U.N. officials visit Twin Cities to promote Somali-run agencies

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – United Nations officials are visiting the Twin Cities this week to promote better understanding of the importance of Somali-run money-transfer agencies, which have been casualties in the war on terrorism.

A new U.N. report says refugees here have used the informal financial system to send an estimated $7 million a month to poor relatives in the war-torn East African country.

Members of a U.N. delegation working to help Somalia recover said their goal is to show bankers, regulators and federal authorities that the agencies are legitimate and that the service they provide is critical to preventing a humanitarian crisis.

Somalia has no formal banking system, and its shattered economy provides few jobs, members of the U.N. delegation said. A ban on imports of Somali livestock by Saudi Arabia is adding to the country’ struggles.

The money refugees send from the United States and 45 other countries – typically $50 to $100 at a time – is essential to the survival of relatives in parts of Somalia still in chaos and in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

“W are trying to keep the lifeline open,”Andrea Tamagnini, country director of the Kenya-based U.N. Development Program for Somalia, said Wednesday. She spoke at the offices of the Somali Community of Minnesota, a nonprofit community assistance agency.

“By maintaining this lifeline, we can prevent a humanitarian crisis, really prevent it, rather than respond to it,” Tamagnini said.

The latest U.S. Census found that Minnesota had the largest Somali population of any state in the nation at 11,164, followed by California at 3,569. The Minnesota demographer’s office estimates their ranks have grown to around 15,000 since Census 2000. Somali leaders in Minnesota say the figures are too low.

Delegation members are encouraging operators of the agencies, or hawalas, to learn how to comply with state and federal laws, in part so they can avoid suspicions that have clouded such operations for nearly a year.

Last November, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, federal agents raided several hawalas in Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston and Columbus, Ohio, freezing their assets and accusing them of channeling money to a global financial network suspected of supporting Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

The businesses still face lingering questions, even after the United Nations removed two Minneapolis agencies and one of their owners from a sanctions list at the request of U.S. authorities, who had said the parties had no prior knowledge and had cut ties to entities suspected of funneling money to terrorist groups.