What would happen if…?
Foreign aid work is necessary, but security is the government’s unavoidable responsibility
For decades, since the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara territory (a former Spanish colony) the people of the territory’s defeated independence movement, called Sahrawis, have been living in refugee camps across the border in Algeria. Some thirty Spanish aid workers recently returned to the Sahrawi encampments at Tindouf in the Algerian desert, ignoring the Spanish government’s warnings about the rising risk of kidnappings of NGO members by Islamist terrorist groups in the region — which led the urgent evacuation at the end of July of Spanish volunteers in the camps. Many of them then expressed their disagreement with the government’s measure, which they considered unjustified, and stated their intention to return.
This controversy has arisen only a few weeks after the liberation of two Spanish volunteer workers and one Italian, after being held for nine months as hostages of a local branch of Al Qaeda. And this within a context of intense instability throughout the region, after the proclamation in the north of Mali of a radical Islamist regime, whose armed militias dominate the territory.
The possible logistical cooperation of several European countries in a military mission of the Economic Community of West African States against this regime is one of the factors that have led the Western secret services to warn Spain and other countries of the heightened risk of terrorist activity. It may be somewhat exaggerated to consider the Sahel as the possible germ of an “African Afghanistan,” as some experts have termed it. But even without the aggravated risk that has now been announced, the facts of recent years are already worrying enough. In order to rescue the three hostages freed on July 19 the governments of Spain and Italy paid a ransom of millions, and arranged for the release of Islamist terrorists being held in prison in Mauritania, according to press agency reports from the region. Two years ago the release of two Catalan aid workers took place after similar negotiations.
What would happen if one of those aid workers who today consider the alarm unfounded were to be kidnapped? Well, perhaps the government would find itself obliged to negotiate, but it is fairly certain that in such a case the pressure of public opinion would be squarely against the payment of any ransom.
There are moral dilemmas involved in affairs of this nature but in any situation of doubt, the government — which acts upon data from its agents and from those of allied countries — must be afforded the presumption of veracity. And consideration must be given to an aid-delivery system that would minimize the risk involved, if at the cost of reducing the direct role of aid workers in that part of the operation.