Saving the Lifeline: Studying the Somali diaspora involvement in the 2013-14 campaign

Giulia Liberatore

For most Muslims around the globe, Ramadan is a quiet time of the year, dedicated to introspection and prayer. It is a period where the pace of life slows down and tranquillity reigns. But in 2013, this was not the experience of many Somalis in the UK, as they engaged in an unexpected wave of political mobilisation—one that I have been researching over the last couple of months, as part of a larger project onDiaspora Engagement in War-Torn Societies.’

pound coinsThe trigger for these events came on the 8th May 2013, when Barclays Bank announced that it planned to shut down the accounts of 250 money transfer operators (MTOs), amongst which were four Somali MTOs operating in the UK, including Dahabshiil, the largest in the Somali remittance market and a major player in the formal economy of the Somali regions. [1]

The decision didn’t come as a surprise to many. Over the last few years, and particularly following the financial crisis, mounting pressure from many Western regulators (particularly in the US and the UK) has led to tighter regulation around the prevention of money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities. For example, in the UK, HSBC was fined $1.9 billion in 2012 due to money laundering offences and lack of controls, and as a result closed down its MTO accounts. In this climate, banks such as Barclays, who provide accounts for MTOs, were inevitably going to weigh the perceived risks and due diligence costs with the profitability of banking MTOs (Lindley and Mosley 2014: 4-5). But the impending account closures were particularly worrying for the Somali diaspora and others, given the lack of an established banking system and the absence of viable alternatives.

A Somali uprising
The seeds of dissent were planted soon after the announcement by a small group of individuals with close ties to some of the MTOs, who immediately appreciated the consequences of the Bank’s decision. Gradually, Facebook and Twitter feeds were sprinkled with this concern and momentum gathered quickly. A key moment was the signing of a letter  by over 100 academics and NGOs pressuring the government to find a durable solution to the issue; this prompted the first wave of public and media attention and encouraged the mobilisation of Somali groups and individuals. Throughout the long and hot days of Ramadan, young volunteers collected signatures in mosques, shopping centres and Somali restaurants in support of the petition ‘Save Remittance Giving’, which was organised by a host of east London Somali groups in collaboration with Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali. Awareness of the issue was also raised online through a petition which was set up by campaigner and director of a Somali educational consultancy organisation, Farhan Hassan. The latter spread rapidly, reaching many social network-savvy youngsters who found further channels of distribution. When Olympic athlete Mo Farah endorsed the campaign a further spike in signatures ensued; the two petitions quickly garnered over 100,000 signatures, culminating in a first parliamentary debate on the 17th July.

Youth engagement
Somali youth have often been portrayed as disengaged not only in UK politics, but also in matters affecting the homeland.[2] However, an interesting feature of the campaign was the substantial involvement of the one-and-half and second generation Somalis, and of a number of newly established diaspora youth groups.

Somali groups in the UK, set up predominantly by the first generation, have long been providing crucial support to those settled in the UK, as well as engaging with issues ‘back home’. Some of the more recent groups, however, have emerged following the July 2005 bombings and the growing threat of Al-Shabaab recruits, as the Home Office began to involve the diaspora in its various counter-terrorism and integration projects. Another catalyst for their growth was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) efforts to engage with and consult the diaspora prior to the Somalia 2012 Conference. Indeed, one of the legacies of this consultation was the establishment, within the Somalia Unit, of the first and only ‘diaspora outreach role’ in the FCO.

Rubick's Cube with social media logosIt was many of these same groups that spearheaded the campaign against the Barclays’ decision, and the young campaigners involved were (and continue to be) adept in these activities. Speaking both English and Somali, they were able to engage individuals across the generational divide and, to this end, they exploited social networking technologies, as well kinship networks and word of mouth. This allowed them to mediate between different groups of Somalis as they sought to present a coherent and unified voice which transcended regional and clan divisions.

Moreover, having been raised predominantly in Europe, they were attuned to development and humanitarian discourses, and even well-placed to work collaboratively with international organisations. A good example of this was their partnership with Oxfam and Adeso in October 2013; in one of the most memorable stunts of the campaign, the campaigners mounted Barclays-sponsored ‘Boris’ bikes and cycled in protest into central London. Making their way through busy London traffic they delivered bags of fake money to the bank’s headquarters, in order to illustrate the difficulties they would face in sending money to their loved ones back home should the accounts be closed. Barclays were asked to ‘back-pedal and fast!’

