The vital flow of remittances from diaspora countries into Somalia is under threat as a result of necessary, but inadequately thought-through counter-terrorism measures. United Nations human rights experts have warned that the measures risk severely affecting the human rights of the people of Somalia, and have urged the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Somalia to ensure that such remittances continue to flow.
There have been many recent reports of Somali diaspora having difficulties in sending remittances back home, in part because commercial banks in sending countries are closing the bank accounts of Somali money transfer operators (MTOs), in response to important, but stringent domestic and international regulations to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism.
“Remittances are an essential lifeline for Somalis and the closure of MTO bank accounts risks further impoverishing an already desperate population,” the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, said. “Somalis living abroad have little option but to use MTOs to transfer money home in the absence of a formal banking system in Somalia.”
Somalia has a large diaspora living in foreign countries after decades of chaos and civil strife in the country. The Somali diaspora is estimated to send at least USD 1.2 billion per year in remittances to family members and friends in Somalia. That represents at least 20% of the country’s GDP and is more than the total amount of foreign aid that Somalia receives.
“A decrease in remittances to Somalia may severely affect the human rights of people living in the country,” Mr. Alston said, noting that most of the money is used by families to cover basic household expenses, such as food, clothing, education, and medical care, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“The human rights to adequate food, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and even the right to life could be at stake, as remittances decrease,” he warned.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States and other countries strengthened their anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism regulations and their enforcement. While such regulations are clearly necessary according to the UN experts, their perhaps unintended consequence has been that various commercial banks have responded to the increased regulatory risks and burdens of the regulations by refusing to do business with Somali MTOs altogether because they are considered too high-risk.
“While these regulations fulfill entirely legitimate objectives, their impact on the human rights of Somalis should be proportionate to those objectives,” the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, said.
“The Somali expatriates that send money home on a regular basis, and the millions of friends and family members in Somalia who ultimately depend on them, should not have to suffer for the limited number of cases in which remittances have ended up in the wrong hands,” Mr. Emmerson stressed.
“Governments have a duty to ensure that their laws provide an environment conducive to business respect for human rights,” noted human rights expert Dante Pesce, who currently heads the UN Working Group on business and human rights. “Despite several praiseworthy initiatives by governments involved, there appears to be a need for additional measures to safeguard the flow of remittances.”
The UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia, Bahame Nyanduga, also made a special appeal to the Somali authorities: “The Government of Somalia, despite the constraints it faces, can also do more to develop its banking system, including by more adequate monitoring and oversight of the Somali banking sector.”
“At the end of the day, all governments concerned have a duty to make sure that legitimate funds can continue to flow to the people of Somalia, whose livelihoods stand to suffer if these remittances are curtailed. This could undermine the political and economic stabilization process which has been painstakingly built in the last few years, a process which also hinges on the Somali people having confidence in a growing economy,” Nyanduga said.
The mandate-holders have been in contact with the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Somalia to raise their concern and seek clarification about this situation.