Financial lifeline to Somalia remains at risk

Bank officials, elected representatives, and Somali money lenders still are trying to find a way to keep a financial lifeline to Somalia open.

Owners of Somali money-lending businesses, called hawalas, were notified by St Paul-based Sunrise Community Banks this week that their accounts with the bank will be closed Dec. 14th. Hawalas are the only financial institutions operating in Somalia, and Sunrise is the last remaining bank in the United States that supplies hawalas with the accounts they need to do business here.

The Association of Somali American Moneylenders says if the Dec. 14th deadline is enforced, it could lead to no less than a humanitarian crisis in East Africa. Remittances are one of the largest sources of income from that country, which is recovering from civil war and mass famine. The hawala owners met with Sunrise officials today to try to get the deadline pushed back.

David Reiling, Sunrise CEO, said the meeting was “excellent.” This is how he said he responded to their request for an extension:

Quite honestly, we’re still looking through all the various facts. We’ll be meeting with our legal counsel and regulators. And we hope to have some sort of decision on that fairly soon. I wouldn’t see that before end of day on Tuesday for sure. Obviously everyone would prefer not to have a break in their ability to send money back home, but that’s obviously the issue.

Reiling said one possible solution is a humanitarian waiver from the U.S. State department that would offer the bank more legal protection if someone uses its system to transfer money to terrorist groups. But those types of waivers usually aren’t given to banks. Reiling said Sunrise and hawala owners have the attention of elected officials who might be able to change that.

“I think they’re engaged and they understand the magnitude of the situation and everyone is working in good faith in order to explore alternatives,” he said.

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