Somalia's transitional government (TFG) will start issuing new electronic Somali passports to Somali residents abroad from Sunday, 1 April, according to Abdullahi Gafow Mahmoud, Director of Somali Immigration and Naturalisation. Somalis living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be the first to receive new, expensive passports.

Speaking to 'Awdalnews Network' from Dubai, where he will officiate the issuance of the passport, Mr Gafow said that 87 out of 125 countries to which his government has appealed for the recognition of the passport have so far recognised the new Somali passport.

"Among the major countries that recognised the passport are the Unites States, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and a number of African countries," he said.

Gafow, a former Deputy Director of the Immigration Department during the Siyad Barre's regime, said the e-passport made by a Sharjah-based company known as "Best Solutions" makes Somalia the first African country to issue such hi-tech forgery-proof passports.

Earlier, the UAE press reported that the Somali government had selected the UAE-Emirate of Sharjah as the main centre for issuing electronic passports and electronic identification cards for its citizens around the globe.

Speaking to the UAE press last Tuesday, Hassan Ahmed Jama, Under Secretary of the Somali Foreign Affairs, said that the UAE was one of the Arab countries that supported Somalis during the 17-year civil war that left millions displaced.

Gafaw, however, affirmed that new immigration officers to be based in Somali Embassies would issue the Somali passport while the database will be kept with the passport-printing centre in the Sharjah Airport Free Zone.

"The Sharjah government has welcomed the move and has provided us with the necessary facilities to issue new electronic passports which will help in combating fraudulent identity documents," said Mr Jama.

Abdullah Sahooh, Director-General of the Sharjah Naturalisation and Residency Department, who attended the press conference along Mr Jama also emphasised, "New Somali passports are recognised in the UAE."

Abdillahi Congo, a former Somali Ambassador in Egypt, however, described the idea of keeping the database by a foreign company as illegal. "Travel documents are symbol for the country's sovereignty and to give up that sovereignty to a foreign party is illegal and automatically makes the passport invalid. This is pure business," he said in a statement to 'Awdalnews'.

But Gafaw affirmed that the Immigration Centre would later move to Mogadishu after ensuring safety and security in all parts of the country.

New e-passports will be designed as per international standards defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), using the latest 'contact less chip technology', incorporating Facial and Fingerprints Biometric Security Recognition.

Passports were to be issued in four colours to various categories - red for diplomatic missions, brown for services, black for the public and light blue for travel documents only.

Gafaw said that other centres would soon be opened in UK, Sweden, Canada and Minnesota in the United Sates, noting that the new passports have already been issued at the Somali embassies in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, while a Djibouti office will be opened soon.

He indicated that mobile teams would issue the passport to Somali residents in West Africa and other places where Somali Embassies are not found. "Inside the country we have already opened offices in Baidoa, Bossasso, Garowe and Laas Anod," he said, underlining that there will be no need for people to come to Mogadishu for a passport as the case used to be under the previous government.

Answering a question on whether any foreign visas have been issued to the holders of the new passports, Gafaw said: "I have entered the UAE with the new passport and a visa has been issued to me, and the American Embassy in Nairobi has been the first to issue visas to the holders of the new Somali passports."

New passports with electronic national identity cards will cost US$150 for Somalis outside Somalia and US$ 100 for Somalis residing within Somalia, making it one of the most expensive passports issued by foreign embassies in the UAE. Passport fees for other nationalities living in the UAE range between US$ 30-50.

Commenting on this, Gafaw said that the passport was expensive because of the sophisticated technology used in it and other related computerised work. A number of Somali residents in the UAE, however, expressed mixed feelings about the new passport, many of them doubting the credibility of Somalia's transitional government.

Abirahman Sh. Omar, a long time resident in the UAE, said: "This is a new Isbaaro but this time with international support." Isbaaro is used to describe the checkpoints installed by various warlords in Mogadishu to get money through coercion. Noah Arre, another UAE resident, described the high fees as a rip-off aimed at squeezing money from the poor people who could not afford such outrageous fees.

Some other Somalis who are stuck with the old passport, which are recognised only in some parts of the Arab world, have welcomed the new passport if it finally could give them freedom of movement.

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