The country’s largest international aid charities have warned that a government bill passing through parliament could stop them being able to deliver services in war-torn countries.
Chief executives from charities including Oxfam, ActionAid UK and Islamic Relief Worldwide have co-signed a statement expressing concern about the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which will enter its report stage in the House of Lords next week.
It will give the home secretary new powers to make it an offence for UK nationals and residents to enter or remain in a particular country, or region.
Charities have called for the bill to be amended to exempt aid workers and journalists from this rule, which could lead to an up to 10-year sentence, but they have so far been unsuccessful.
The bill currently only allows an exemption to individuals who can show a “reasonable excuse for entering, or remaining in, the designated area” but aid charities say this does not provide sufficient protection to their staff.
‘Time is running out’
The charities’ statement says they are concerned the bill “would in effect make it a criminal offence for British aid workers to provide support to vulnerable people in war-torn countries”.
It says: “Unless urgently amended, the bill will fail to provide sufficient protection for people who already risk their lives to help others and could instead mean they face police interrogation and arrest on their return, even with the changes proposed by the government this week.
“This is simply unacceptable and will make it impossible for civil society organisations to deliver much needed humanitarian, development and peacebuilding support to people desperately in need.
“If the UK is to continue to assist women and children struggling to survive conflict, and preserve our position as one of the world’s leading providers of humanitarian and development assistance, it is vital that the government and peers amend the bill so that it exempts aid workers and others with a legitimate reason to travel to designated areas.
“Time is running out to ensure aid workers, academics, journalists and anyone else with legitimate reasons to travel to insecure countries, are not adversely affected by this bill.”
Charities also warned that the bill could increase instances of "bank de-risking", which is when banks slow down transactions, freeze or close accounts that they think could be at risk of breaches in counter-terrorism regulation.