LONDON — More than four decades ago, outside of Asmara, near the Eritrean-Sudanese border, a 13-year-old boy, his brothers and sisters and his mother approached a checkpoint on foot. The checkpoint and border police were besieged with Eritreans trying to flee a bloody civil war.
As the woman approached with her children, she knew she could not rely on the mercy of the officers. Only months before, her husband had managed to escape Eritrea to Saudi Arabia by pretending he was a pilgrim on the Haj. Now it was her turn to invent a story.
She told Eritrean police that she and the children were travelling to Sudan for a family wedding, and offered made-up plans for their return. Miraculously, it worked, and the family took their first steps into Sudan as refugees of war.
Three host countries and several years of displacement later, the family finally resettled in Birmingham, United Kingdom. That 13-year-old boy is now a softly-spoken man with five children of his own.
He also runs one of the largest nonprofit development organizations on the planet, overseeing a 2,500-person staff and a £110 million budget ($155.9 million).
Naser Haghamed is approaching two years into his role as the chief executive officer of Islamic Relief Worldwide — an organization known in the sector for its strong, community-focused donor base, and its superlative access to even the most entrenched conflicts. Yet to sustain access to those environments, the former child refugee is still fighting many of the same invisible lines, labyrinthine processes, and brutally suspicious gatekeepers he battled as a child.
“Derisking” — an ongoing wrangle between humanitarian organizations such as Islamic Relief and the international banks in processing payments to environments deemed high risk for money laundering or terror financing — is one example.
“The areas where we’re working — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Palestine — this is where we still have problems transferring money across,” he said.
Banks sometimes block or delay payments to these regions, charge higher fees, or close accounts. And when transfers are held up, humanitarian operations on the ground can be delayed, or even cancelled.
Haghamed did not mention it himself as he explained Islamic Relief’s challenges, but organizations with a religious, and specifically a Muslim, affiliation have previously said they see a greater number of delays, frozen accounts, and deferred operations due to bank derisking.
“As it stands, we still get blocked by compliance departments but on what basis, we don’t know,” he said.
“To be an Islamic humanitarian organization in the current climate … It’s not an easy one.”
— Dr Hossam Said, managing director at the Humanitarian Academy for Development
His colleague Dr Hossam Said, managing director of Islamic Relief’s subsidiary training arm, the Humanitarian Academy for Development, was more forthright. “Derisking is still a threat, and will continue to be very much influenced by this wider problem of Islamophobia,” he said.
Although the problems of de-risking for NGOs has received mainstream media attention over the last couple of years, Haghamed said little has changed and believes the issue requires government intervention: “It is a matter of changing laws around what banks are allowed to do,” he said. Citizens and organizations should have “the right to financial services, and banks should be obliged to be transparent about what they need and what they’re looking for from their clients.”
IR’s mission doesn’t risk being politicized only in the West, Said pointed out. The organization is seeing greater attempts by governments to undermine its humanitarian programs.