By AMY FORLITI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Rep. Keith Ellison said Thursday that officials in Washington are still looking at ways to ensure that Somalis in the U.S. can safely send money to their famine-stricken homeland — including a possible license for banks operating on humanitarian grounds.
In a conference call with reporters, the Minnesota congressman said Somalia is still experiencing the effects of famine and is in dire need of the millions of dollars in remittances it receives from the U.S.
Ellison said he and Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken met with David Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, to discuss solutions that would keep the dollars flowing. He said they discussed the possibility of a memorandum of understanding between the treasury and banks — which wouldn't make banks immune from prosecution if they violate anti-terror laws but could give them more comfort if they are acting in good faith.
"We are doing what we can to try to get this situation solved," Ellison said. "We do know that lives are on the line. If money is turned off from remittances, it will turn on an opportunity for al-Shabab."
The U.S. government considers al-Shabab, which is at the center of violence in Somalia, a terrorst group with ties to al-Qaida.
Ellison said other options include a proposal that would provide greater oversight over those receiving remittances in Somalia, which would give authorities more information about who is getting the money overseas. There was also discussion about physically carrying the money to Somalia, which Ellison said is dangerous.
"If we didn't know much about where these remittances were going in the first place, we'll know a lot less if this money is being transported in a suitcase," he said.
Ellison said the U.S. Treasury is also exploring possible licenses for banks or credit unions that could be given out for humanitarian needs. No solution has been reached.
Somali money transfer businesses in Minnesota shut down for more than two weeks earlier this year when the bank that facilitated the transfers closed the companies' accounts, fearing it might unintentionally violate complex regulations designed to combat terror financing. The businesses, also known as hawalas, have reopened with some out-of-state banks or credit, but they are being cautious.
Somalia hasn't had a functioning government since 1991 and has no banking system.
Omar Jamal, first secretary of the Somali Mission to the United Nations, said the hawalas need to show the U.S. government that they are taking this situation seriously. He pointed to one business, Tawakal Money Express, which has been holding training workshops about compliance of anti-money laundering regulations. He said other hawalas should follow suit and speak out.
"We cannot act as business as usual," he said.
It's estimated that Somalis living in the U.S. send $100 million back home each year, according to the U.S. Treasury. Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the U.S.
Earlier this month, the United Nations declared an end to Somalia's six-month famine, though it said tens of thousands of people still need food aid to survive. The British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died from the famine's effects.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)