UK banking ‘tragedy’ plays out for Somalis

Banking giant Barclays’ plan to close remittance accounts raises fears of financial famine.

For Somalis who rely on remittances, Barclays account closures would make life that much harder [EPA]

London, UK – It is afternoon rush hour and a shop on High Steet in Finsbury Park has customers patiently queuing outside for their turn to be served.

This isn’t your typical North London store but a place where immigrants, mainly Somalis, come to send money to families back home.

These establishments are a crucial lifeline for people in impoverished Somalia and elsewhere. The estimated 1.5 million Somalis living abroad send about $1.3bn a year to the country, with those living in the United Kingdom transferring more than $100m.

The informal money transfer system, known as Hawal, is used throughout the world mostly by South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern expatriates to get much-needed cash to relatives in their native lands. 

On this day, more than 30 customers crowd the small remittance shop, with many forced to wait on the pavement outside for their turn. Nearly two dozen such shops in the area serve about 400 customers every day.

Somalis rely heavily on remittances from around the world [EPA]

But most of these informal banks may soon become a thing of the past.

Barclays – the last remaining UK bank that these money-transfer shops can go through – is eager to shut down these accounts amid fears cash could be earmarked for terrorists and criminals.

About 250 remittance companies in the UK would be closed if Barclays pulls the plug.

The UK banking giant was expected to announce on Monday it had closed the account of one of the main Somali money-transfer operators, Dahabshiil.

But in a last minute move, the bank extended its decision on the closure until October 16, after a court injuction was filed by Dahabshiil‘s lawyers. A court ruling is expected before the extension expires.

Three other money transfer organisations still face account closures with the UK bank, however.

“Barclays’ eleventh hour decision offers a brief respite but more needs to be done to allow Somalis living in the UK to continue supporting their loved ones,” said Ben Phillips from Oxfam. “Barclays needs to keep all accounts open until a long term answer is found.

However, a spokesperson for Barclays said in a statement: We believe this case is baseless and the hearing has been adjourned to a date when the court can consider the issues fully. Barclays has given Dahabshiil a short extension during which time we hope it can finalise alternative banking services. Dahabshiil has already opened accounts with a new bank that allows them to make corporate and aid agency remittances to Somalia, but is still in the process of finalising arrangements for individual remittances.”

Cutting vital lifelines

Everyone in the High Street shop and on the pavement was in a rush to send money back to Somalia and beyond before Monday’s deadline.

“In the last hour I served 40 customers. That is more than I used to serve in a whole day before Barclays said they were closing the Hawalas,” Ahmed Noor, manager of the Kaah Express branch in Finbusry Park, told Al Jazeera.

The worry on customers’ faces was all too visible, and some were too angry to speak about the issue.

My mother cannot work and without this money she will die. If Barclays closes Hawala accounts, they will have blood on their hands.

by - Ahmed Khalif, Somali expat

Father-of-five Ahmed Khalif was sending money to his 80-year-old mother in a small village on the Kenya-Somalia border. For the past 20 years, on the last Friday of every month, Khalif has transferred funds back home in this manner.

“I send $200 every month to my mother so she can have food to eat. Hawala is the only way I can send money to her,” Khalif said, clutching four $50 notes in his right hand.

“My mother cannot work and without this money she will die. If Barclays closes Hawala accounts, they will have blood on their hands.”

The $1.3bn in remittance money annually is more than the Horn of Africa country receives in humanitarian aid. It is equal to about a quarter of Somalia’s economy, and half its national income.

With a civil war still going on in parts of the country – and Somalia still recovering from the worst famine in 60 years that struck two years ago – more than 40 percent of its nearly 10 million people live on less than a dollar a day.

Many see Barclays money-transfer account closures as a move that will cut a vital lifeline to Somalis desperately in need.

“Banks, such as Barclays, have a critical role to play in allowing money from communities in Britain to reach loved ones at home,” said Oxfam’s Phillips. “Amounts sent are usually very small, and used for essentials – healthcare, food, water and education. Barclays is failing in its responsibility to the very poorest people.”

Financial famine

On the other side of High Street, the scene in other Halawa shops is no different.

University student Abdi Salan sends $150 back home to Hargeisa, Somalia, every month to pay for his younger brother’s food and school fees. He said the account closures would be a tragedy.

“Before our people were dying because of famine and droughts,” Salan said. “Now they will die because Barclays cut off their only income.”

Somali community leaders in the UK, who have campaigned vigorously against Barclays’ decision, say closing the accounts will not stop money from reaching family and friends back home.

“Before our people were dying because of famine and droughts. Now they will die because Barclays cut off their only income.”

        Abdi Salan, UK-based student

“No one is going to let their loved ones starve to death. Money will be sent no matter what,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, chairman of the London Somali Youth Forum.

“The money will be sent through underground channels, which are hard to monitor, and only result in criminalising the hardworking members of the community.”

Another worry for community leaders is the account closures could be used by al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab as a recruitment opportunity.

“If you cut off people’s only income, they will find other ways of making a living and al-Shabab will surely take advantage and offer an alternative source of income,” Ibrahim said.

In the UK, the remittance industry is also one of the biggest employers in the Somali community, providing jobs directly to hundreds of people. Barclays’ move will instantly render them unemployed. 

‘Rules and regulations’

At Finsbury Park’s most popular Somali eatery, Iman Restaurant, the topic of conversation this evening is Barclays and remittance account closures.

“There is no social welfare system in Somalia. Everyone is worried about what will happen to their family and friends back home with the accounts closed,” said Abdi Fatah Mohamed, sitting down to a plate of spaghetti.

Barclays issued a statement to Al Jazeera defending its planned account closures.

Firstly, the decision that has been made by Barclays has not been an easy one. We understand and appreciate the important role these businesses play in helping people transfer money around the world, in some cases to places where there is great need of financial support.

“However, Barclays has an obligation to operate within the rules and regulations set by governments and regulators in the countries in which we do business. Failure to do so would result in Barclays being prosecuted by regulators around the world, and potentially fined many hundreds, or potentially billions, of pounds.”

But for Somali expatriates in London, financial rules and regulations mean nothing compared with the life and death situation their families face back home.

“It is a disaster,” said Salan of Barclays move. “One made by men in suits who do not care about the poor in distance places.” 

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera