Since the civil war erupted in 2011, millions of Syrians have left their homes in search of safety; some have journeyed to the overcrowded refugee camps of neighbouring countries, such as Jordan or Lebanon, while others boarded unsafe boats to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of finding refuge in Europe.
However, 7.6 million Syrians have not fled the country and are regarded as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Since the spread of extremist groups such as Daesh/ISIS, the delivery of humanitarian aid directly to Syria has almost ground to a halt. Most large international aid organisations who would usually lead the humanitarian efforts no longer operate inside the country as a result of safety concerns about staff and volunteers. A number of smaller charities, often run by Muslims, have sprung up in response to the Syrian conflict; they are trying to fill the void, but concerns about aid falling into the “wrong” hands are hampering their work.
Buthaynah Ahmed from the UK-registered charity Hand in Hand for Syria explained that in the earlier stages of the war, many people travelled to the country to deliver aid freely. The organisation was set up shortly after the conflict began and immediately started to send convoys of ambulances to Syria, along with other aid.
These have stopped (minus a recent convoy of ambulances which was handed over to staff at the Turkish border), largely as a result of the increasing dangers. Since then, she says, the word “convoy” has become a “blacklisted” term. The Charity Commission, which regulates British charities, issued warnings that convoys “may be abused for non-charitable purposes”. Charities running them came under increasing scrutiny amid widely reported claims that Britons intent on joining the fighting used them as cover to travel to Syria or to attend “terrorist training camps”.
This scrutiny spread to the charities themselves. According to the Times newspaper, some small charities were fronts for extremist groups in Syria; it cited unnamed British officials as the sources for this information. Last November, news broke that the Charity Commission had launched a series of formal investigations into 86 British aid organisations, amid concerns that they are at risk of being hijacked by terrorists; 37 of these were reportedly working to help victims of the Syria crisis. William Shawcross, chairman of the watchdog, has warned that money donated by the British public may have already been sent to Daesh/ISIS fighters, noting that new charities were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
UK-based Islamic charity Children of Deen was one of those investigated. The investigation began in April 2014 after it emerged that a participant in the charity’s aid convoy, Abdul Waheed Majeed, had allegedly become Britain’s first suicide bomber in Syria. In November, Masood Ajaib, a trustee of Children in Deen, condemned the actions of Majeed and completely dissociated himself and the charity from any links to violence. He said the commission’s investigation had already hit fund-raising and made its operations more difficult.
Despite examples like this being relatively rare, they have had a negative effect on other Syria-focused charities like Hand in Hand with Syria, claimed Ahmed. “We used to have a lot of non-Muslim supporters as well as Muslims but once Daesh/ISIS started to dominate the headlines, we noticed a lack of donations.” Even the number of people attending fund-raising events fell. “Suddenly there were fewer people willing to raise funds,” she explained, “and we were hearing the excuse, ‘How do I know where my money is going?’ more often, despite clear documentation of our aid distribution and projects in Syria. Such questions were obviously unwarranted.”
Attempts to stop British Muslims from heading to Syria to join the extremists has led to the Hand in Hand staff being questioned for several hours by airport security regarding visits to the charity’s operational headquarters in Turkey. The recent counter-terrorism and security bill, which extends the powers of police and border officials to confiscate a passport temporarily if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an individual is travelling abroad to engage in terrorism-related activity, will likely make things increasingly difficult.
Islamic charities seem to be bearing the brunt of much of this suspicion. For example, according to a Guardian analysis published in November 2014, more than a quarter of the statutory investigations launched by the Charity Commission since April 2012 have been directed at Muslim charities associated with running mosques, providing humanitarian relief or undertaking aid efforts in Syria. Furthermore, international banks have also frozen a number of Muslim and non-Muslim charity accounts since last year, particularly those delivering aid to places such as Syria and Gaza, over fears that the money could end up financing terrorism. Muslim groups argued that they have been targeted disproportionately by these closures.
In Britain, charities remain some of the biggest and most important Muslim institutions. Islam instructs its followers to give 2.5 per cent of their surplus wealth to the poor every year and such generosity is one of the five pillars of the faith. British Muslims give more to charity than any other faith group in the nation, donating more than £100 million to charity in Ramadan alone, according to figures on Islamic Relief’s website.
Rethink Rebuild Society (RR), a community organisation that works towards improving the lives of Syrians in Manchester, has been documenting cases of several Muslim organisations and individuals linked to them having their accounts closed without explanation. Yasmine Nahlawi, the group’s Advocacy and Policy Coordinator, who has also had her HSBC account “inhibited”, said RR uncovered a “systemic policy” of banks using sanctions compliance regulations or the uncertainty in Syria as an excuse for refusing services to Syria charities.
“This is a problem because the UN is describing Syria as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Nahlawi told me, “and what we have are bank regulations here which, instead of facilitating charity work and aid work, are constraining charities to the point where they can’t even operate.”
As Hand in Hand for Syria stated on its website, many well-known aid agencies cannot work in Syria because of government restrictions or risks to their workers. The charity thus focuses its efforts on supporting the refugees in camps in neighbouring countries, relying on other organisations as “implementation partners” to deliver aid within Syria.
“It’s quite frustrating to see,” said Ahmed. “We have such a pivotal role to play but there’s still a lot of suspicion from different angles.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.