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EU's anti-fraud body probes aid for Syrian refugees

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - The European Union’s anti-fraud body is investigating Syria aid projects, officials said, after a similar U.S. probe exposed bribery and fraud in some of its humanitarian assistance in the war-torn state.

The executive European Commission says the bloc mobilized more than 5 billion euros to help people in Syria and Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, among others.

An estimated 13.5 million people, including 6 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria according to the United Nations. Of these more than 5 million people are in areas that are hard to reach, making it especially difficult to account for and monitor aid provision.

Brussels gives grants to humanitarian organizations and the bloc’s anti-fraud office OLAF is now investigating such grants handed to two non-governmental organizations International Medical Corps (IMC) and GOAL.

“OLAF can confirm that it has opened two investigations into projects aimed at improving the health and well-being of Syrian refugees,” the bureau said, declining to comment further as the probes were under way.

It stressed the fact of opening the probe did not prejudge anyone’s wrongdoing.

A separate European Commission document obtained by Reuters named the two grants and said they were awarded to IMC and GOAL for projects in Turkey. GOAL did not respond to Reuters request for comment.

A spokeswoman for IMC said the only formal investigation the NGO was aware of was the U.S. probe which led to United States Agency for International Development (USAID) temporarily halting some of its Syria relief programs.

“Our Syria humanitarian aid programs funded by other donors continue as well, enabling critical, life-saving relief to reach those suffering in Syria,” she said, adding the NGO has been reviewing and enhancing its internal procedures.

The USAID said in July it had found cases of collusion between companies selling humanitarian supplies and staff of USAID’s local partners who accepted bribes or kickbacks.

The USAID findings, which also documented other irregularities in the handling of its humanitarian grants on the ground, raised worry about profiteering in the sector. GOAL, IMC and the International Rescue Committee were implicated in the USAID probes.

An EU official confirmed the U.S. probe inspired OLAF’s own investigations: “We are collaborating with OLAF closely because this is on our best interest. But so far looking at our books, accounting and other documents, we have not found evidence that our money was involved in such schemes.”

Reporting by Dasha Afanasieva in London, Gabriela Baczynska and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels