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Humanitarians are paying the price for political inaction

Written by Sara Pantuliano

The Syria crisis has been unfolding for more than three years now, but for many Western governments, we’ve seen little that indicates they have any clear plan on how to help bring about a political solution to the conflict. And as the world waits, the conflict has claimed over 150,000 lives, and forced nearly three million people to flee across the borders to safety. 

It’s now reached a point where the UN can’t even pretend to be able to accurately document the number of people killed in the conflict. Though the 700 killed over two days at the end of July might serve as an indication of the current magnitude of the tragedy.

And yet there has been little political traction from influential governments around the world such as the UK'. The standard response from Western countries has been a compilation of these governments’ typical arsenal to express disapproval – stern statements, sanctions of various degrees of severity and effectiveness, supplying weapons to the opposition and yes – humanitarian aid. The UK alone has donated over £600 million to the response in and around Syria.

As a long time humanitarian aid worker I believe that humanitarian aid is incredibly important. It saves lives and provides hope, even in some of the most devastating and violent places in the world. Humanitarian aid can mean the difference between a food crisis and a full blown famine, or prevent civilians from succumbing to treatable illnesses and wounds. 

But humanitarian aid should not, and cannot take the place of political solutions. It cannot help resolve the crisis in Syria, or bring peace to people whose daily lives are marked by indiscriminate bombings, gunfire and fear. 

When international governments fall back on giving humanitarian aid as a way to assuage their guilt or to look as if they are doing something, it places the burden of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of humanitarian aid workers. Aid agencies, funded by and spurred on by government donors, have pushed on further and further into the frontlines of conflicts, exposing them and their staff to an increasing level of violence in places where no hope of peace is in sight. 

As a result, aid worker casualties are on the rise. 

Humanitarian aid workers have always known that they’re vulnerable when they step into a war zone. They go into the frontlines aware of danger, in order to help save lives. But we’re now seeing a degree of loss amongst aid workers previously unseen in the last few decades of humanitarian response. 

Last year, 155 aid workers were killed in the line of duty. Since 2003, there has been a 31 percent increase in attacks on aid workers around the world, based on information from the Aid Worker Security Database.

In just the last month, five aid workers were killed by air strikes or gunfire in Gaza, and six were murdered by a militia in South Sudan. In Syria, nearly 50 humanitarian workers have died since 2011, with many others enduring kidnappings, abductions and severe injuries.  Somalia has seen deaths of 168 aid workers since 1997, and in Afghanistan 338 aid workers were killed over the same period. 

Today, on World Humanitarian Day, we commemorate our fallen comrades who have lost their lives while seeking to provide humanitarian aid in disasters and conflicts around the world. And for the first time, the UK will host a national memorial for humanitarian aid workers who have lost their lives, to be held at Westminster Abbey. 

But this important act of remembering and commemorating these victims of violence is overshadowed by major concerns. As the body bags of humanitarians pile up, hard questions remain about the inability of leading politicians and diplomats to identify solutions to end the suffering of so many civilians around the world.