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Published: August 19, 2016

Aid Worker Security on World Humanitarian Day: A Year in Review

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World Humanitarian Day helps us commemorate the worldwide efforts of humanitarians to help those in need, whether in response to natural disasters or by providing critical aid to victims of conflict. Today also serves to remind us of the risks that humanitarians face when carrying out life-saving work in some of the most dangerous countries in the world.

The latest data from Insecurity Insight indicates that since June 2015, 816 aid workers were killed, kidnapped, injured or assaulted. This past year we have seen a large number of crises that continue to affect humanitarians’ security. Most recently, the upsurge in violence in South Sudan in June 2016, which resulted in horrifying attacks on civilians and aid workers and led to the mass evacuation of international staff.

This year also marked the one-year anniversary of the conflict in Yemen, where 21 million people are in need of assistance and around half of the population is suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition. The crisis presents some of the most severe challenges to aid worker security today, undermining access and the delivery of aid to those most in need.

Ongoing humanitarian crises in highly insecure places such as Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Mali and Somalia continue to threaten the security of aid workers operating in those countries. Open source data shows that Syria and Afghanistan alone account for over a third of reported aid worker deaths between June 2015 and June 2016.

Ensuring that humanitarian workers are able to operate safely and securely in these contexts is as vitally important today as it was a year ago.

Late 2015 saw the Dennis v Norwegian Refugee Council court case send shock waves through the aid sector and raised the question of what legal duty of care means for organisations operating in highly insecure contexts.

In the first half of 2016, there was much discussion about what security management should mean in practice, with MSF’s recent publication challenging current trends in security risk management. A publication this year by Geneva Call provides an interesting look into how armed non-state actors perceive humanitarian action; this insight could help organisations improve their access negotiations and security in high-risk areas.

The first World Humanitarian Summit also took place this year in May. Despite widespread mixed feelings about the summit, its establishment is arguably a positive step forward and will hopefully result in greater recognition of the challenges humanitarian aid workers face.

Attacks on medical facilities featured prominently during the summit and continue to be a grave concern among aid workers. A recent report by the World Health Organisation indicates that between 2014 and 2015, approximately a thousand people died as a result of attacks on medical facilities and workers in nineteen countries. Syria accounted for 53% of all attacks on health care facilities and workers in 2015.

Although the World Humanitarian Summit did not include a session specifically on aid worker security, a number of country representatives affirmed the need to protect humanitarian staff.


The Future

There are many new developments to keep an eye on as we look to the future, particularly in Latin America. One of the most positive this year was the signing of a historic ceasefire agreement in Colombia to end the longest continuous war in recent history. The world will be watching to see whether this results in lasting peace in a country that has seen six million of its citizens displaced due to the conflict.

Colombia’s neighbour, Venezuela, is unfortunately not faring so well. The country is facing severe food and medicine shortages, but the government continues to refuse international aid. As the situation worsens, humanitarian organisations may need to play a key role in the near future aiding Venezuelans, if the government allows access.

In Europe, the refugee crisis has proven operationally challenging for organisations trying to respond to needs, but so far it has not resulted in grave security concerns for aid workers. However, the rise in terrorist attacks on the continent has security implications for humanitarian actors based or operating in the region. We have also yet to see what the full impact of these attacks will be on European politics and counter-terrorism legislation affecting the delivery of aid.

West and Central Africa, as well as the Middle East and North Africa, will likely continue to be extremely volatile regions, which will continue to have serious security implications for aid workers operating in these contexts.

In Asia, recent attacks in Bangladesh have already affected aid worker security and organisations’ operations in the country. The Turkish government’s actions in the aftermath of the failed coup d’état in Turkey hint at an increasingly difficult operating environment for aid organisations in the future.

This coming year, the GISF will continue to explore ways to improve the security of aid workers operating in dangerous contexts in order to enable them to access populations in need.

Today we commemorate the national and international aid workers who lost their lives this past year and remember the colleagues who continue carrying out humanitarian work in challenging contexts despite the risks they face.


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