What it’s like to travel to the US when your passport says you’re from Somalia

Entering the US was an ordeal long before the Trump administration, man claims

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The Independent Travel

Liban* has a British passport, but there’s a problem with it. It says he was born in Mogadishu. Of course, that shouldn’t be a problem. But according to Liban, it has caused him no end of complications when travelling to the US.

Donald Trump’s controversial “travel ban” on refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations caused international uproar. But Liban told The Independent that crossing the US border has long been an ordeal.

The 30-year-old, who lives in London, was born in the Somali capital, where he lived until he was four. His family then left for the UK and have not returned to Somalia since. However, his birthplace is printed on his British passport.

It is a similar situation to Sir Mo Farah, who moved from Somalia to Britain at the age of eight. Farah now lives in Portland, Oregon, and had feared Trump’s ban would bar him from re-entering the US.

An avid traveller, Liban says he has visited dozens of cities across the world, and has travelled to Canada, the UAE, and several European countries without any trouble.

But he told The Independent of the “shocking” and intense questioning he has faced at the US border on a number of occasions, years before the Trump administration came to power.

In the autumn of 2013, he flew from Heathrow to Logan International Airport in Boston for a friend’s wedding with a group of 11 fellow guests. Having landed at 2pm, they had just a few hours to get ready for a wedding rehearsal at 6pm that evening.

As they reached passport control, he says the border officer let through his friends – who were white, British citizens. But when his turn came, the border officer questioned him about Mogadishu. Despite replying that neither he nor his family had returned to the Somali capital since they left in the 1980s, he says he was pulled aside and questioned further. Not only that, the friends he was travelling with were also taken to a room for questioning. He claims he was then confused to receive a text from an unknown number. He alleges that it read: “All OK? Did the plan work?” 

“I thought it was strange,” he tells The Independent. “Then after a few seconds I realised it was the airport people,” he alleges. He suspects the phone number he gave on his ESTA visa waiver was used to check if he was in a terrorist cell. 

The Independent approached the US Department of Homeland Security to ask whether this text message incident was likely. A spokesman said the department cannot discuss individual cases but that: “US Customs and Border Protection officers adhere to the highest standards of professionalism. Every day CBP officers process more than 1.2 million international travellers. We accomplish our mission with vigilance and in accordance with the law. CBP does not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.” 

Liban says the guards held his friends for several hours before finally releasing them all at 6pm – causing them to miss their friends’ wedding rehearsal.

On a separate occasion in 2011, he and three friends flew from Heathrow to San Francisco International Airport, from where they planned to embark on a road trip down the West Coast to Las Vegas. Aware that he might be questioned at the border, he had prepared evidence of their itinerary.

“The border force officer at passport control spent about 15 minutes chatting to me about our route, despite there being a queue behind me,” Liban says. He claims that unbeknown to him, the guard marked his passport with a sticker flagging that he believed he was a suspicious traveller. At the US side of the booth, a guard was waiting to take him into a room – again, for questioning. There, he says another staff member combed through his itinerary, and scoured his employer’s website to check that he really had a job in the UK. After being held for around 20 minutes, Liban says he then ran into trouble with more guards at the baggage carousel, who threatened him for allowing his friends to take his luggage while he was being questioned.

“They said, ‘If you ever let anybody take your bag again we will detain you and your friends.’ They then began to question me and check my itinerary again. I thought, ‘This never ends!’

“When I got outside my friends told me they got threatened with questioning as well. I thought, ‘What a start! What a welcome to the country.’”

During a third trip to the US in 2014, after his passport was checked he says he was led into a small office at Logan International Airport in Boston.

“The guy who interviewed me claimed to be a former marine and spent around 30 minutes asking ridiculous questions. He said, in a threatening tone, that he had fought people like me in the Nineties.

“He asked me: Are you a practising Muslim? Have you visited Somalia recently? Are you in contact with anyone in Somalia? Do you agree with Al-Shabaab?”

Liban says his brother, who is also a British citizen born in Somalia, has too faced issues at the US border. A British BBC World Service journalist described similar experiences at Chicago's O'Hare airport in early 2017, following the "travel ban" imposed by President Trump. He compared the experience to being arrested by the Iranian regime in 2009. 

He told the BBC Radio 5 Live: “They took away my phone and started searching my Twitter account looking to find out my political views. I was also asked questions like if I had been training with the military in Iran.

“I couldn't convince the guy because he kept asking me about why I'm entering the country with a British passport, not an Iranian passport. I told the guy I don't have that Iranian passport anymore.” 

Asked what advice he would give someone with a similar background who is worried about travelling to the US, Liban's response is bleak. “My advice doesn’t matter. I’ve never done anything wrong, but because my passport says Mogadishu on it, they treat me like I’m a threat.”

Owing to these experiences, and considering the harsher measures proposed by the Trump administration, Liban says he has decided not to visit the US again.

“You can be a law-abiding citizen, and love US culture, but still get put into a box and branded as a terrorist sympathiser by birth,” he says. “It’s pretty shocking discrimination.”

The US Department of Homeland Security told The Independent: “We treat all travellers with respect and sensitivity. Integrity is our cornerstone.  We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles.”

*Name has been changed to protect anonymity 

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