Somali Edmontonians are scrambling to help their loved ones abroad after two money-transfer businesses that specialize in getting cash to remote areas and refugee camps were told their accounts will be shut down.
The Royal Bank of Canada has told Amal Express and Iftin that it will close their accounts on April 17 and May 15, respectively.
Human-rights advocate Mahamad Accord, who sends money to his wife and three kids in Somalia, called the closures a violation of human rights and a discriminatory targeting of the Somali community.
“You are starving millions of people who rely on these services,” Accord said. “This is the quickest and most efficient way to send money. This is how the country survived when the civil war happened.”
Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society Of Edmonton, explained that Somalis have relied on such businesses since their country’s government collapsed in 1991, leaving them without a fully functioning banking system. The transfers are especially important for people living in small communities and refugee camps, where they don’t have access to Western Union or other North American-owned institutions.
“Closing these institutions is going to put a lot of lives in danger,” Ibrahim said. “It’s not about individual businesses. It’s about refugee people who need our help…. Their lifeline is now in the process of being disconnected.”
About 20,000 Somalians live in Edmonton. Accord said Amal Express and Iftin serve about 1,500 customers each in the city, sending a combined total of more than $1 million every month to East Africa. In their absence, Edmontonians will have no choice but to try one of several smaller money-transfer services catering to African Canadians.
The owners of both businesses say the notices came as a surprise.
“We don’t know what happened,” said Abdi Khalif, who has owned Amal Express for more than a decade. “They just sent us a letter saying, ‘We lost confidence in you.’ And they didn’t tell us why.”
StarMetro obtained RBC’s termination letter, which reads in part: “Unfortunately, due to the operation of your accounts, we feel that we cannot achieve the requisite level of comfort with you.” The letter does not offer specific reasons, and RBC declined to comment when reached by StarMetro.
Chris Mathers, a Toronto-based crime, security and terrorism expert, said money-service businesses get shut down all the time — especially those serving countries like Somalia that suffer greatly from terrorism and organized crime.
Those businesses carry a high risk and no reward for banks, which need to ensure they are not being viewed as complicit in illicit activity, in case any money ends up in the hands of terrorists or money launderers.
“It’s too risky,” Mathers said.
Ahmed Abdulkadir, executive director of the Ogaden Somali Community of Alberta Residents, sends funds to orphans and refugees in Africa. He said the money-transfer businesses were crucial to Mogadishu’s recovery last fall. Edmontonians sent close to $100,000 after a bomb attack in the city killed more than 500 people.
Abdulkadir said Somali-Canadian community leaders have been raising the issue with various levels of government for years. Somali money-transfer businesses have been rapidly closing across the U.K. and the U.S. over the last decade.
The owners of both Amal Express and Iftin told StarMetro they are fully compliant with Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) rules and passed recent audits.
They stressed they are willing to meet any requirements the bank wants and say they have approached other major financial institutions, but RBC was the only bank that would accept them.
Iftin owner Abdul Farah said the Somali community would be left with few money-transfer options if his business were to shut down.
But Mathers said there is “no way” the businesses could change their practices to make sense for banks. The threat to families is frankly not the bank’s problem, he said.
“The bank has to worry about the bank, and the Somali community has got to worry about the Somali community,” he said.
“It’s tough, man. That’s just the way it is.”