But one of the key determinants of the success of the campaign was the ability of these groups to capitalise on their knowledge of the UK political system and the relationships which they had cultivated with various government departments. Local MPs were lobbied to support the cause, meetings with key figures in government were arranged, and even at meetings on unrelated matters, the issue of remittances was raised and forced onto the table. As one government employee in the Somalia Unit pointed out: Somalis know how to get what they want and they persevere until they get it! The signatures from the petitions were put to good effect, and these young diasporans established themselves as a force to be reckoned with.

Framing the debate
In a post financial crisis climate, any campaign against a major bank was bound to gather some traction, but for tangible results, the campaigners knew they also needed to get the government involved. Initially, however, the government dismissed the issue as a commercial decision, over which they had no say, and stated in its ‘Factsheet on Somali Remittances’ in October 2013 that Somalis had alternative avenues to remit money back home. This was vehemently disputed by the campaigners.

First, the campaigners highlighted the uniqueness of the Somali corridor, pointing to the aforementioned lack of a central banking system, the lack of viable alternatives, and the cost efficiencies of the current system.

Second, they pointed to the profound humanitarian consequences of any closure of this corridor.  The annual remittance flows of $1.2 billion was said to be a ‘lifeline’ for the country, constituting more than international aid, foreign investment and exports put together (Hammond et al 2013: 1). Once the campaigners placed this in context, their logic was impossible to ignore. After all, the government had hosted two conferences on Somalia in 2012-13, presenting the country as one of its top foreign policy priorities. It had also recognised the crucial role played by remittances, which had been particularly highlighted during the famine in 2011. By the time of the parliamentary debate in July 2013, these were well-trodden lines of argumentation.

Eventually, the government changed tack.  In October 2013, with pressure mounting, it committed to setting up an Action Group on Cross Border Remittances composed of three working groups. One of these is developing a ‘Safer Corridors to Somalia Pilot Project’, and is coordinated by the Department For International Development (DFID) with the support of the National Crime Agency, and in consultation with an advisory group and a technical implementation team. The influential role of the diaspora groups in this period can be discerned from the fact that three diaspora representatives, as well as the coordinator of the Somali Money Services Association (SOMSA), were selected by the government to form part of the advisory group[3], which meets on a bi-weekly basis.

Searching for a Solution
Despite the government’s commitment, Barclays has not revoked its decision and the Somali MTOs are yet to find alternative banking options. Dahabshiil, which sought and won an interim injunction against Barclays Bank continues to operate as usual for the time being.

Whilst popular attention given to the issue has since declined, Ramadan 2014 has again proved to be a relatively stressful period for many campaigners as they await further developments. The plan for the Safer Corridor project is due to be presented and implemented in the coming months, and the diaspora representatives have been developing a community engagement strategy to facilitate communication around the Pilot.  But adding to the stress is the on-going fear that Dahabshiil’s account will be closed before a durable solution is found.

While my work thus far has been primarily with the campaigners in London, next month I will be travelling to Hargeysa, Somaliland, to research the transnational impact of the diaspora’s involvement in the campaign. I will be investigating what the various stakeholders are doing to find a solution to the issue, and, most importantly, I will be assessing the role of the diaspora in shaping a changing money transfer sector.

The project is led by Nicholas Van Hear and funded by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the Oxford Diasporas Programme. Based on primary research, it focuses on diaspora engagement in Sri Lanka, the Somali regions, and Afghanistan. The Somali component of the research focuses on the diaspora’s involvement in the campaign to maintain remittance flows, against the background of growing stability across the Somali regions since 2012. 


Lindley, A. and Mosley, J. 2014. Challenges for the Somali Money Transfer Sector. Nairobi, Kenya: Rift Valley Institute Briefing Paper.

Hammond, L. et al. 2011. Cash and Compassion: The Role of the Somali Diaspora in Relief, Development and Peace-Building. Report of a Study Commissioned by UNDP, Somalia, January 2011

Hammond, L. et al. 2013. Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland. Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit – Somalia

[1] Others included Mustaqbal, Tawakal and Horyaal.

[2] See Hammond et al (2011) for a recent exception to this case.

[3] Other members of the Advisory Group include banks, regulators, NGOs, international partners and the UK and Somali governments. The technical implementation team is led by the World Bank.