British scholar fears for career after US visa problems

Academic with Somali background believes he is on a US security watch list, writes David Matthews

April 11, 2013

A Somali-born British academic fears that he is unable to gain a visa for the US because he believes that his work and background have put him on a security watch list, with damaging consequences for his career.

Nasir Warfa, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Psychiatry at Queen Mary, University of London, appears to be the first UK academic to be affected by US restrictions on those of East African background, following similar travel problems for US scholars with East African origins.

In August last year, he was denied a visa that would have allowed him to change aircraft in Houston on his way to an academic conference in Mexico, forcing him to take a different route. He was also unable to obtain a visa to visit relatives in the US in December 2012.

Dr Warfa, who grew up in Somalia, has not been told why he has been refused a visa, but suspects it is due to his country of origin and the fact that he conducted research in Somalia before his application to go to the US.

“My suspicion is that [the problems are because] I am from East Africa,” he said.

“A lot of people from there have [been] trained [by] Al-Shabaab” - the militant Islamist force that controls parts of Somalia - he explained. “Anyone who goes to those places is flagged up.”

Others affected have included double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah. The runner was reportedly detained by US border guards in December when they saw he was originally from Somalia.

Dr Warfa, who is a British citizen, is due to meet colleagues at Harvard Medical School this month and has been invited to present an abstract at a cross-cultural psychology conference in Los Angeles in June, but he is still waiting for a decision on his visa applications.

An effective ban on visiting the US would seriously hamper his career, he said.

Such restrictions on academics originally from Somalia would be “a disaster because Somalia is coming back from a civil war” and those who left the country during the fighting are “trying to rebuild universities and institutions” there.

If he was unable to obtain a visa for this year’s visits, Dr Warfa said he would feel “marginalised” and “humiliated”.

“I have written 20 publications promoting human rights and this happens to me,” he added.

In December, three professorial colleagues from Queen Mary’s Centre for Psychiatry wrote to the US Embassy in London asking it to look into Dr Warfa’s visa applications for 2013.

The embassy replied that it would update them when a decision was made, Dr Warfa said.

It had not provided a response by the time Times Higher Education went to press.

In the US, two American academics with East African backgrounds at the University of Minnesota were subjected to repeated, lengthy airport searches in 2009, it was reported at the time.

Abdi Samatar, chair of the geography department, and his wife Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor, believed their origin had put them on a government watch list.

Professor Samatar told THE that although he had been stopped and searched again in 2010, since his case had received publicity the checks had ceased.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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