlooking a bustling Bangkok street below. “I will go anywhere now. Anywhere where I will be safe and can start living my life.”

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Somali News

Fighting Alshabaab Somali government enlists help from paramilitary group

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Somalia has secured a landmark agreement with a para-military group several thousand fighters strong. It opens a new chapter in the fight against al-Shabaab. The Sunni sect is the first Somali group to go it alone against al-Shabaab — and win. CGTN’s Abdulaziz Billow reports from the central Somali town of Dhusamareeb.

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Briefing Room

UPDATE: Somali authorities say troops rescue 32 children from “terrorist school”

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MOGADISHU, Jan 19 (Reuters) – Somali authorities said troops stormed a school run by al Shabaab on Thursday night and rescued 32 children who had been taken as recruits by the Islamist militant group.

“The 32 children are safe and the government is looking after them. It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government, told Reuters on Friday.

“It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror.”

Al Shabaab said government forces, accompanied by drones, had attacked the school in Middle Shabelle region. It said four children and a teacher were killed.

The Somali government said no children were killed in the rescue.

“They kidnapped the rest of the students,” said Abdiasis Abu Musab, al Shabaab’s military spokesman.

“Human Rights Watch is responsible for the deaths of the students and their teacher because it pointed fingers at them,” he added.

In a report this week, the New York-based rights group said that since September 2017, al Shabaab had ordered village elders, teachers in Islamic religious schools, and rural communities to hand over hundreds of children as young as eight.

The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out an air strike on Thursday against al Shabaab targets 50 km (30 miles) northwest of Somalia’s port city of Kismayo, killing four militants. U.S. forces regularly launch such aerial assaults.

The al Shabaab militia, linked to al Qaeda, is fighting to topple the U.N.-backed Somali government and establish its own rule based on a strict interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.

Somalia has been plagued by conflict since the early 1990s, when clan-based warlords overthrew authoritarian ruler Mohamed Siad Barre then turned on each other.

In recent years, regional administrations headed by the Mogadishu-based federal government have emerged, and African Union peacekeepers supporting Somali troops have gradually clawed back territory from the Islamist insurgents.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh; Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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