Barclays vs Dahabshiil: when a Somali money transfer company takes on a banking giant

The Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil has won an injunction against Barclays, which had been threatening to cut off services to the company.

Yesterday, the Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil won an injunction against Barclays, which had been threatening to cut off services to the company over money-laundering fears. It’s hard to underestimate how significant this decision will prove for ordinary Somalis. Every year, British Somalis send around ₤500m home to relative and friends, and for many in Somalia, this is their primary source of income.

Overall the Somali diaspora send around $1.3bn home annually, and as years of civil conflict have left the country’s economy and banking sector in tatters, remittances are worth around 50 per cent of Somalia’s economy.

The main money transfer companies, like Western Union, which in 2012 was responsible for global money transfers of $72bn, do not operate in Somalia. Barclays is the only bank still offering services to small operators like Dahabshiil. If Barclays had been allowed to sever ties with Dahabshiil the effect for ordinary Somalis would be much greater than the cutting of all UK aid to Somalia: DfID pledged to deliver 63m in aid in 2012/13. No wonder the campaign to preserve this Somali lifeline has attracted high-profile supporters, including Mo Farah.

If Barclays had succeeded in cutting its relationship with Dahabshiil, this might have absolved it of responsibility to implement tough money-laundering checks, but it wouldn’t have stopped money flowing from the UK to groups like Al-Shabab. Removing formal channels would only force Somalis to rely on more expensive, less reliable informal money transfer agents. British-Somalis would find it harder to send money home, and UK authorities would struggle to monitor cash flows into Somalia.

Unfortunately, Dahabshiil was only granted extra time, and next year there will be new hearings to determine if it can still use Barclay’s services. Millions of Somalis may breathe a sigh of relief, but this problem isn't over yet.
 

A Somali money changer. Remittances from abroad make up half of the country's economy. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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