Bank restrictions threaten Somalia’s remittance lifeline

About $215 million in remittances are sent from the U.S. to Somalia each year. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Immigrants in the Northwest send millions of dollars to relatives Somalia every year. But international banks backpedalling from anti-terrorism laws could cut off the flow.

“Somalis, we don’t have much money,” says Hawo Abdi Farah, her hennaed fingertips gesturing quickly as she talks; “$100-$200 [each month] is the most I can ever send back.”

Farah arrived in Seattle as a refugee 17 years ago and has been sending what money she can back to family members ever since.

She’s become part of a global system of remittances — money sent from the United States to other countries — which provide a much-needed lifeline to war-weary Somalia.

A recent report published by anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam America estimates that Somali migrants around the world send approximately $1.3 billion back to the country every year.

“It’s somewhere between 24 percent and 45 percent of the entire economy of Somalia,” says Scott Paul, a senior East Africa policy adviser for Oxfam. “It’s more than Somalia receives from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined.”

Some $215 million of those remittances come from the United States every year and a portion of those come from the thousands of Somali Americans who live here in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle resident Hawo Abdi Farah, a Somali, is worried about possible bank-transfer restrictions that would affect her ability to wire money to relatives in Somalia. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Seattle resident Hawo Abdi Farah, a Somali, is worried about possible bank-transfer restrictions that would affect her ability to wire money to relatives in Somalia. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

When asked how many of her Somali friends send money back regularly Farah answers with a laugh, “95-100 percent.”

Somalia has no regulated banking system and there are no international money-transfer companies, like Western Union or MoneyGram, operating in the country. As a result, a complex system has developed to serve the Somali Diaspora.

When Farah wants to send money to relatives, she goes to a local remittance agency and hands over her money along with the name of the intended recipient. The agency then contacts its counterpart in Somalia and within hours the allotted amount is paid to Farah’s relative halfway around the world.

Eventually, when these two branches in Seattle and Somalia settle their accounts, they need a bank to actually wire the money, which often travels via an intermediary destination, like Dubai, before it makes its way into Somalia.

But this system — also known as “hawala” or transfer — may be threatened.

London-based Barclays bank recently announced it intends to sever ties with hundreds of money-transfer companies that serve Somalia for fear they may accidentally facilitate “money laundering and terrorist financing.”

And while Barclays doesn’t serve the Somali community in Seattle, many here worry the move may set a precedent that could lead to disaster back home.

“Since 9-11 … we knew it was something that was going to happen,” says Aynab Abdullahi Abdirahman of Raja For Africa, a nonprofit that provides services to the Somali community in Columbia City.

But the concern increased last year, says Abdirahman, when Somali communities in Minnesota complained that they couldn’t find banks willing to work with them.

He recognizes that banks are in a tough spot, grappling with intimidating federal requirements designed to combat terrorism financing. But he worries that people don’t understand the full consequences if remittances stop flowing.

Anyab Abdirahman, Director for Global Development at Raja for Africa in South Seattle. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Anyab Abdirahman, Director for Global Development at Raja for Africa in South Seattle. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Somalia could collapse within two days if that money is cut off,” he says.

Oxfam’s Scott Paul says the challenge is to find a balance between functionality and security. He acknowledges that the current system has been abused and is “abusable,” but argues that shutting down existing channels would only drive the practice underground where it would become even harder to monitor.

He hopes banks, governments and communities can come together but worries that Barclays’ announcement is a step in the wrong direction, “It’s spooked [banks],” he says. “They’ve taken a step back to see how it plays out.”

Paul is also concerned that Somali-American communities are beginning to feel singled out, arguing that there’s a real “community relations” issue at stake.

“You have people saying, ‘I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a pirate, I just want to send $100 to my mom,’ and people are getting really frustrated.”

Farah clearly shares some of that frustration, worried for relatives that have no other source of income beyond what she’s able to send.

When I asked her what her family does with the money she sends, Farah’s answer comes quickly. It’s in Somali, but the flash sadness in her voice needs no translator, “They spend it on food,” she says. “Food, that’s all.”

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