Aid workers under threat: putting lives on the line in conflict zones | ActionAid UK

Jane Moyo

Head of Media Relations

With the barbaric death of British aid worker David Haynes at the hands of Islamic State and continuing concerns over the fate of volunteer aid convoy driver Alan Henning, the risks run by humanitarian workers in conflict situations have been thrown into sharp relief.

Young girl standing in the rubble of her home in Gaza in August 2014
Young girl standing in the rubble of her home in Gaza in August 2014

Aid workers are increasingly under threat

Statistics show that aid workers are increasingly under threat – both locally and internationally employed staff. We shouldn’t forget that the vast majority of those at risk are local. In 2013 whilst there were 60 international victims, local victims numbered over 400.

This should be viewed against a huge rise in the number of incidences of violence and death. In the last 10 years the figures have almost doubled, as ActionAid staff know only too well. Like many other agencies we have seen members of the ActionAid family attacked and killed in the line of duty – incidents that have devastated the entire organisation.

The best ways to protect humanitarians

Our experience shows that local knowledge and acceptance is one of the best ways to keep humanitarians safe in unstable areas. That’s why ActionAid usually only works where we have existing partnerships.

ActionAid does not have staff operating inside Syria or Iraq for example. Instead we have focussed our humanitarian efforts on Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon and Jordan, where we can build on our existing programmes.

Yet working for human rights, especially in challenging contexts will involve security risks.

Creating a safe and secure working environment requires careful planning, commitment and a collective sense of awareness and responsibility.

Three ways we help keep our teams safe

We have some non negotiable principles in place which include:

  • Primacy of Life: No staff should endanger their own life or the lives of others while in the course of duty.
  • Duty of Care: We make sure all staff are aware of the risks under which they are required to work and that they have security training. This holds true for humanitarian crises wherever they occur as our work on Ebola shows. All travel is risk-assessed and if necessary, practical measures are put in place to safeguard well-being, such as additional security equipment, back-up communications and extra security checks.
  • Right to Withdraw: Before or during deployment, our staff are given a personal choice whether to withdraw from the assignment if they consider the environment or work too risky for their personal security. We provide information and support to staff to help them make informed choices.

The dangers of militarisation of aid

Unstable regions such as the Middle East are becoming increasingly militarised and foreign forces deliver aid as part of hearts and minds operations while also targeting militants. It comes as little surprise that it is becoming difficult for aid workers to differentiate their work from aid given via military means.

This blurring of aid and military operations, even when done with the best of intentions, is highly problematic. Trust is sometimes lost and in the worst cases local people become targets for militant groups. We know of cases where schools built by aid agencies have been burnt down, putting children’s lives at risk, because militants have believed they have been built with military money from foreign powers.

It is important that humanitarian aid remains impartial, neutral and independent and that all parties to conflict must allow for its safe delivery to people who are not involved in fighting.

No-one pretends this is easy, but it is vital.