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Aid workers under threat

Increasing numbers of attacks against NGOs have reopened debates about safety

Aid workers Blanca Thiebaut (left, in a white skirt) and Montserrat Serra (right, in beige pants) return to Spain in July after their kidnapping.

Sixty-seven of them were killed, 92 were abducted and 115 seriously injured. A total of 274 aid workers were the target of 167 violent attacks in 2012, according to The Aid Worker Security Database. That's nearly twice as many as in 2003. The rise in violent incidents has reopened debate among international aid organizations. Organization leaders agree that there is no such thing as zero risk, especially in war and conflict zones. But just how much risk are these groups willing to accept in order to reach those who need their help?

Doctors Without Borders decided to leave Somalia on August 14 because the violence against its personnel had reached "unbearable" levels. "We endured premeditated attacks against us," says José Antonio Bastos. The logos of these organizations used to work as a shield against attacks; these days, they work less well, and sometimes even become the target of armed groups.

"Fifteen years ago we weren't even talking about this -- there was respect for aid workers. Things have gotten much worse," admits María Alcázar, aid director for the Spanish Red Cross. Olivié Longué, executive director of Action Against Hunger's Spanish branch, also thinks that there has been "a loss of respect" for aid work.

Abby Stoddard, a member of Aid Worker Security who also sits on the board of the US branch of Doctors of the World, offers further explanations. "The rise in aid workers during the growing humanitarian crises partly explains the rise in incidents. And we have also observed that most of the attacks in the last five years took place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Somalia and Sudan. These are places with difficult contexts of conflict and weak governments that cannot guarantee law enforcement," she says.

"In 2011 and 2012 the kidnappings were horrible. Aid workers have become a capital asset in the war economy," says Longué. In fact, this is the kind of violent incident that has grown the most. In 2003, seven aid workers were abducted; last year there were 92. In July of this year, the G8 asked states not to pay out ransoms -- something that no government has ever admitted to -- given that the money goes to fund terrorist organizations. And at the counter-terrorism congress held last April in Casablanca, some countries in the African Sahel — Mali, Mauritania or Niger for instance — begged Spain and other EU members to stop paying Al Qaeda kidnappers.

Aid must come with communication: explaining exactly

what we do"

Raquel Fernández, a Red Cross delegate in Niger in 2012, explains that the greatest risk in that country is being kidnapped. "You develop habits like getting into your car and locking yourself in immediately. When I return to Spain it looks odd. We expats would only do field work in a restricted manner; normally nationals would go, since they know the context well." But even this did not prevent half-a-dozen local colleagues of hers from getting kidnapped last year. One of them died during the attack, and the rest were freed 20 days later.

"It was very complicated. After that we limited our own movements. But you cannot live in fear," adds Fernández.

These organizations underscore that their best defense against the risk of attacks is being accepted by civil society and the authorities. "We have to reach the victims without becoming victims ourselves," explains Alexis Heeb, spokesperson for the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva. This requires "a good analysis of the conflict situation and differentiating between the players: politicians, members of the army and armed groups. Although some are invisible."

Later comes the negotiation and the dialogue to gain acceptance for the aid organization. "On the ground, from Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Sudan and Syria, there is a lot of work happening on the sidelines with authorities and groups that could influence access to areas where people need help, or which could help society understand and accept our work," explains a spokesman for OCHA, the United Nations office that coordinates humanitarian aid.

That is what the International Red Cross Committee does in Syria. "Very often, the authorities give us the green light to go into a specific area. But that is not the only permission we need. After that we negotiate with armed groups so they will not attack us; we make sure they have orders to let us through. The aid always has to come with communication: explaining what we do, what our emblem is, and what it means," adds Heeb.

But statistics show that this work does not always pay off. Twenty volunteers from the Syrian Red Crescent have been murdered in the last three years during the course of their work. Only a week ago, six aid workers and one volunteer from the same organization were kidnapped in that country by a group of armed men (four have since been released).

This is the kind of preliminary work carried out by Hussein Saleh, a worker for the Red Crescent in Yemen, in order to be allowed to help a group of soldiers that had been taken hostage by Ansar al-Sharia, a group with links to Al Qaeda. Saleh achieved his difficult goal - assisting the hostages -- and his work was documented in the film I know where I'm going, which Saleh himself never got to see. "The situation is getting increasingly worse. My only concern is getting to the victims. [...] If I die in the war, I know I will go to heaven," he says in the documentary, which was released after his murder on June 20, 2012 while he was on the job.

Stoddard, of Aid Workers Security, says that "some organizations increased the risk to themselves by cooperating with one of the sides in the conflict, violating their own principles of independence and neutrality." The director of Action Against Hunger (Spain) adds: "No NGO has a policy of accepting bribes or conditions, but it still gets done. Besides, anyone can have an aid worker with bad judgment."