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A day to honor Syria’s humanitarian workers

Written by Sara Pantuliano

Hero image description: Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) Image license:Creative Commons
Clad in crimson overalls, with a gleaming red crescent framed in white on their backs, the volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) hardly blend into the crowd. Yet despite being clearly marked as humanitarian workers, SARC volunteers continue to come under fire in one of the bloodiest civil wars ongoing today.

On the 3rd of March 2013, SARC staff member Mohieddine Mahmoud died while on duty when heavy shelling wracked Jobar neighbourhood in the suburbs of Damascus. Just over a week later, a rocket attack killed Ahmad Shihadeh, a 32-year old volunteer, while providing humanitarian assistance for a local council in Deraya, Damascus. Then on the 14th of April, a mortar ripped through a SARC warehouse in an opposition held area in Aleppo, killing Yousef Lattouf, a father of five, and injuring a second volunteer.

When Abdo Darwish, a SARC driver, was shot dead by snipers this May he became the twentieth SARC member claimed by the Syrian conflict to date. Fifteen SARC staff and volunteers, and four other local aid workers have been killed in Syria alone since the 19th August 2012 – last World Humanitarian Day.

On World Humanitarian Day, we remember those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service. It marks the day, ten years ago, when 22 aid workers were killed by a terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.

Ten years on, aid workers continue to come under attack while seeking to provide assistance to those in need. Sometimes these attacks are deliberate, though there is rarely a claim of responsibility by perpetrators which makes understanding their motives all the more difficult. At other times, aid workers become ‘collateral damage’ of armed conflict. Whatever the reasons, the consequences are often far-reaching and always tragic.

Everyone knows being a humanitarian aid worker is a dangerous job. What may be less well known is that humanitarian workers on the frontlines in many war-torn areas are largely local staff – people seeking to provide aid for their fellow countrymen and women.

In the last year, over 280 aid workers have been injured, kidnapped or killed. Of the 95 who have died, 80% of them were local staff, many working in some of the most dangerous places in the world today – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria.

Local aid workers are sometimes thought to be at less risk of attack on the dubious assumption that they won’t be perceived as instruments of foreign interference, have lower visibility and are better able to assess security threats based on a deeper understanding of the situation. In reality, however, that is often not the case, and local staff can even face additional risks due to their particular ethnic, religious, or other identity and affiliations.

Kidnappings of international staff garner international media headlines, while the deaths of local aid workers often slip by quietly, noted only in their employer’s records. People are shocked and saddened when bodies are flown back to their home countries, but the truth is that many more remain in country.

Aid workers know the risks they take when trying to provide lifesaving food, water, medicine, protection and shelter to people in the midst of war. But when the costs become too high, international personnel are often evacuated to safer environments while local staff stay on. A case in point is Somalia, where for years many aid programmes have been run by Somalis but managed remotely by international staff based in Kenya, with a few honourable exceptions.

Aid agencies need to rethink how they calculate the risks to the lives of local aid personnel, and seek to extend the same duty of care to local staff and international aid workers to ensure that as many humanitarian aid workers as possible stay alive when trying to save the lives of others. Risks are inherent to delivering aid in armed conflicts, but more needs to be done to train staff appropriately, ensure that risk assessments are solid and that those on all sides of the conflict respect and ensure respect for the lives of aid workers. The safety and security of aid workers is paramount to continuing efforts to provide humanitarian aid.

Local aid workers are the lifeblood of the humanitarian system and the foundation of aid programmes worldwide. On this day, let us remember the fallen and their contributions to populations in crisis – and give them the respect and care that they deserve.