The famines looming in countries like war-torn Yemen and Somalia and the conflicts entrenched in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are making it hard for aid workers to reach everyone who desperately needs help. However, US restrictions on humanitarian aid and the funds immigrants send their relatives back home — intended to starve terrorists of cash — are getting in the way.
These rules treat all money transferred to foreign nonprofit groups as being illegitimate, or at least suspect, unless proven otherwise. Research suggests that these measures, enforced by the Treasury Department, go beyond their stated purpose of preventing terrorist attacks. The regulations also endanger individual donors.
As a scholar who has studied philanthropy, both in the US and around the world, I believe it’s time to consider lifting or loosening some of these restrictions in light of ongoing crises and signs that they are blocking legitimate aid.
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There are 6.3 million Syrians displaced internally, and about 5 million Syrian refugees have fled to find safer homes. According to UN estimates, the conflict and its collateral damage have killed more than 400,000 Syrians.
The need for assistance, in cash and in kind, is as staggering as the casualties. The International Committee of the Red Cross is short US $300 million to meet its goals in Yemen. That conflict has displaced over 3 million people, many of whom are at risk of starvation. About 10,000 people have died there, another 40,000 have been injured and some 14 million Yemenis — out of a population of 26 million — need food aid, according to the United Nations.
All told, 20 million people could die from starvation and related diseases in the coming months just in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan. “We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN” after World War II, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in March.
Whenever extremists tried to control access to aid in the past, delivering it was hard. Fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks made the task even harder.
Specifically, President George W. Bush issued an executive order to prevent suspected terrorists from profiting off of charities used as fronts. Soon after, the Treasury Department shut down three of the largest US-based Muslim-led charities: Holy Land Foundation, Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation for providing material support to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Bush sought to crack down on any sources that could have supported terrorism in the US and abroad and this was the (politically) expedient thing to do at that time.
The government froze over $20 million in assets belonging to the three nonprofits. Subsequent investigations and analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others have pointed to the fact that many of the measures the US government used against these nonprofits were unconstitutional because they did not allow for due process, as mandated by law.
Sometimes this lack of due process ensnares American donors. Consider the case of Dr. Rafil Dhafir, a US citizen. The Iraqi-born oncologist from Syracuse, New York, was convicted of sending money to Iraq illegally through his charity, Help The Needy, although the government brought no terrorism charges against him. The fact that he sent money to a country against which the US had sanctions at the time was enough for the court to sentence him. He remains behind bars 14 years later, serving a 22-year sentence that symbolizes the risks posed by giving while Muslim in the United States.
The Bush-era restrictions continue to boost oversight and fuel an atmosphere of suspicion around nongovernmental aid to the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, many nonprofits that deliver aid to conflict zones face undue hassles. Banks may refuse to wire money, charging a higher fee or asking for onerous paper work. The Charity and Security Network, a group that advocates on behalf of international non-governmental organizations, parsed data from over 1,010 nonprofits. It found that these delays lead to schools not being staffed, salaries not being paid and refugees not getting the services they need.
The sanctions against countries like those in place in Syria and Yemen, which bar any form of “service” by US citizens, also prohibit most organizations from dealing with banks and other financial institutions in these countries.
Beyond targeting charity, the terrorism restrictions threaten another key source of aid for the victims of famine and war: remittances. Immigrants send money to their relatives, friends and others who reach out to them. Giving based on religious and ethnic identity is common. Muslim giving across borders is hard to measure but ranges between $200 billion and $1 trillion, according to IRIN, a United Nations news service.
Somalia, for instance, gets about $1.3 billion — more than a fifth of its gross domestic product — from remittances, according to the World Bank.
As journalists have reported, scrutiny over remittances to Somalia have led several US banks to shut down their remittance divisions. It has also made illegal and quasi-legal systems that sidestep official banking networks more common. This can make oversight even more elusive and wreak devastating consequences on the day-to-day lives of millions of Somalis, who depend on these funds for their livelihood.
As the Charity and Security Network explained in its Financial Access for US Nonprofits report, nonprofits working in conflict zones have terminated projects or opted to not provide aid, simply to avoid the appearance of violating some regulatory norm. The report argues that many rules intended to fight money laundering and terrorism financing have stymied efforts by nonprofits to provide lifesaving assistance in Somalia, Syria and other conflict zones.
Further, as the American Civil Liberties Union said in its “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity” report, one problem is that these charities have little recourse to appeal decisions when the US government deems them to be tied to terrorists. There is no oversight mechanism in place as the Treasury Department exercises its authority to determine whether aid groups are helping terrorists or are influenced by extremists. These determinations cannot be appealed.
If US regulations obstruct assistance out of unfounded fears, it may harm noncombatants and civilians caught in the crossfire. The Trump administration should revisit those rules to ensure that Americans who want to help — through philanthropy and remittances — may exercise their freedom to be generous toward people experiencing multiple emergencies at once.
In countries like Syria and Somalia, it could mean the difference between life and death.