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UK counterterrorism travel ban could criminalise humanitarian assistance

Written by Sarah Adamczyk


The proposed UK Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which could pass as early as this Monday, criminalises travel by British nationals to geographic areas the government designates as a no-go.

It was originally intended to enable prosecutions against those who travel abroad to join terrorist organisations – the so-called ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ phenomenon. But the travel ban could have devastating impacts on British aid workers.

Just yesterday, ODI joined 20 civil society organisations in signing a statement calling the proposed travel ban ‘unacceptable’. It will make it impossible to deliver humanitarian assistance to people desperately in need. The UK government should amend the bill to exempt aid workers and others who have legitimate reasons to travel.

Here are four ways the bill will affect humanitarian aid, the people who provide it, and the people whose lives rely on it.

1. It contradicts UK humanitarian policy

The bill inherently contradicts the UK’s 2017 Humanitarian Reform Policy to maintain humanitarian space and support ‘partners to work according to humanitarian principles’. By their very nature, aid agencies operate in areas where humanitarian needs are greatest, which often happen to be areas where terrorist organisations are active.  

This travel ban could result in the UK’s Department for International Development funding humanitarian programmes in the exact areas where it would be a criminal offence for UK nationals to be physically present. Given the duty of care obligations to staff, aid agencies may be reluctant to employ UK nationals to work in proscribed regions.

There may be economic consequences as well, since financial institutions may fear the legal repercussions of transferring funds to such areas.

More importantly, aid may be diverted away from people in need of humanitarian assistance. Those directly affected by terrorist activities may be doubly victimised, trapped between extremist organisations on the one hand and the unintended impact of counterterrorism policies on the other.

2. It increases risks to UK aid workers

In the current draft, the only explicit exemption applies to agents acting on behalf of the Crown while all others may raise ‘reasonable excuse’ as a defence. An amendment to be considered on Monday would add language expressly recognising the delivery of humanitarian assistance as a ‘reasonable excuse’.

While a welcome improvement, this remains a defence rather than an exemption. Aid workers would be required to raise this defence only after questioning and potential arrest upon their return to the UK.  

At a time when humanitarian workers increasingly face threats, kidnapping and attacks in conflict settings, this bill would add the risk of criminal liability and up to 10 years in prison for UK aid workers returning home. 

3. It has unintended humanitarian consequences

The proposed bill is unfortunately not the first time the humanitarian community has faced the unintended consequences of counterterrorism measures. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, states enacted broad and often vague counterterrorism laws criminalising and sanctioning support to designated terrorist organisations.

The full impact of what these policies meant for humanitarian action took years to become evident. Research has highlighted the continuing impact of counterterrorism legislation in undermining humanitarian principles and obstructing the work of UK aid agencies (PDF). For example, financial de-risking in Yemen has delayed financial transactions and meant that critical food assistance programmes have been delayed or shut down for lack of funds.

After the 9/11 attacks, the humanitarian community was unprepared for the adverse and lasting effects of counterterrorism policies on the delivery of aid.

Knowing what we do now, it is worrying that the UK government has decided to push through this travel ban with little parliamentary debate and almost no consultation with humanitarian actors.

4. Other countries may follow suit

The UK is not alone in considering how best to respond to returning foreign fighters. Challenges related to evidence and the extraterritorial nature of offences make traditional criminal prosecution impractical.

The UK government’s response to this obstacle, similar to Australia’s and Denmark’s, has been to criminalise foreign travel of its own citizens and to transfer the burden of proof to them to demonstrate their actions were legitimate.  

If this travel ban passes, other countries may follow suit – and UK policy could become a model for other national legislation.

At the moment, the travel ban appears likely to pass with the additional language recognising humanitarian assistance as ‘reasonable excuse’ defence. But this cannot be the end of the discussion. There must be an ongoing dialogue with humanitarian organisations and greater assurances that UK aid workers will not be targeted or harassed for travelling to designated areas.

Finally, the UK government cannot claim to be unaware of the adverse humanitarian impacts of counterterrorism policies. Any future debates regarding UK counterterrorism legislation and policy must involve consultation with humanitarian actors from the outset.