News story

Syria and aid convoys

There is a risk that charitable aid convoys to Syria may be abused for non-charitable purposes.

The Charity Commission, the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales, is issuing this alert to charities as regulatory advice under section 15(2) of the Charities Act 2011 - it is particularly relevant for trustees of charities and charitable appeals which are organising or participating in humanitarian aid convoys to assist those affected by the Syria Crisis (“the Crisis”).

Recent media coverage has reported that a suspected British suicide bomber in Syria had travelled there as part of a humanitarian convoy. The Commission has and continues to be alert to the potential abuse of humanitarian aid efforts through facilitating travel for individuals for other purposes particularly to conflict zones where terrorist groups are known to operate or exert control.

There is a risk that charitable aid convoys to Syria may be abused for non-charitable purposes and facilitating travel for British foreign fighters. This is of serious regulatory concern to the Commission and impacts on public trust and confidence in those charities responding to the Crisis and the charitable sector more generally.

Trustees of charities and charitable appeals providing humanitarian support need to carefully consider whether organising and/or participating in a convoy is really the most effective way to deliver aid to those in need.

For those organising and/or participating in convoys it is imperative that they:

  • take proper steps to ensure that the aid that they are providing is only used for lawful humanitarian purposes

  • are able to account for its proper use

  • take reasonable steps to guard against abuse

This includes ensuring volunteers are properly vetted before being allowed to fundraise or travel on behalf of the charity. The Commission has seen from its own regulatory casework that some charities have poor vetting procedures, or do not follow or implement those procedures where they do exist.

In some cases this has resulted in individuals being permitted to travel on the day or day before the convoy departs where it is questionable whether they should have been allowed to participate.

The Commission’s regulatory advice to charities is to ensure:

  • They consider very carefully whether a convoy is the most effective way to deliver aid and they properly assess and manage the risks. It is likely that those travelling on aid convoys may be stopped and questioned. People participating in aid convoys have been stopped by ports officers both in the UK and overseas. It is therefore essential that convoys are properly planned and consideration is given to individual safety and the safety of aid being transported, and all relevant country requirements are met;

  • Volunteers receive appropriate training and briefings prior to travel to ensure that they are aware of the risks involved if they travel. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (“FCO”) advises against all travel to Syria and that any British citizen in Syria leave by any practical means as it is unable to provide any consular services for any British citizens in Syria. In June 2013 the Syrian Government issued a new law stating that any individual who enters Syrian territories illegally will be punished by a prison sentence of 5-10 years and/or a fine of 5-10 million Syrian pounds;

  • All volunteers travel from and return to the UK together on the convoy; trustees ought to question the motives of those wanting to stay for longer periods of time or those looking to travel independently;

  • That they are alert to people signing up to join a convoy at the last minute, making proper vetting and checks difficult for the charity to carry out. Whilst their intentions may be genuine, the Commission advises charities not to take these individuals with them and report any concerns they have about an individual’s intentions to the Police;

  • Cash is kept to a minimum and only carried when absolutely necessary. When charitable funds are carried in cash, it is supported by appropriate authorisation and documentation to demonstrate the legitimate source of the funds, and how those funds are to be used for charitable purposes. The method of transporting cash in person is known to be used by criminal and terrorist groups; therefore carrying large sums of cash in person is likely to be viewed suspiciously by the Police and Ports Officers and may be subject to seizure under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 - and ultimately lost. In addition, transacting in cash carries greater handling risks; trustees must be able to comply with their duty to account for the use of funds by showing that they have been properly applied for charitable purposes; and

  • Vehicles travelling as part of the convoy are authorised and properly checked prior to departure to ensure that no inappropriate or illegal items are being carried in either personal luggage or as part of the charity’s cargo.

Michelle Russell - Head of Investigation and Enforcement, The Charity Commission said:

There is genuine and desperate need for humanitarian assistance to help people affected by the conflict in Syria. UK charities and their partners are playing an important role in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria and neighbouring countries.

It is vital that the public continues to have confidence in the charities they are generously supporting - the Commission has previously issued advice to the public looking to donate via UK charities to help those affected and for charities responding to the Crisis.

Sadly there will always be a risk that the high level of trust and confidence that the public have in charities may be abused by others for their own ends. There is a particular risk with the current situation that charities may be used to facilitate or disguise travel to Syria for purposes not connected with providing humanitarian aid.

This will mean that charities operating in and around Syria and individuals travelling there particularly as part of convoys will come under additional scrutiny. It is imperative that trustees ensure that staff and volunteers are alert to suspicious situations and that they carry out proper checks on both individuals and vehicles travelling.

The Commission has been engaging with, and will continue to engage with, a number of charities and charitable appeals which have been established for or are responding to the humanitarian situation in Syria to ensure that funds so generously donated by the public are properly applied and that trustees comply with the law.

The Commission is warning charities organising and participating in convoys that they may face regulatory oversight and scrutiny by the Commission, including a compliance visit. The Commission expects those charities involved in convoys it engages with to be able to demonstrate that the trustees have complied with their duties and responsibilities under charity law and that charitable funds and property have been properly applied.

The Commission will continue to work collaboratively with the Police and law enforcement agencies and will support any criminal investigations involving the suspected abuse of charities and humanitarian work.