Last week I wrote about one of the unintended consequences of OFAC’s “scorched earth” enforcement policy against banks and payment processors, namely, the blocking of funds transfers where the memo or the transferee name contains a naughty word like “Cuba” or “Isis” (you know, the name of Count Grantham’s dog on Dontown Abbey). But this excellent article published by Bloomberg News suggests that there are more serious unintended consequences, namely, the potential exacerbation of the Syrian refugee crisis.
According to the article, banks are refusing to permit transfers of funds for humanitarian relief to Syria even where such transfers may be completely legal. The article cites an effort by Christian Aid, a UK charity, to transfer funds to Syria to feed people displaced by the continuing fighting. Its bank declined to transfer the funds. Such refusals, according to sources cited by the article, are a result of banks making a “rational decision” to avoid any risk of penalties, particularly where the profits to be made from a particular funds transfer might be negligible.
“The unintended consequence here is that aid is being denied to people in desperate need of assistance,” said Guy [head of Christian Aid and] a former U.K. ambassador to Yemen and Lebanon. “If this continues, it is possible to see a situation where those people who are often in most need of humanitarian aid are least able to access it.” … But such de-risking threatens to undermine the West’s push to stem the flow of migrants heading toward Europe from the embattled Middle East, according to Christian Aid’s Guy
Of course, this situation is further complicated by OFAC’s refusal to permit humanitarian funds transfers to Syria except those made, pursuant to section 542.513, by United Nations organizations or its contractors, unlike say the broader provisions relating to humanitarian activities in Sudan. Even then, the general license prohibits any blocked entity from touching the funds, setting up the compliance nightmare for the banks involved and their understandable refusal to risk yet another mega-fine from OFAC.