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Syria is the deadliest place for aid workers, and there is little hope for change

Syria is the most dangerous place for aid workers in the world. What can the international community do to better protect them?

28 October 2020

AMMAN – Between 2011 and 2019, Syria had the third highest number of attacks on humanitarian workers in the world. According to the Aid Worker Security Database, 2019 recorded a peak of 254 incidents affecting aid workers, compared to 47 incidents in both 2017 and 2018, previously the two most violent years for aid workers since the beginning of the civil conflict in 2011. 

“In 2019, Syria for the first time topped the list as the country with the highest number of attacks (47) as well as being the most lethal context for aid workers,” the Aid Workers Security Database 2020 report states. “There were 36 aid worker fatalities recorded in Syria, mostly caused by airstrikes, shelling, and other explosives used in the ongoing civil war”.

In a statement on October 18, Kevin Kennedy, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, expressed concern over “a recent spate of violence impacting aid workers in north-west Syria,” citing three recent violent incidents in just one month. 

Although it was posted on the largest resource sharing platform for humanitarians, ReliefWeb, the statement attracted relatively little media attention, yet another indicator of the unfortunate “normalization” of violence against aid workers in Syria. 

Aid workers increasingly targeted

While exposure to danger is a reality for humanitarians, who intervene in areas affected by natural disasters or conflicts, aid workers have become a clear target in contemporary conflicts. According to the Aid Workers Security Database 2020 report, “2019 surpassed all previous recorded years in terms of the number of major attacks committed against aid workers. A total of 483 aid workers were killed, kidnapped, or wounded in 277 separate incidents of violence” across the world.

This situation is echoed in the Syrian context. “The grim reality is that humanitarian workers [in the opposition-held territory] in northwest Syria are not just getting caught up in the crossfire; they’re becoming targets,” David Swanson, UN regional spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Amman, told Syria Direct

The Syrian regime and its Russian ally have been repeatedly accused of bombing civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities. “A total of 494 attacks on health [infrastructure] were confirmed between 2016 and 2019, of which 68% or 337 attacks were recorded in Syria’s northwest,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO), resulting in a death toll of “309 or 66%” of the total of 460 deaths in the same period.

In further violation of the laws of war, Damascus has been accused of “double-tap” bombings, by bombing the same location twice in a short interval to target rescuers. As such, it is estimated that in 2016, one in six members of the White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense organization leading search-and-rescue operations in the opposition areas, had been “killed or badly wounded” – often intentionally.

However, non-state armed groups, namely ISIS, are also known to have targeted aid workers, including the execution of Peter Kassig and David Haines in 2014 and the abduction and killing of Kayla Mueller in 2013. In addition, aid workers are frequently collateral victims. On September 15, two Syrian aid workers and their driver were injured after their car was hit by shrapnel resulting from a drone attack against another vehicle.

Protecting aid workers

Kennedy called warring parties to respect their “obligation under international humanitarian law to safeguard [the safety and security of aid workers].” Swanson echoed this sentiment, stressing that “all parties to the conflict, and those with influence over them, are obliged to ensure measures are in place to ensure humanitarian relief operations are facilitated, and aid workers are protected.” He also added that “perpetrators of such acts must be held accountable.”

Under international law, targeting aid workers is a crime. But how can accountability be achieved when efforts to prosecute regime officials for other human rights violations have failed? This is compounded by the high number of non-state armed groups, who may not feel bound by international norms designed to govern war between states.

“Lastly,” Swanson said, “humanitarian organizations must also do their own reckoning by facing the reality of many of today’s conflict zones, strengthening humanitarian negotiations, diplomacy and risk management.” 

According to Dr. Emily K.M. Scott, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for International Peace and Security at McGill University, “international organizations have tended to approach [their duty to protect staff] by negotiating security guarantees with armed groups. They offer services in exchange for warring parties leaving their convoys, compounds, and personnel alone. They call for protection of humanitarian workers and civilians receiving aid, under International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions.” 

Despite this, security for aid workers is eroding. 

Yahia (a pseudonym), a Syrian who worked for three international NGOs over the past six years, feels “unsafe 60% of the time and safe 40% of the time” at work. Further, he feels exposed because the aid he provides can generate tensions in the local community and lead to violent incidents. “The [international organizations I work for] can protect my rights, but they cannot protect me against the feelings of the people. They cannot prevent incidents that happen suddenly,” he told Syria Direct.

International NGOs, local casualties

In response to growing risk, international NGOs have reduced non-Syrian staff’s presence to the strict minimum, transferring responsibilities (and risk) to national teams. This follows the belief that workers embedded in the local context are less likely to stand out as targets, a logic particularly adapted to the threat posed by terrorist groups, who have sometimes singled out foreigners. 

“International aid workers that I interviewed believed that they faced greater risks than their national colleagues, particularly in Syria. They believed that the nature of threats was changing and that they were more likely to experience brutal, cruel, and humiliating treatment at the hands of kidnappers and killers,” explained Scott. Yet, “it is not clear that this brutality is suffered by international aid workers more than national workers.”

The consequence, according to Scott, is that growing numbers of local staff are dying. “My research shows that international staff were increasingly protected during the war in Syria – they were withdrawn and placed in remote management positions. This was the case even as nationally hired staff were being kidnapped and killed at higher rates than their internationally hired colleagues. The risk was transferred to the Syrian staff.” 

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Scott called for better levels of protection for national staff, arguing that “Syrian nationals are taking extreme risks when they provide aid in place of their international colleagues, especially because they cannot leave.” Perversely, the localization of casualties may decrease the international mediatic impact of this violence, along with pressures on the international community to act against it.

Unfortunately, the Syrian aid workers on whom vital assistance rely are also less likely to be able to flee the violence. “Four years ago, when ISIS moved towards [our area in northwest Syria], we [local staff] asked our organization to help us go to Turkey, but they said that they could not help us to leave Syria. We had to wait until the situation got better to return to work,” Yahia recalled. 

“We are afraid for our future – the organizations cannot guarantee that we will leave Syria. All they can give us is money for a few months,” he added, expressing worry about the possible advance of the regime into the area, a danger looming uniquely over Syrian aid workers. “NGOs working here are not registered with the regime, and they are illegal in the regime’s perspective. So anyone working for them works illegally and risks being targeted by the regime.” If the regime advances, Yahia plans to flee towards the border and, if possible, cross into Turkey and “maybe live in the camps like the people we assist now. We hope this will not happen because our life here will be destroyed.”

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