x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Somali protest after US bank stops handling remittances

Many big banks have stopped handling money transfers or Hawalas, saying US requirements to crack down on terror financing are too complex and not worth the risk.

MINNEAPOLIS // Hundreds from the largest Somali population in the United States demonstrated over a bank's decision to stop handling money transfers that they say relatives in their famine-struck homeland need to survive.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and has no banking system, and Somalis use money-transfer businesses called hawalas to send earnings home. But many big banks have stopped handling the transfers, saying US requirements to crack down on terror financing are too complex and not worth the risk.

Friday's rally came a day after 15 hawalas in Minnesota stopped accepting wire transfers because the bank that handles the majority of the transactions, Sunrise Community Banks, planned to close their accounts, citing similar concerns.

"I don't know what to do," said Abdirahim Hersi, 27, who sends US$500 (Dh1,836) every month to his mother, daughter and siblings in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, near the Somali border. He normally sends the money at the start of each month, so money he sent in early December is running out. "I'm confused. I talked to my mother and she's also confused. I'm really sad."

Sunrise Community Banks said it would consider extending the service if it was given a way to minimise its risk. But US Attorney B Todd Jones said a waiver is not possible.

"The Department of Justice doesn't give anyone a free pass right up front for possible future criminal activity," Mr Jones said.

Sunrise's decision came weeks after two Minnesota women were convicted of conspiracy to provide support to Al Shabab, a group at the centre of violence in Somalia and one that the US says is tied to Al Qaeda. Evidence showed the women used the hawala's to send money to the terror group.

The US Treasury said there are other legitimate, transparent ways for Somalis to send money home. They include sending money through other money transfer services or US-based banks to clearing houses or hubs in Dubai, which arrange for payouts in Somalia. It said Somalis also could declare the money and ship cash or money orders to those hubs for payout in Somalia.

But Abdulaziz Sugule, former chairman of the Somali Money Services Business, said sending cash would be more risky, as it would be tough to document and might not reach its intended destination. People handling the cash risk being robbed or killed, he said.

Going through multiple money service businesses also adds layers of cost and time to each transaction, he added.

Somalis at Friday's rally were trying to come up with their own solutions. Samatilis Haille said he was thinking about using Western Union to send money to Nairobi and asking a friend there to pick up the money and send it to Somalia through a hawala.

Kamal Hassan said he has been sending almost half of his income to family members in the Dadaab refugee camp, as well as family inside Somalia. But without the hawalas, he said he had no other option.

"I blame Al Shabab. Because it is the terrorists' fault," he said.

He said if the US government does not provide a waiver, Al Shabab members will seize on the issue as a way to justify their hatred of the US. "They will take advantage of this kind of grievance," he said.