Don’t forget Barclays’ shut down on Somali Remittance accounts will sever lifeline for the country’s refugees too – By Annisa Omar
Barclays Bank recently decided to withdraw its banking services from 250 UK money transfer companies including my local Dahabshiil – severing the remittance lifeline for millions of Somalis. This sent shock waves through my local east London Somali community because the Dubai-based International money transfer company was our most effective and reliable method to send money regularly to support our relatives and friends. Remittances amount to an estimated US$2 billion or one-third of the country’s GDP, according to Somali authorities.
However, the Somali remittance crisis does not end there, as Somalis also send money to Somali refugees in neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. UNHCR’s 2012 survey reported Somalia has produced 1.136 million refugees – the second largest number of refugees in the world after Afghanistan. They can be found everywhere from United States to South Africa, Nepal and Australia. The UN reported “In 2009, Somalis applied for asylum in at least 34 countries.”
The majority of them – 942,619 according to the UNHCR – can be found in Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen. Refugee camps are home to most refugees; over 500,000 reside in the worlds’ largest refugee camp “˜Dadaab’ where theft, murder and rape are commonplace.
Refugees living in the Horn of Africa region are without citizenship. They face difficulty securing housing, welfare or employment. Our remittances enable our relatives to establish businesses and support themselves. Nairobi’s Eastleigh district, for example, is not formally integrated into the Kenyan economy but provides income opportunities for thousands of Somalis because of the money the diaspora send to them.
Ultimately, Somalis living in the UK and other countries outside the region support their refugee relatives financially through the process of them seeking and being granted asylum, establishing themselves, and ultimately (if possible) gaining citizenship. It may take years or even decades for refugees to gain full economic independence.
On many occasions I have witnessed a friend receive 5am phone calls from her refugee relatives in Kenya pleading for urgent funds often for medical care. Through one quick fifteen-minute money transfer operation funds are sent to her relatives and confirmed by text message. This simple money transfer acts as a crucial financial safety net for Somali refugees.
I asked Laura Hammond Development Studies lecturer at the School of Oriental African Studies, University of London why the media have focused solely on the remittance crisis effect on people living inside Somalia and not on Somali refugees? She answered, “it is assumed that refugees are wholly dependent upon international aid for support, but clearly this is not the case. If Somali refugees had to rely only on such aid many would perish. The role that remittances play in sustaining refugee communities has been largely overlooked in the current discussion about the impact of the account closures.”
Economic opportunities in Dadaab are scarce as international assistance is focused on care of refugees and far less on providing opportunities to become self-sufficient. Plus, they are not allowed to leave the camps without the rare acquisition of movement passes. This approach is related to that fact that the Kenyan government assumes refugees both in the camps and city will return to Somalia very soon. The idea of large-scale return is largely impractical given camps now host three generations of refugees. Returnees would face immense difficulty re-establishing themselves without government or aid assistance, and many are prevented from returning due to continuing security risks in the south and central regions of the country.
For over fifty years, Somalis have migrated and sought asylum around the world for many reasons including civil war, drought and famine, economic hardship, breakdown of law and order and to find better living conditions. My grandfather is one of these migrants. He settled in the UK in the 1950’s. Most Somalis fled following the civil war and famine in 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the country. For two decades Somalia has been without a central government and it has endured famines and droughts, on-going violence and terrorist attacks.
It is against this backdrop of economic uncertainty that Somali refugees rely on money transfer companies, such as Dahabshiil, to act as the bridge between them and their relatives abroad. They use remittances from relatives abroad to buy food, shelter, and clothes, to pay for education and health care, and to build shops in the camps; ultimately remittances are crucial to helping them regain their dignity.
At least once a month my mother visits her local Dahabshiil branch in east London to send money to relatives and friends in Somalia and Kenya. This is a tradition I thought I would continue but Barclay’s decision has put the lives of my relatives and those of my friends at tremendous risk.
Somalia’s money transfer companies such as Dahabshiil, which grew in the midst of anarchy, food insecurity, conflict and displacement, have to a large extent upheld the Somali economy. The consequences of Barclays’ decision can only spell disaster. Somalia is just getting back on it’s feet after 20 years of devastation, so this decision will truly undermine the efforts of millions of Somalis not just in Somalia but worldwide who have put billions of dollars into rebuilding the Somali economy.
With Barclays out of the picture we wait with bated breath to hear how we can best move forward. Will other banks step forward and offer accounts? Can we use alternative remittance companies? Using alternative companies would be not currently work, as they do not have the same reach and are not used as much by international agencies and charities – over 95% of international agencies and charities use Dahabshiil. Our only alternative would be unofficial channels a route which we do not want and cannot follow.
Annisa Omar is a British-Somali who works in International development, specialising in communications.
Tweet her @annisaomar