Abid is a seasoned aid worker with a long track record of delivering life saving aid across the world. However he has done so in the face of increasing police harassment at border. This is his first hand testimony of his experiences:
I’ve been doing aid work since 2011, mainly as a volunteer. In 2013, I went to Syria to deliver ambulances. We got the relevant permission from the authorities, and there were no issues on the way there. But on the way back, when we landed in Manchester, there were about 10 officers and they stopped about 5 of us. They didn’t keep us for long; they asked us a few questions, and then said we could go.
After that, I was working at a college at the time, then PREVENT started turning up “to check” on me, just to “see if everything was okay”. As soon as I threatened legal action, they stopped.
Then in 2017, I went to the Turkish border with a reputable charity. The border police stopped me on the way back and when I asked them why, they told me it was because of the work I was doing.
They said if I follow the protocols, then it will be fine; I had to inform them of my travel and the purposes of it prior to leaving the UK. Part of me didn’t agree with that because I was concerned that things would get complicated and it would be disruptive – but I did follow the protocol and since then every time I travel I send letters and emails prior to leaving.
In 2019, last year, we went to Lebanon and they stopped us, and they advised us that things could get difficult. But again, it wasn’t a long stop.
Once, when they’d asked me about bin Laden. I said: “If he’s done what he’s accused of, then he’s wrong.” They’d asked: “Why do you say ‘if he’s done what he’s accused of’?”
I said: “As Muslims, we don’t believe in hearsay, and he hasn’t undergone a trial.”
This is the same as in the UK and the US – you have to undergo a trial before being proven guilty.
But, I said, “If he’s done what he’s accused of, then the killing of innocent civilians is haram. It’s not allowed.”
They said they were surprised by my answers, and they found it all useful.
Then in January they stopped me under Schedule 7 and I was detained for six hours.
I refused to leave until they returned my phone to me
They swabbed me with DNA samples, took my phone, downloaded information from my phone, went through all my luggage, asked me all sorts of questions.
They downloaded some of the links. I know that they were interested in the Syria projects. There was information about Gaza and Yemen but they had no interest in this at all.
They told me that the reason they had stopped me was because I was travelling with someone who was on a watchlist. So I said to them: “I notified you of this, so why didn’t you stop me from travelling before I came?” They couldn’t really answer this question.
They said they wanted to keep my phone as well, because they were uploading information. I refused to leave then, and I told them I would wait. After 6 hours, they gave me my phone.
They were interested in some photos, and some fundraising links for Syria projects. Between all the links, I’d raised about 1.5 million in a few months. They wanted to know how I had done that.
They asked how we were able to raise so much money in such a short time, and I said: “You don’t understand the brotherhood – you have to be a Muslim”.
But they wanted to know how I was fundraising, my activities, the platforms. I showed them that it goes into the charity bank account, not into my account, what it’s used for. I keep careful records and paperwork, and I always bring it with me.
They asked me about my opinion on hijab, and they asked me what I knew about particular people.
My wife was waiting for me all this time at the airport. She was heavily pregnant, and they went to her and told her that I had been arrested and charged, and she was traumatised.
She was crying her eyes out at the airport.
What they’d told her was not true, as I had only been stopped under Schedule 7.
They stopped me because I swapped seats with someone
I had informed them about my travels as per protocol so there was another reason why they had stopped me.
I had swapped a seats with someone who was wanted in Belgium for murder. When the police came onto the plane, I woke up and suddenly these police officers were surrounding me and pointing their guns at me, and they asked me if I was so-and-so.
I had just woken up, my ears were blocked, and you know there’s a bunch of armed police with their guns pointing at you and you hear a Muslim name, and you just say “yes”.
But that was a bit of an idiot thing to do, because when I got off the plane and showed them my passport, they said “you’re not so-and-so”, and I said no, I had just woken up and I was confused.
So then, instead of believing me, they thought I’d helped him get away.
Still, it was strange that it became Schedule 7. Because by the time we got round to questions, they didn’t ask me anything about him at all.
I haven’t travelled since. I was supposed to go to Yemen and Gaza to deliver aid but then this pandemic came and things slowed down. When things settle, we will travel, and we will send the usual emails.
But they’ve never gotten back to us on emails.
This will impact aid work in the long run
They are definitely targeting charity workers under Schedule 7. I partially understand this situation, as unfortunately in the early years of the Syria conflict, there were people who left under the guise of aid work to fight. Now, of course, they have to do the checks.
But I am quite upfront about what I do, and everything is very clear in all my records.
But this recent stop, I think this was them just being difficult. It makes me think they are really trying to put us off doing charity work.
There is this conflict. On the one hand the CC allows you to carry cash up to a certain amount of 9000 pounds. But if you are carrying more than 2000 cash, the border police will stop you.
On the one side you are governed by the CC and then on the other you have the police saying something else entirely.
I think this will impact aid work in the long term.
Still, them stopping me isn’t stopping me from doing it, and I am quite upfront. Every minute they hold me is a reward from Allah, so it doesn’t worry me.
But with volunteers, it puts people off getting involved. They are making aid work and fundraising so difficult, and this will impact people on the ground, especially…
To be honest, if you’re involved in this work, you cannot help being politically informed and aware and involved.
For example, we know the root problem of the crisis in Yemen is Saudi and Iran. I would never stand in front of people, and not talk about the root problems of conflict in these areas. Now, that can make you a cause for concern by some indicators.
So we have to be careful in what we say and how we say it. But there are ways of saying things and getting the message across.
That would be my advice to people in aid, is to not stop raising concerns but to be careful with messaging.
Also, it’s good to make sure that your paperwork is all in order. I carry a file, with everything in it. Same with the information on the phone; you have to make sure there’s nothing dodgy or of interest on there. Even when the counter-terrorism police looked through my fundraising links, it was clean.
Before you travel, you should check with the foreign office, and keep a paper trail, as well as with the police.
Unfortunately, if I was British non-Muslim, I would be able to travel unimpeded. The fact I have a UK passport, I am brown and Muslim, that doesn’t give me much value. So we have to protect ourselves.
If you’ve been impacted by these policies then call our *FREE helpline* for advice and support: 03000302243
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)