NEWS

2008 the Deadliest Year for Aid Workers, Report Says

By Matthew Harwood

Last year was the most dangerous year on record for humanitarian aid workers, continuing trends where aid workers find themselves the victims of violent, politically motivated attacks, according to a report from an independent humanitarian research group.

"In 2008, 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped, or seriously injured in violent attacks. This toll is the highest of the 12 years that our study has tracked these incidents,"  the Humanitarian Policy Group's report said.

It was more dangerous to be an aid worker in 2008 than a United Nations' peacekeeper, according to the report.

The number of attacks recorded from 2003-2005 and compared to attacks recorded from 2006-2008 have almost doubled from 67 to 127, respectively. 

The three most dangerous work environments for aid workers from 2006-2008 were Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. Attacks in these countries accounted for 60 percent of all the violent attacks globally.

The Humanitarian Policy Group says these attacks have become primarily politically motivated as opposed to incidental or economically motivated. Although it's difficult to determine the motive behind many attacks, the report estimates that politically motivated attacks rose from 29 percent in 2003 to 49 percent in 2008. This trend has arisen even as aid groups try to present themselves as totally neutral to the politics of a conflict or disaster.

Sometimes it only takes a year for political groups to override criminal groups as the most dangerous threat to aid workers. For instance, almost two-thirds of the attacks in Afghanistan in 2007 were deemed criminal in nature. But that number flipped in 2008, with armed opposition groups accounting for most of the incidents.

"We would posit that aid organizations are being attacked not just because they are perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors," the report says, "but because they are perceived as wholly a part of the Western agenda."

Confusing matters more, a symbiotic relationship between opportunistic criminals and armed opposition groups has formed. In these incidents, criminals kidnap an aid worker and then barter the captive to an armed group, which then uses the victim to gain publicity.

According to the report, kidnappings have exploded by 350 percent over the past three years. Kidnappers generally favor international staff over local staff because of larger ransoms and more international media coverage. Most kidnappings occur when aid workers have been traveling in a vehicle. The road, according to the report, is the most dangerous location for an aid worker, where not only the threat of kidnapping is heightened but also carjackings, banditry, and other ambushes.

The past three years have witnessed a surge of attacks on international staff as opposed to national staff due to the politicization of conflicts such as Somalia and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, national staff still remain more vulnerable to violence as they are tasked with doing more of the "on the ground" work.

Although security management efforts have improved, the report says, there remains only two options when agencies try to bring aid to at-risk populations in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Sudan. Neither is good.

"[T]he choice boils down to reducing or withdrawing essential aid from needy populations, or running intolerable risks to the lives of staff and partners."

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