A 22-year-old Somali woman who says she was forced to flee her home country after being threatened by the al-Shabaab militant group for refusing to wear a burqa, has taken the Home Affairs minister and refugee officials to the Western Cape High Court in a bid to secure refugee status and asylum.
The woman, Naemo Gaal, says that if she is deported to Somalia, there is a risk that she would be persecuted.
She said the refugee status determination officer who dealt with her claim was not provided with the proper reasons she had for fleeing.
In an affidavit before the court, Gaal said her brother was killed in Somalia towards the end of 2009, following threats from al-Shabaab after he refused to join the group.
Shortly after his death, al-Shabaab distributed notices warning all women to wear veils at all times.
According to Gaal, she was not opposed to wearing the customary dark-coloured, lightweight veil suited to the hot climate in Somalia.
However, she refused to wear the one al-Shabaab had prescribed, saying it was heavy and very long.
“It was in effect a burka. Also, one could not wear a skirt under the veil, but had to wear a long dress with long sleeves,” she said.
Gaal added that the notices the group had issued warned that women who did not comply would be publicly beaten.
“My mother received a personal visit at home by members of al-Shabaab, who warned her that if I did not obey the order and wear my veil at all times, members of al-Shabaab would kill me. My mother was prepared to wear the burqa, but I was not prepared to do so. Mother was very scared for me,” she added.
Given the threats her brother had received before his death, she feared for her life and decided to flee to SA. She arrived in Cape Town in mid-2010.
Within a week of her arrival, she went to the Maitland Refugee Reception Centre where she applied for asylum, initially obtaining an asylum seeker permit.
However, her woes started in May last year when she applied to have it renewed.
According to Gaal, the official rejected her application on the basis that it was “manifestly unfounded”, and based on grounds other than those set out in the Refugee Act.
However, according to Gaal, she was not given a fair opportunity to explain why she had left Somalia, and her reasons for fleeing were not properly translated by the interpreter.
She said she told the official she had come to SA to find peace, and not that she was looking for “greener pastures” or was in search of a husband.
In addition, she added that the issue was compounded by procedural errors made along the way, which she attributed to “inconsistencies in the documentation issued by the Department of Home Affairs”.
Eventually, after turning to the UCT Law Clinic Refugee Rights Project for assistance, she went to the High Court.
“There is no question of my returning to Somalia as the civil war is ongoing and, in fact, that conflict has escalated since my flight,” she said in her affidavit.
On Thursday, Judge Siraj Desai ordered the Home Affairs Department to give her a permit within 48 hours, pending an application she had lodged for the court to review and set aside the official’s decision, as well as a later decision by the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs.