Note: An updated and revised version is available at: http://www.migrationresearch.ca/2014/08/resisting-recruitment-into-criminal.html
In a number of countries, criminal gangs have de facto control over vast geographical spaces and the people that live in these territories. They maintain their dominance through oppressive and coercive means. Although many would argue that such gangs and their activities exist outside the law, they in effect control and maintain a harsh legal system of their own. Resistance to the prevailing legal norms advanced and enforced by criminal gangs within such a system results in severe punishment.
One of the norms promulgated by many criminal gangs is that people must submit to “conscription” into their ranks when called upon. Acceptance of such conscription essentially means the eventual incorporation of the conscripted individual into criminal activities and their participation in the oppression of the local populations under the thumb of the criminal gang. This will in turn lead to a number of human rights violations. The efforts to conscript however are not accepted by everyone. Some choose to resist the advances of criminal gangs only to suffer for their refusal to join.
Take for example the case of Somali-born Ismaele Khalif Abdulle recently featured in an article in the Toronto Star. Abdulle refused to be conscripted into a Somali criminal gang that has been designated a terrorist group by Canadian and United States officials. Abdulle and three other young men who refused were mutilated for their disobedience. Their right hands and left feet were amputated in public as a warning to others refusing to conform to this norm of conscription.
Abdulle managed to escape to Nairobi, Kenya and was designated by the UNCHR as a “Mandate Refugee” as he fit the description of a refugee under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (as modified under the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees). He is a person who is outside of his country of nationality and is unwilling or unable to return on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. His refugee status would likely fall within the category of political opinion – which is expressed through his refusal to participate in criminal activity engaged in by a terrorist group that maintains de facto control in the area where Abdulle hails.
Abdulle’s story, amongst others that I am presently examining in my research fits within a larger context of individuals who face a well-founded fear of persecution or have experienced persecution on the basis of their resistance. The UNHCR’s act of granting him refugee status provides (at least implicit) support for the idea that individuals who have been targeted for their acts of resistance to oppression should be recognized as deserving protection. However, he still needs a state willing to grant him protection.
Furthermore Abdulle’s story (amongst others) also demonstrates the possibility of refugees to embody more than just the notion of a victim (and often times strictly one of a passive kind). It allows us to re-imagine refugees as both victims (and possibly one of a more agentive variety) and simultaneously as resisters who confront the oppression surrounding them.
However this more nuanced picture often escapes many people and may deprive worthy individuals of the full measure of sympathy that “pure victims” would otherwise receive. This is perhaps well captured in the title of the Toronto Star article mentioned above – “Somali double amputee recognized by UN as refugee.” There is a stress on the nature of his suffering (his double amputation) paired with his refugee status. Nothing is said of his act of resistance that led to it and his role as a resister (which is not to suggest that he deserved the double amputation or any other punishment for his defiance). One alternative title might read: “Somali resister recognized by UN as refugee.”
Would he gain as much immediate sympathy or openness to his claim for refugee status as he might from the original title? For many, a refugee is simply not a resister, but a victim who has clearly suffered and who has done nothing that might be deemed as “provocation” thus lead to his/ her suffering. However the telling of Abdulle’s and others’ narratives might help to challenge this prevailing idea.
Michelle Shephard, “Somali double amputee recognized by UN as refugee” The Toronto Star (26 November, 2010), online: The Toronto Star, http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/897659–somali-double-amputee-recognized-by-un-as-refugee?bn=1
Cross-Posted at: http://resistanceandthelaw.blogspot.com/2010/11/resisting-recruitment-into-criminal.html