“Who are you?”: Linkages between Legal Identity and Housing, Land, and Property Rights in Somalia

Internal displacement in Somalia remains one of the most complex and long-standing humanitarian and development challenges in the world. With one of the highest displacement statistics globally, millions of vulnerable Somali people face an endless cycle of displacement, with no access to identity cards and other legal rights to help them rebuild their livelihoods and access basic services.


As the number of years that people are trapped in displacement situations continues to rise, and climate change and conflict continues to push people into urban cities, accessing legal identity and housing, land and property (HLP) has become even more important.


The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Somalia conducted a study to: identify the types of legal identity (LID) documentation available; and further explore the extent to which the lack of such documents affect access to HLP rights by displaced families. Amid Somalia’s protracted humanitarian crisis, the study findings are expected to inform discussions on the development of Somalia’s identification management systems to better support displaced vulnerable community groups in accessing their basic human rights and achieve durable solutions.


Did you know?


Over 77% of the Somali population or close to 12 million people are estimated to lack an official proof of identity.


At 3%, Somalia has the lowest under-5 birth registration rate in Sub-Saharan Africa.


There are no official statistics on marriage or divorce registration in Somalia.


Over 85% IDP sites are informal settlements on private land, and about 74% of them are in urban areas.


Since 2018, over 1.2 million people have been forcefully evicted across Somalia due to widespread land tenure insecurity.


Below is a summary of the key findings


  1. Barriers to accessing Legal Identity Documentation: History, costs and complicated processes


“We knew everyone and everyone knew us.”


In a country that is only still trying to recover from the impact of the civil war, many Somalis have been living without legal documentation for decades. Generations of families have lived without knowing where and how to get access to legal documentation. As explained by IDPs interviewed for this study, there was no need for documents, particularly for those coming from rural areas where people had long lived with their clans:


“We did not need identity documents because there was no government there to ask people to show their identities.”


For many, this period of displacement is the first time they are being asked about identity documents to prove who they are. The value of trying to obtain such papers is also not immediately clear, particularly when considered against other immediate needs like food and shelter. The study found that many IDPs lacked information and knowledge of the process, cost of applying for formal legal identity documentation, or which government agency was responsible. Majority of displaced people interviewed stated that they rely on alternative documents such as documents issued from business or humanitarian actors, student IDs, mobile phone registration, bank cards, security clearance certificates, and camp registration forms.


  1. Challenges for women


The study found that women have a more difficult time in accessing legal identity documentation. Several women explained how the structural challenges, traditional gender roles, and clan-based culture has limited them to access such documentation and Housing, Land, and Property (HLP).


Additionally, several women noted that one needed a clan leader or chief – who were always men and not always happy to support women. This is in line with findings from the World Bank, which estimates the current gender gap in ID access in Somalia is over 10%, while in Somaliland the gender gap in ID access is 9%. In addition, women can face additional threats within their own marital home – all of which are exacerbated by displacement.


  1. Clan lineage, witnesses and local guarantors to prove identity


“Who I am and where I have come from.”


Despite the lack of government identity cards, displaced community members explained that the most common method to prove your identity was to have a clan elder, relative, or other respected member of the community serve as a witness to vouch for your identity.


The “ancestry, lineage or clan identity – i.e., ‘Who I am and where I have come from’ – is a cornerstone of Somali identity.” Slightly stronger than just having a witness is the common practice for having a guarantor – a clan elder or other respected member of the community – to vouch for the person, effectively agreeing to be responsible if the person turns out to cause problems later.


Respondents explained that it was a widespread Somali practice (damiin) where the guarantor agrees to be responsible if anything happens. For example, if a person who has no formal documentation wants to take out a loan, they could use another person as collateral.


  1. The desire to have rights and benefits like any other citizen


“[I would] grab it with both hands; it feels like a basic need, especially for someone who has no relatives where they seek asylum.”


Barriers to accessing Housing, Land, and Property rights by displaced communities in Somalia are protracted and multifaceted. In a context of rapid urbanisation, such challenges are exacerbated by the high demand and rocketing land prices. Competing claims on land coupled with limited legal and policy frameworks around Housing, Land and Property rights, and weak land administration systems have worsened the situation.


Forced evictions constitute a growing problem in Somalia, on such a scale that it could be described as an epidemic. They have had catastrophic consequences for millions of affected individuals, families and communities, including physical and mental trauma, homelessness, loss of wealth and assets, loss of jobs, loss of access to health, education and other services, and destruction of family and survival networks.


For most host communities, the main ways of accessing land and property are through inheritance, purchase, and formal rental arrangements. This is not the case for the country’s 2.9 million IDPs, the majority of whom have self-settled in over 3,400 IDP sites across the country predominantly hosted on privately owned land. While entry into towns and camps without possessing identity documents is tied to the strong ties of family and clan, those with no ties may not be accepted into the community or might be arrested.


Furthermore, despite being able to enter these camps, the IDPs live in fear that they will be forced to leave, access to land remains a big challenge. The lack of identity documents also limits the enjoyment and exercise of other rights and services, such as freedom of movement, the ability to open a bank account and to obtain other documents.




Identity documents can enable IDPs to secure a more stable life and gain enough economic strength to lift themselves out of the camps and endless poverty. Legal identity documentation is important to fully enjoy HLP rights, and all Somalis, whether displaced or not, have a right to such documents as Somali citizens.


All that said, the possession of legal identity documents will not by itself enhance HLP rights of vulnerable people. An identity document may enable a person to formally purchase and register ownership of property, but to gain better tenure security and build self-reliance, efforts to improve access to LID must be combined with other measures. A comprehensive approach is needed – one which looks not just at the issuance of legal identity documents, but also the supporting components that would allow more equitable access to livelihoods and assets and improve opportunities for all Somalis to build better lives.