Our guest blogger is Sarah Margon, associate director for Sustainable Security at the Center for American Progress.
With millions of Somalis still reeling from the 2011 famine, the recent decision by the Minnesota-based Sunrise Community Banks to shut down its Somali remittance service is particularly difficult to bear. Sunrise’s wire services have enabled Somali-Americans to send more than $100 million back home on an annual basis. Globally, the Somali diaspora sends about $530 million home each year, which, according to a joint CAP-One Earth Foundation report, tallies that up to be about $17.3 billion since the country collapsed in 1991. Somalia is one of the most remittance-dependent countries in the world.
Sunrise’s decision came about because of fears of violating existent terrorist financing regulations. Even while upholding all compliance requirements under the Bank Secrecy Act — which requires financial institutions to assist with the detection and prevention of money laundering, without additional protection — the bank deemed the risks as too high.
Sunrise’s closure tracks closely with the findings of a recent CAP report, Unintended Roadblocks, which illustrates how the numerous convoluted executive orders and vaguely defined laws related to counterterrorism present a host of expensive and ambiguous compliance challenges for organizations and companies doing business in places like Somalia. A climate of instability and unpredictability develops due to the absence of legal clarity. In a country like Somalia, which hasn’t had a central government in two decades and has been devastated by ongoing violence and political upheaval ever since, the inability — or perhaps unwillingness — of the Obama administration to clearly state what would constitute a violation of the law puts innocent lives at stake.
The Treasury Department has blogged about the Somali remittance issue recently which is an indicator of its attention to this issue, but it is no substitution for actual guidance — or even a policy memo. Similarly, simply noting that Sunrise bank has a “good compliance program, and [that] it would be rare for [the Justice Department] to prosecute a bank” does little to shift the onerous burden that results from ambiguous legal language. Humanitarian organizations like Oxfam America and American Refugee Committee released a statement in an attempt to call attention to the issue and delay the decision — but to no end.
The Obama administration should be applauded for the $870 million spent to meet ongoing and urgent humanitarian needs in the Horn of Africa, including nearly $205 million for Somalia. Over the holidays, President Obama announced another $113 million to help those in need. In addition, USAID has launched an unprecedented relief campaign, which even includes TV ads, as it attempts to raise awareness about the crisis.
This relief assistance is of tremendous importance but it has not been able to genuinely reach those in need, in part because of the brutal nature of violence in Somalia but also because ambiguous counterterrorism restrictions have rendered humanitarian groups extremely risk-adverse. Without additional protection, Sunrise felt it had no option but to shut down its wire service. With more than 250,000 people at risk of starvation, this means a vital lifeline has vanished. Ultimately, cutting off remittances won’t make us any safer, but it may contribute to greater instability in Somalia and require even more spending on humanitarian assistance.