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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 November 2004, 17:41 GMT
Somalia's diaspora offers financial lifeline
By Joseph Winter
BBC News, Mogadishu

With up to a quarter of all Somalis now living abroad and many more having fled their homes within the country, a new Somali saying goes: "We are now a nation of immigrants who depend on other immigrants."

Signs for Hawala firms in Wembley
Somalis in London have a wide choice of money transfer companies
Some estimates say that some 23% of Somalia's income has been sent there by relatives now living abroad.

But in the absence of any central government, or banks, how does the money get there?

Visit Wembley, north London or anywhere else around the world which has become home to a sizeable expatriate Somali community and the answer is plain to see.

Clan address

In just a single Wembley courtyard, there are four Somali-run "Hawala" or money-transfer companies.

Two of them double up as internet cafes, so that as soon as you have sent the money to your relative in Somalia, you can send them an email to let them know.

Adam Ismail Hassan
Even people living on benefits [social security payments] try to send money back home
Adam Ismail Hassan
Hawala - written Xawaala in Somali - is a traditional way of transferring money between members of a single community, based on trust.

"We know all our customers," says Adam Ismail Hassan, the manager of Red Sea Express. "We only deal with Somalis. Our typical transaction is $200."

Although between one and three million Somalis now live abroad, they still know their place within the traditional clan system, so they can easily be identified according to their clan, sub-clan, sub-sub-clan, and so on.

"The clan structure is like an address," Mr Adam says.

And the extended family system means that those who are left behind in lawless Somalia are not forgotten.

"I send money to my aunt one month, my cousin the next month and so on," said one London-based Somali.

"Even people living on benefits [social security payments] try to send money back home," Mr Adam says.

Personal service

After the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Somalia's biggest money transfer company, al-Barakat, was closed down because the US accused it of financing terror groups.

Although many western countries, such as the UK, tightened the financial laws governing money transfer companies, many small firms, such as Red Sea Express, have leapt at the chance to fill the void left by al-Barakat.

Facts and figures about life in Somalia

Mr Adam says that anyone sending more than $3,000 is required to fill in a form with their address and shown identity papers with a photograph.

He displays his certificate of compliance with British money laundering regulations inside his office, which is covered in garish wallpaper, tattered lino on the floor and with old school chairs for the customers to sit down on.

Despite the shoddy appearance, Mr Adam says that about 200 Somalis use his firm every day to send money back home.

And this is just one of the many Somali Hawala firms in the UK.

It is estimated that some $700m-worth of remittances is sent to Somalia each year.

It takes just 24 hours to arrive in Mogadishu, thousands of miles away.

The charge is just 4-5% - far less than Western Union, for example, which is represented across the world, except, unsurprisingly, in Mogadishu.

If the recipient has a phone, the money transfer company will give them a call to say that their money is ready.

Dollar payments

Security is obviously tight at the offices of a financial business in a country without a government.

Everyone going through the door of the Global Money Transfer office in Mogadishu is searched for guns.

Man being searched in Mogadishu money transfer firm
Those entering Mogadishu's money transfer offices are searched for guns
In the queue to collect payments, I met Hoden Abdullahi Ahmed, a student whose mother had sent back some money from Finland.

"There are 15 of us at home and no-one is working," she said.

I also met Ahmed Salad Kulmiye, a businessman as well as the headmaster of a small school.

He was actually sending money out of Somalia, to a friend who had gone to buy some goods in Dubai.

"The money I used to set up my school was sent by my son in the US, through Hawala," he said.

Hoden and the other customers are paid, not in Somali shillings but in US dollars.

"This means we don't have to worry about the exchange rate and it means our customers don't have to walk out of our doors with a huge bag of money," says Mohammed "James" Ibrahim Ali, Global Money Transfer's manager.

Bags of money

He says that he is not worried that the US may try to close down more Somali money transfer companies, like al-Barakat.

Hoden Abdullahi Ahmed getting her money
Like everyone else, Hoden (r) was paid in dollars
Many Somalis told me that no evidence was ever found that al-Barakat had funded terror groups and Mr Mohammed says he has not heard of any new attempts to move against the Hawala companies.

He says that every day, his company pays out an average of $60,000 across Somalia, sent from its 45 branches across the world.

But with all this money coming into Somalia, how do the money transfer companies balance their books?

One man told me that some people go to Dubai - the Middle East's trading and financial hub - carrying huge bags of cash.

And of course, they work with businessmen who need money in Dubai - and elsewhere - to pay for the goods they import to Somalia.

'Lots of forms'

With such a huge business empire behind him, Mr Mohammed is also not concerned that the establishment of a functioning government in Somalia - due in the coming months - would make Hawala firms redundant.

Mohammed "James" Ibrahim Ali
It will take a long time to have a central bank in Somalia
Mohammed "James" Ibrahim Ali
"Modern banks will always ask lots of questions and ask you to fill in lots of forms," he says. "Our people are used to Hawala, we know it very well."

He admits that a government might ask companies such as his to pay tax and comply with bothersome regulations but he is relaxed at the prospect.

"If we had a government, we would no longer need to pay so many security guards when we move our money," he says.

"And a central bank would make it much easier for our agencies abroad to operate. But it will take a long time to have a central bank in Somalia."


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