London, England — British authorities are harassing 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 in 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 to be killed in a series of ISIL beheading videos.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, described Henning as “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”.
Yet Muslim volunteers travelling to Syria for the same reasons, including Henning’s friends and companions, say they 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,” said Majid Freeman, a volunteer who has travelled three times to Syria and was with Henning when he was abducted. “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.”
Convoy charities investigated
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 some of the charities traditionally involved in organising them, including Human Aid, al-Fatiha Global, Aid Convoy 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 that Britons returning from the warzone would likely face arrest and questioning.
One charity is also 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.
Jahanghir Mohammed, a consultant working with several of the charities under investigation, said there appeared to be a coordinated campaign to cripple and stifle their activities.
Charities under investigation are barred from raising funds via online donation sites and are forced to ask supporters to donate money directly into their bank accounts as well as facing reputational damage, Mohammed said. Some Muslim charities have also had banking facilities withdrawn, as reported in August.
“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,” said Mohammed.
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 that it hoped to send a convoy in November.
Pressure and harassment
Freeman said that 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 that Muslims who had been to Syria were frequently visited at home or phoned by police and invited for “informal chats”. Many had been subjected to prolonged questioning on leaving and arriving back in the country.
“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 to be 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,” said 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.
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 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 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.
Negative media coverage
Ahmed said the main aid agencies were still dependent on smaller charities to help them get supplies 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.
“It is affecting everything. 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.”
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 spokesperson for the commission said that 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.
‘Fake tributes and empty words’
Majid Freeman said that many people involved in convoy work had been angered by Cameron’s tribute to Alan Henning, believing that his government had not done all it could to secure his release and had used his captivity and murder to drum up support for British involvement in airstrikes 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,” he said. “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 believes coalition airstrikes in Syria will only worsen the plight of people already reeling under the combined onslaught of Syrian regime forces and advancing ISIL fighters. 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.”
A version of this article was originally published on Al Jazeera on 15 October, 2014.