How to help the people of Syria and Turkey – without breaking rules around U.S. Sanctions?

By now, it is increasingly becoming clear that the earthquake that impacted Syria and Turkey on 6 February, is a massive humanitarian disaster. This crisis like others in war-torn and conflict zones is unique in that American aid cannot reach the potential beneficiaries, with ease. 

For those Americans who want to donate to NGOs, or other agencies helping those suffering, there is the ambiguity: Should one do it, despite Syria being under sanctions and this $25 or $100 donation could actually end up being a case for providing “material support for terrorism”, in case the aid ends up in the wrong hands. OR not do anything? 

So, what should you do?

As someone who has studies humanitarian aid and remittances policies in international contexts, I have read, heard and witnessed several cases of prosecutions of regular Americans for doing the “right thing,” i.e., supporting humans suffering.The logic of American sanctions doesn’t take into account humanitarian actions, albeit with some exceptions – and those exceptions should come from the U.S. establishment – and within strict parameters.

In the recent past, US Government has frozen assets of American NGOs working in Syria and neighboring countries. The laws around sending money aboard for aid have not changed much and are complex and convoluted, at best. As I have written in the past, there has been an attempt to block flow of money to such causes and this goes back to the Patriot Act and fear around funding of terrorism – as a legacy of the attacks of 9/11.

The lens through which the US establishment sees flows of money is that of risk. Everything is seen as a potentially disruptive flow, unless proved otherwise. Given this negative framing of flows of money, it is increasingly hard for NGOs and non-state actors to act on humanitarian issues, fearlessly.

There have been documented cases of dozens of American citizens who have been targeted by laws and prosecuted for giving aid to people in conflict zones, the Middle East in particular. So, how does one donate safely and knowing that you will not be targeted by laws around US Sanctions?

Donating through an online platform to an NGO that works in the region is an option. But again, given that fact that these NGOs can in turn be very tricky.

As this resource points out, to do it in a manner that minimizes risk to you:

1.     You must find an American charity working in Syria or

2.     An American charity that partners with a Syrian charity or

3.      American charity working with Syrians outside of Syria

4.     Do your due diligence in terms of their compliance of US anti-terrorism ordinance and OFAC rules

For those that want to donate to American NGOs working in Syria, under a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), there are several layers of checks before the money actually reaches the beneficiaries. As NGO experts have shared with me, this also adds a layer of administrative costs, that can eat away at the donations that are being made to the charities.

In a recent interview, I spoke about some of the challenges facing NGOs and civil society groups in Syria and Turkey. 

Americans are among the most generous people in the world, as Giving USA and other reports consistently show us. We do it, despite the many barriers before us. It is time we re-look at why these barriers exist and how they can be reduced. 

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