Somalis Protest US Banks' Halt Of Money Transfers

By Salon Staff

Published December 30, 2011 11:36PM (EST)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Hundreds of Somalis demonstrated in Minneapolis on Friday, expressing frustration and sadness over a bank's decision to stop handling money transfers that they say relatives in Africa need to survive.

Many held signs with pictures of hungry children and messages such as "I am starving — banks blocked transmitting money to me" and "Banks block me from feeding my family." Some also waved small American flags as they lined a city sidewalk, chanting in Somali.

The rally was held one day after 15 Minnesota money-transfer businesses, known as hawalas, stopped accepting wire transfers because the bank that handles the majority of the transactions planned to close the hawalas' accounts Friday. Minnesota-based Sunrise Community Banks has said it fears violating complex regulations designed to combat terror financing.

"I don't know what to do," said Abdirahim Hersi, 27, of Minneapolis, who sends $500 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."

Hersi and many other Somalis said they thought they could still send money back home Friday. They went to the money service businesses with cash in hand and were caught off-guard when they couldn't.

Minnesota-based Sunrise Community Banks said Friday it would consider an extension of the service if it was given some sort of way to minimize its risk. No solution was reached at a meeting Friday with Somali community leaders, money-service business owners and government officials.

U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said a waiver isn't possible.

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

Jones said he is disappointed with the situation, but the decision to close the hawala accounts was the bank's. He said Sunrise Community Banks has a good compliance program, and it would be rare for his office to prosecute a bank.

Sunrise's decision came weeks after two Minnesota women were convicted in October of conspiracy to provide support to al-Shabab, a group at the center of violence in Somalia and one that the U.S. says is tied to al-Qaida. Evidence at the Minnesota trial showed the women used the hawalas to send money to the terror group.

Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 and has no banking system. Because there are no financial institutions, Somalis use hawalas, which require little paperwork and reach even the smallest towns, to send money home. Many big banks stopped handling the transfers in recent years, saying the federal requirements to crack down on terror financing are too complex and not worth the risk.

Salon Staff

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