Activist discusses effects of halting money transfer services

Somali Americans living in Minnesota have been desperately looking for alternatives to send money back to relatives after the last bank that facilitates money transfers to Somalia stopped that service in December.

Banks decided to close the accounts of the money transfer businesses, known as hawalas, after expressing concern that they might be vulnerable to prosecution for violating U.S. laws against providing funding for terrorism. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali-American population in the United States.

MPR's Tom Crann spoke with Somali-American community activist Mohamed Hassan today about the impact of the hawala closures on the Somali community.

"My biggest concern is basically that a lot of people are going to die unnecessarily when they could have been saved by family members abroad and could have been given some money to at least survive to see another day," Hassan told MPR News.

MPR News reached Hassan in Nairobi, Kenya as he was on his way back to Minnesota. An edited transcript of the interview is below.

Tom Crann: Give me an idea of the scope of this situation. How many families do you think it affects?

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Mohamed Hassan: The vast majority of Somalis, maybe over 90 percent of them rely primarily on sources of income earned by family members outside of Somalia. Ninety percent of Somali population, I would estimate to be ... a little over maybe 14 million.

Crann: Now I understand this is a personal issue for you as well in your family.

Hassan: Indeed it is.

Crann: Tell us why you're in Africa right now. Are you exploring specifically how this is affecting people on the ground?

Hassan: Yes, Tom. I came here to see my mother, of course, but I left Minnesota while Somalis were struggling, figuring out a way to get money to family members, loved ones back home. So while I was really visiting my mother, I was also trying to see if I could find an alternative, another way to get money to my mother who currently lives here in Mombasa, Kenya, but also other family members as well in Somalia, within the country.

Crann: For people who are not familiar with this situation, give us an idea of, of these remittances, this money that comes from relatives in America, how essential is it for people who live in Somalia or in Kenya as your mother does, in a refugee camp?

Hassan: It is very essential. They have no other source of income. They basically rely on family members, whether that be an immediate family member or a distant family member, a relative, to help one another. And the amount of money that goes into Somalia (from) remittances is estimated over a trillion (dollars). So you just picture draining a trillion dollars out of that economy. It is a country that has been suffering for the longest - 21 or 22 years of civil strife and civil war. So the infrastructure, the economic infrastructure, the governing infrastructure, none of them are in existence.

Crann: Are there any other alternatives, whether it's using other banks or something like we think of, you know, Western Union in this country? Is there anything like that that would work in place of the hawalas as you see it?

Hassan: It could have worked if they were functioning in Somalia, but no banks are open in Somalia. There's no Western Union branch in Somalia. And even if that was the case, there is no government to produce or furnish IDs, identification cards.

So there is no alternative. There's just, put it in a very simple way. In Kenya, there could have been other options, but a person like my mother who's just a refugee, a displaced person who migrated out to Kenya who does not have an identification card, a passport, a driver's license, or even a state ID, does not have a way of going to a bank and opening an account with them, then later going back and collecting money from the bank.

Crann: What is your biggest concern here if this goes on with no remedy?

Hassan: My biggest concern is basically that a lot of people are going to die unnecessarily when they could have been saved by family members abroad and could have been given some money to at least survive to see another day that they would die of starvation.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)