UN: remittances vital for Somalis, hard to get aid to Syrians

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 August 2013 16:33 GMT

Relatives stand beside the bed of a man wounded in a car explosion near Hamaerweyne market in Mogadishu July 24, 2013. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

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Remittances, which may be cut off by Western banks, are a lifeline for millions of Somalis, a UN official warns, and the conflict in Syria makes it impossible to get aid to all who need it

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Barclays bank’s threatened closure of the accounts of some Somali cash transfer companies would remove a lifeline from millions of Somalis who depend on remittances to survive and would leave them extremely vulnerable, a senior United Nations aid official said.

London-based Barclays announced in June it would stop offering banking services to some Somali transfer firms because it feared funds might end up in the hands of "terrorists" in the Horn of Africa nation slowly emerging from two decades of conflict.

Many of Somalia’s 10 million people rely on the $1.2 billion or so in remittances sent to them every year by relatives around the world to put food on the table, pay the rent and send their children to school.

“We are very worried about this. Somalia as you know is very, very fragile. Now, compounding the vulnerability of the people, the whole question of being able to access the remittances is a huge concern,” John Ging, director of operations for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told reporters in Bogota on Tuesday.

Around 20 percent of all remittances come from the United States. But most U.S. banks have stopped offering remittance services to Somalis living there because of counter-terrorism regulations.

With no formal banking system in Somalia, this means families face being unable to receive cash sent by friends and relatives living abroad that they need to survive.

“This is a country populated by the people who have suffered the consequences of the absence of so many structures and infrastructures that you need to just function. And the removal of another will just compound their plight. When in actual fact, what we need to see happening in Somalia is the opposite - that people have access, to rebuild their lives and rebuild the economy,” Ging said.

If banks stopped offering remittance services, this would have a direct humanitarian impact on Somalia, which has barely emerged from famine in several parts of the country, Ging said.

“While world attention is focused on Syria, we should not forget that the conditions that led to the famine two years ago are very much still present in Somalia,” he said.


Speaking about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Ging said food and medical aid were not reaching all the 7 million or so people who needed aid in Syria.

At least 100,000 people have been killed and 1.9 million Syrians have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries during more than two years of civil war.

“Aid is getting to millions of people but it’s also not getting to many others. That’s the simple truth that we cannot hide from. In spite of a huge humanitarian effort ongoing, the courage of the humanitarian staff cannot be overstated. It’s very dangerous and very difficult for them to get the aid out to the people in need. But in spite of that we are not getting to all of the people in need,” Ging said.

Earlier this month, OCHA chief Valerie Amos sent the U.N. Security Council a wish list of ways aid could be more easily distributed in Syria that included allowing cross-border deliveries, humanitarian pauses in fighting and advance notice of military offensives. If agreed, it could form the basis of a U.N. aid resolution.

“We are focused very much on overcoming these constraints, these difficulties. But we need help to do that. And that’s basically what Valerie Amos is appealing for. That help,” Ging said.

During his two-day visit to Colombia, Ging said that despite the peace talks between the government and FARC rebels, and the country’s robust economic growth and development, the issue of displacement remained a challenge.

More than five million Colombians have been driven from their homes by armed groups during nearly 50 years of conflict, and nearly 15 percent of them have been forcibly displaced at least twice, according to government figures.

“This country has made phenomenal progress in the last number of years. Having said that, there still remain challenges here. People who have been displaced multiple times and are living in appalling conditions,” Ging said.

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