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Syrians need help. Donors want to give. And GoFundMe is caught in the middle

Crowdfunded donations to Syrian earthquake victims are getting caught up in the complex web of international laws and sanctions—and GoFundMe’s own risk averse policies.

Syrians need help. Donors want to give. And GoFundMe is caught in the middle
[Source photo: Getty Images]

For the last five years, Jennifer Schlicht has been using GoFundMe to raise money for a Syrian refugee family living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Over time, the money has gone toward covering their rent, securing them a car, and helping family members make up for lost income while recovering from COVID-19.

Last week, after an earthquake destroyed vast swaths of Syria and Turkey, claiming at least 40,000 lives, Schlicht, who is national communications coordinator for Clean Water Action, fired up the GoFundMe page once more; this time, asking for money for the family’s loved ones who had lost their home in Turkey in the disaster. (The family members have remained anonymous for security purposes.)

She posted an update on the fundraiser’s page, which read, “Bad News: Their folks in Turkey/Syria were hit by the earthquake today.” Almost immediately, the fundraiser was suspended. “It was just bam, slam, door shut,” Schlicht tells Fast Company. Despite her best efforts to work with GoFundMe’s customer service team to get the fundraiser back online, it remained suspended for an entire week.

Schlicht is just one of many GoFundMe users who have turned to the platform over the last week in hopes of funneling money to individual victims of one of the deadliest earthquakes in recent history, only to have their campaigns—and, in some cases, their entire accountssuspended with little recourse. These would-be fundraisers have gotten caught up in the complex interplay between payment processors, banks, and U.S. government sanctions against Syria. In this environment, cautious companies apply ham-fisted policies for fear of falling afoul of anti-money laundering and counterterrorism laws, often at the expense of delivering critical aid.

“Shocking though it may be, transferring money to people who need it is probably not going to necessarily be the sole or top priority of a money-transfer business,” says Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at RUSI, a London-based think tank. “Saying no, from a bureaucratic perspective, is an awful lot easier than saying yes.”

According to a GoFundMe spokesperson, the company’s Trust and Safety team has been reviewing every fundraiser related to the earthquake to ensure they’re compliant with U.S. and international laws and sanctions. Initially, that meant blocking any fundraiser that was directing money to a person or organization in Syria other than a preapproved list of registered NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). Fundraisers for individuals, like the family Schlicht hoped to help, were entirely off limits. “We are working hard to let campaign organizers know as soon as possible if their fundraiser cannot continue,” says the spokesperson. “As a company with a mission to help people help each other, we understand how frustrating this limitation is and actively monitor the regulatory landscape in hopes that it changes.”

And yet, even after the U.S. Treasury Department lifted sanctions last Thursday to allow for humanitarian aid to flow to Syria, GoFundMe still took days to change its own policies and bring fundraisers like Schlicht’s back online. While a few days may seem quick in corporate America, in a disaster area, it’s a matter of life and death. “The first 72 hours are really, really critical. And this [policy change] is coming after that,” says Ashleigh Subramanian-Montgomery, associate director of policy and advocacy for The Charity and Security Network, which helps nonprofits operate in regions affected by disaster or armed conflict. “That’s a really big problem. People have died in the interim.”

Since the earthquake, GoFundMe has allowed fundraisers for verified charities to operate on its platform, which a company spokesperson called the “quickest and easiest way to get financial aid into Syria.” But for people like Daroo, a Syrian refugee in Vancouver, Canada, who has extended family members in need of immediate assistance, the idea of sending money to a faceless organization hardly seemed like the most direct way to help. “A lot of donations online, I don’t trust, and I know it’s going to take time for the money to get out,” says Daroo, who asked that Fast Company use only his nickname to protect his family members in Syria.

Last week, Daroo set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to cobble together $2,000 to help earthquake victims buy essentials like groceries. A day later, he says, GoFundMe had not just suspended his fundraiser; the company had locked him out of his account altogether. “I was shocked,” he says. “This is unacceptable.” On Saturday, two days after the U.S. eased sanctions through General License 23, Daroo did receive an email from GoFundMe informing him that he could proceed with the fundraiser if he provided explicit details about where and to whom the money was going, and explained how it would be spent. GoFundMe did not respond to Fast Company’s request for comment about whether it closed users’ accounts and why such action would be necessary.

Payment platforms’ heavy-handed approach to monitoring payments related to Syria is not exactly a new phenomenon, nor is it exclusive to GoFundMe. In 2016, as the Syrian refugee crisis worsened, Venmo, which is owned by PayPal, was found to be automatically blocking and screening any payments that included the word “Syria.” PayPal did not respond to Fast Company’s request for comment.

“False positives are the curse of the transaction-screening world,” Keatinge says, adding that companies are wary of dialing back the sensitivity of their filtering tools for fear of letting an illegal transaction slip through.

There is good reason for banks and payment processors to be wary, of course, given their liability if they’re found to be facilitating payments to terrorist groups. But Subramanian-Montgomery says the severity of the earthquake underscores the need for government and corporate mechanisms that would speed up the aid-delivery process in extreme circumstances. In December, the United Nations passed a resolution designed to do just that. At the time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the resolution would send “a clear message that sanctions will not impede the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance by reputable humanitarian organizations.”

And yet, Subramanian-Montgomery says the sclerotic response to the crisis in Syria suggests there’s a lot more work to be done. “An exceptional situation should call for an exceptional response,” she says.

On Monday, one week after her fundraiser was taken down, GoFundMe emailed Schlicht to inform her that her fundraiser was back online. While she was relieved, she’s also aware of the fatigue that sets in among donors in the aftermath of any disaster and wondered what might have been if she could have acted faster. “It was just so much time lost,” Schlicht says.

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