UK charity crackdown riles Syria aid workers

Muslim volunteers face questioning and threat of arrest, while aid has been disrupted or blocked, charities say.

Convoys with much-needed UK aid for Syrians are being blocked, charity workers say [World Aid Convoy]

London, United Kingdom – British authorities are harassing, criminalising, and obstructing individuals and Islamic charities delivering life-saving supplies to Syria, even as the government leads tributes to a British taxi driver murdered by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after joining an aid convoy to the country.

Alan Henning, who was the only non-Muslim member of a group of volunteers travelling into Syria when he was abducted last December, has been widely lauded as a humanitarian hero in the days since he became the fourth Western hostage killed in a series of ISIL beheading videos.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, said Henning was “a kind, gentle, caring and compassionate man who had simply gone to help others”, while Nick Clegg, the deputy PM, called him “a man moved to selflessly help those most in need”.

Money is still coming in but a lot of the charities have received less than in previous years for Syria ... It has forced a change of approach and restricted some activities.

by - Jahanghir Mohammed, aid consultant

Yet Muslim volunteers travelling to Syria for the same reasons, including Henning’s friends and companions, have faced suspicion, questioning, and the threat of arrest on their return to the UK, while charities say their efforts to raise money and deliver ambulances and aid are being disrupted.

“It’s extremely difficult now. It is normal to be harassed by police,” Majid Freeman, a volunteer who has travelled three times to Syria and was with Henning when he was abducted, told Al Jazeera. “There are very, very few convoys now. A lot of charities are scared, because if anyone is even willing to take a convoy all eyes will automatically be on them.”

Dwindling convoys

Convoys of ambulances and other vehicles, often marked with the names of volunteers’ home cities and towns and loaded with food, medical supplies and other aid, have departed regularly from Muslim communities in the UK for northern Syria in the years since the conflict began.

But the number and scale of convoys has dwindled in recent months as many of the charities traditionally involved in organising them, including Human Aid, al-Fatiha Global, and Children in Deen, have been placed under investigation by the Charity Commission, the UK’s sector regulator.

The commission warned earlier this year there was a risk that aid convoys were facilitating the travel of Britons intent on fighting in Syria, while government ministers and senior police officers said those returning from the warzone would likely face arrest and questioning. 

Al Jazeera is also aware of another charity that is the subject of a criminal inquiry relating to money confiscated from a convoy member at the UK border in December 2012. Police continue to investigate the case and the money remains in police custody, but nobody has been charged.

Related: Are UK banks targeting Muslim charities?

Jahanghir Mohammed, a consultant working with several of the charities under investigation, told Al Jazeera the authorities appeared to have launched a deliberate campaign to cripple and stifle their activities.

Charities under investigation are barred from raising money via online donation sites, and are forced to ask supporters to donate money directly into their bank accounts, Mohammed said. Some Muslim charities have also had banking facilities withdrawn, as Al Jazeera reported in August.

“Money is still coming in but a lot of the charities have received less than in previous years for Syria. They are receiving money but they are sending it to partners overseas to do something with it. It has forced a change of approach and restricted some activities,” said Mohammed.

Charity crackdown

While earlier convoys numbered up to 60 vehicles, a recent convoy organised by the charity One Nation delivered just six ambulances for use by hospitals in rebel-held areas. Another charity, World Aid Convoy, said on its Facebook page it hoped to send a convoy in November.

Freeman said many volunteers had also been forced to give up taking aid because they and their families had been subjected to pressure and harassment. He said Muslims who had been to Syria were frequently visited at home or phoned by police and invited for “informal chats”. Many had also been subjected to questioning on leaving and arriving back in the country.

UK Muslims going to Syria say they face questioning and airport hold-ups upon return [World Aid Convoy]

“Sometimes people, the family men with kids and wives, they have no option because of the harassment that their families will also receive,” said Freeman. “That pushes a lot of people towards giving up the work.”

