The dangers posed to humanitarian workers in medium and high-risk areas in 2018 and 2019
Humanitarian workers, whether experienced professionals or first-time volunteers, are often deployed in challenging environments with varying degrees of insecurity. The US Department of Health & Human Services assesses that, on a yearly basis, 6 out of 10,000 aid workers are either hospitalised for serious medical reasons or die from violence-related causes. In this brief, Guardian will shed light on the kidnappings, killing and arrests that targeted aid workers in 2018 and 2019. Countries with a higher security risk such as Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Mali or Yemen account for most of these events.
HOW DANGEROUS WAS IT FOR AID WORKERS IN 2018 AND 2019?
Insecurity Insight is a Swiss-based NGO that specialises in collecting data on the dangers posed to aid workers all over the world. While their work mostly focuses on attacks made on healthcare infrastructures in conflict-affected countries, the NGO’s “Aid in Danger” project investigates incidents affecting all types of humanitarian actions worldwide. In this article, we highlight the risk of being arrested, kidnapped or killed for aid workers, using the Aid in Danger data as a starting point. It is important to emphasise that both local and foreign aid workers are targeted by such acts, with the former often representing more than 75% of fatalities. It is important to note that such incidents may be underreported in the vast majority of countries.
While often considered collateral damage of military action or guerrilla warfare, aid workers are sometimes directly targeted by state actors or militias. In 2018, more than half of aid worker deaths were attributed to explosives such as airstrikes, Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) or mines. Humanitarians are also killed while caught in the crossfire of robberies or violent protests.
In 2019, 145 aid workers were reported to have been killed, bringing the figure almost level to the 155 fatalities of the previous year. The most notable difference stems from the developments associated with the Syrian conflict. In 2018, it was the country with most reported deaths (81), the majority of which were attributed to Syrian or Russian airstrikes. After the 2019 Baghuz battle in which the Islamic State lost its final territorial bastion, violence in eastern Syria plunged significantly. Recently and significantly, the October Turkish intervention in northern Syria greatly disrupted the delivery of humanitarian assistance, leading many organisations to suspend their operations. This, as a result, reduced the amount of aid workers exposed to renewed conflict activity. 37 humanitarian workers lost their life in Syria in 2019.
Kidnappings are often financially motivated but there have been instances of terrorist organisations such as Islamic State kidnapping humanitarian workers to later execute them. There have also been cases of militias abducting aid workers on the presumption that they are spying for a warring party or foreign state.
When kidnapped victims have been liberated, it has often involved successful negotiations with influential local leaders or the payment of a ransom. However, due to the lack of information on what happened in some of the reported cases, it is unknown whether the abducted individuals remain in captivity or alive.
In 2019, 168 kidnappings were reported: a figure virtually identical to the 2018 one. There was a significant decrease in abductions in South Sudan and Syria (due to the reduced capabilities of the Islamic State). However, a noticeable change can be seen in the increased number of abductions that occurred in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2019. This trend can be associated with the growing insecurity and intensified violence in the Sahel region.
Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, South Sudan and Nigeria remain countries with a high risk of kidnapping. Violent abductions of Red Cross, Mercy Corps and Action Against Hunger personnel in 2018 and 2019 by Islamists in Nigeria illustrates the continuing relevance of this risk.
Aid workers detained by authorities are often arrested on the basis of ‘illegal suspicious activities’ because they are perceived as constituting a nuisance to the status quo. Arrests are more likely to occur after document-checks or at roadblocks. In countries where corruption or human rights abuses are pervasive, the risk associated with arrest is exacerbated by the likelihood of unlawful detention and poor treatment by security forces. On occasion, the behaviour of humanitarian personnel has led to their arrest; such cases can restrict accessibility of NGOs to certain countries and thus impede the delivery of aid.
In 2018, 184 aid workers were arrested including 49 in Bangladesh near Rohingya refugee camps due to the tense situation in Chittagong. In another instance, 29 workers were arrested in South Sudan by authorities who doubted that the NGO was allowed to be present in Lau State.
In 2019, 70 arrests were reported worldwide, down 62% from 2018. Almost all cases happened in just four countries: Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). However, it is vital to note that the contrast between 2019 and 2018 may be the result of underreporting and of the unusually high number of arrests in 2018.
It should be noted that while Latin America countries are not appearing in this list, the threat stemming from high-risk areas in this region is not to be neglected. Kidnappings and arrests occurring in these countries are often underreported due to a lack of trust in the authorities.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN TAKEAWAYS?
In terms of reported murders and kidnappings affecting aid workers, there has been no noticeable difference between 2018 and 2019. However, arrests decreased by 62% in 2019 compared to 2018. Guardian highlights the three following aspects as key takeaways:
- The end of a territorially strong Islamic State has led to a strong decline in abductions (from 12 to 1) and killings (from 81 to 37) of aid workers in Syria between 2018 and 2019.
- Insecurity in the Sahel is growing and the increasing presence of armed groups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger has led to a steep increase of aid workers getting kidnapped in the region.
- South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Nigeria remain particularly dangerous for both foreign and local humanitarian workers.
HOW CAN HUMANITARIAN ORGANISATIONS MITIGATE THESE RISKS?
Just as any company has a responsibility towards their employees, humanitarian organisations are equally accountable for the security and safety of their aid workers, including volunteers. As a manager, the fulfilment of your duty of care obligations involve acting to the best of your ability and knowledge to ensure the wellbeing of your personnel. Pre-emptive and proactive measures are required to ensure that aid workers are familiar with the risks they may be exposed to, that they are equipped with ways to limit these risks, and that both managers and workers know what to do if an incident happens.
It is integral that you keep your travel security and operational procedures updated and regularly assess the reliability of your local partners. However, when things go wrong, elements such as clear management functions, emergency plans and a crisis communication setup must be in place to make sure that incidents are dealt with effectively so that you and your organisation fulfil its duty of care obligation.
Despite the low incidence rate of humanitarian workers being kidnapped, killed or arrested, the impact when it does happen is grave for both individuals and organisations. These risks cannot be ignored, and organisations must engage in efficient risk management to guarantee the safety of their workers as diligently as possible.
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