South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia
South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. Lars Oberhaus, European Union | Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

New bill could prevent aid workers from travelling to countries in crisis

British aid workers could face difficulty and possible arrest traveling to countries in crisis under a new government bill, called the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which could pass imminently.

The bill gives the UK government the power to designate a geographical area and make it an offence for British nationals and residents to travel to areas where extremist groups operate.

If the bill passes next week, it could severely restrict NGOs’ ability to operate in some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, and prevent UK aid workers from providing life-saving support. It’s crucial that that the government and peers urgently amend the bill so that it exempts aid workers and others with a legitimate reason to travel to these designated areas.

The penalties for travelling to a designated area are high. If an individual charged with this offence is not able to show that they had “reasonable excuse for entering, or remaining in, the designated area” they could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. On Monday, the government will amend the bill to make it clear that delivering humanitarian aid will be considered a reasonable excuse.

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Although we will be pleased to see a reference to humanitarian aid on the face of the bill, we do not believe that the government amendment will provide enough protection to people working for NGOs who may need to travel to designated areas to ensure the safe and effective delivery of essential humanitarian, peacebuilding and development support.

This is because an NGO worker can only invoke the “reasonable excuse” defence once they have been charged with an offence. Before an aid worker is charged, they would be questioned by the police on their return from the field and may then be placed under arrest. This would be extremely distressing for the individual concerned and their employer.

We are worried that the bill, as it currently stands, will have a severe chilling effect on the provision of much-needed humanitarian, peacebuilding and development support that helps so many people living in conflict.

If the UK is to continue to assist people struggling to survive conflict and preserve our position as one of the world’s leading providers of humanitarian and development assistance, we need the government and peers to amend the bill to unequivocally exempt NGO staff from travel to designated areas.