As convoys have become more challenging to organise, most charities are instead sending aid in shipping containers, which is distributed through local networks on arrival in southern Turkey.

We previously sent aid convoys to the Turkey-Syria border, but our favoured method of getting aid to Syria now is by means of shipping containers to Turkey, then transporting the aid across the border. This cuts out the need for British workers or volunteers there, as it is simply too dangerous,” Buthaynah Ahmed, head of media for Hand in Hand for Syria, a UK-based charity that has been working in the country for three-and-a-half years, told Al Jazeera.

Escalating crisis

The humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to deteriorate, with the United Nations estimating there are at least 4.7 million people in need of assistance in besieged and hard to access areas. “Needs, driven by violence, continue to outpace the response,” Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said last month.

Much of the aid work being done by international humanitarian organisations has been coordinated through the UN, yet the Security Council only approved direct delivery of aid into rebel-held territory without the consent of the Assad government in July.

Ahmed said many of the larger organisations were still dependent on smaller charities to help get aid into hard-to-reach areas.

They understandably don’t want to send their staff because it’s not safe to operate in country. We are able to operate by making use of our well-established connections on the ground. This enables us to carry out work other larger organisations are unable to do.

Yet she said negative media coverage of charities operating in Syria had become a major problem.

“We’ve noticed a massive drop in the amount of donations we have received. A lot of people are very wary of donating to anything to do with Syria. People are scared of being associated with it.

You know your life is on the line, but you have to weigh that up against who is depending on you on the other side. Every life is valuable and there are thousands of people who will literally die if we stop this work.

by - Majid Freeman, aid worker

“It is affecting everything. There are issues with the banks and issues with getting aid through. We are a UK-registered charity and the government knows everything that we do, but we are still having difficulties. Every time our staff come back they are harassed in the airport for hours on end.”

‘Fake tributes and empty words’

In a speech last month, William Shawcross, the head of the Charity Commission, said it was “emphatically not the case” that the commission was “targeting or disproportionately focusing on charities with links to Muslim communities”. 

But he said many charities operating in Syria were “inexperienced and potentially vulnerable to exploitation”.

“Protecting Muslim charities from terrorist penetration is a vital element of the Charity Commission’s role,” he said.

 A spokeswoman for the commission told Al Jazeera many charities were doing “great work” in Syria, but said it had warned those involved in organising convoys that they could face scrutiny. “We have a duty to investigate concerns and protect the public trust and confidence in charities,” she said.

Freeman said many people involved in convoy work had been angered by Cameron’s tribute to Alan Henning, believing the British government had not done enough to secure his release and had taken advantage of his death to drum up support for British involvement in air strikes against ISIL in Iraq.

“We tried our best to urge the government to do something to help him and not abandon him. Instead they give him fake tributes and empty words. If anything, it seemed like it fitted the government’s agenda for Alan to be killed,” he said.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said any suggestion that the UK’s involvement in the campaign against ISIL was connected to the deaths of Henning and David Haines, another murdered British hostage, was “absolutely wrong”.

“Anyone in any doubt about ISIL can now see how truly repulsive and barbaric it is as an organisation,” the spokesman said on condition of anonymity, as is UK government policy. “As the PM has promised, we will strive to bring the killers to justice, no matter how long it takes. The government made every effort to bring Alan Henning home. We are supporting his family during this difficult time.”

Freeman said coalition air strikes in Syria will only worsen the plight of people already reeling under the onslaught of Syrian government forces. Yet, recalling the suffering he saw and the dangers he faced on his first visit to Aleppo, he said he and others remained determined to do all they could to help.

“Even at the main hospital, a lot of the ambulances they were using were from aid convoys. We need to keep going because these people were basically begging and saying, ‘We need you, don’t stop whatever you do.’

“You know your life is on the line, but you have to weigh that up against who is depending on you on the other side. Every life is valuable and there are thousands of people who will literally die if we stop this work.”

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper