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Seattle Times Editorial

The Obama administration needs to act now to avert a tragedy in Somalia that could further destabilize the fragile African nation.

IMPOVERISHED, chaotic Somalia is on the brink of another humanitarian crisis, this one due at least in part to U.S. governmental actions.

The Obama administration needs to act now to avert a tragedy that could further destabilize the fragile African nation.

Millions of Somalis rely on cash from friends and relatives overseas to pay for food, medicine, school fees and other essentials. The transfers, called remittances, account for one-third of the country’s total income, according to the U.S. State Department.

Until this month, nearly 20 percent of those remittances came from Somali Americans. That pipeline all but shut down Feb. 6.

The small California bank that had handled up to 80 percent of the remittance business closed the accounts of money-transfer operators who collect the funds in Seattle and other cities and disperse them in Somalia.

Merchants Bank of California had been under pressure from U.S. bank regulators to monitor transfers more closely to ensure funds weren’t ending up in terrorists’ pockets. Rather than risk hefty penalties, the bank chose to get out of the business altogether.

Other larger banks pulled out years ago.

Regulators’ concerns about terrorism are warranted. Somali immigrants in San Diego and Minnesota have been convicted of sending money to the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab. A Kent woman has been charged with a similar offense.

But shutting down the remittance system — the only legal way law-abiding Somali Americans have to get cash to their families — “is like burning down the whole house to get one rat,” one Somali American told The Los Angeles Times.

It could actually strengthen the terrorists’ hand. Oxfam America and other aid groups warn that money instead would start moving through underground channels, more difficult for U.S. anti-terrorism officials to track. And terrorists thrive on starvation, disease, poverty and the political instability those conditions breed.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, who represents most of Washington’s large Somali American population, and 11 other members of Congress wrote Secretary of State John Kerry Feb. 6 asking for a meeting as soon as possible to address both the immediate problem and longer-term concerns.

That meeting isn’t scheduled to happen until Feb. 27 — disappointingly late, considering the situation’s urgency. Administration officials should come to it with a plan ready to implement to get funds flowing quickly to needy Somalis again.

It’s a matter of national security — theirs, and ours.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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