Humanitarian workers, as well as refugees, need our help

The largest European refugee crisis since World War II is far from over and will likely take years, if not a generation to resolve.

{mosads}Hungary has launched extreme measures closing its borders, threatening prosecution for those crossing the border and creating a bottleneck among the estimated 411,000 refugees entering Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. The use of water cannons and tear gas against refugees exacerbates the dangerous conditions refugees face and places aid workers in harm’s way as well.    

Local social workers in Scotland have already begun appealing for government assistance in their response.  Many international and domestic aid agencies such as World Vision, Oxfam America and ShelterBox USA have ramped up their efforts to help.

Doctors without Borders reported rescuing more than 11,000 people at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.  Other agencies are focusing their efforts by providing assistance once refugees arrive. Far from their homes, refugees face the burden of acclimation in their new countries–learning the language, seeking ongoing medical care, finding permanent homes and jobs.

But it is not only those fleeing from conflicts who face harm. Humanitarian aid workers toiling to assist refugees face their own set of dangers.   

Humanitarian crises are not new. Until they reach the boiling point– as the Syrian refugee crisis has in Europe– we may barely notice. While the plight of the refugees is receiving necessary global attention, the needs of humanitarian aid workers may slide under the radar.

Several weeks ago two Doctors without Borders aid workers were killed in South Sudan. Earlier this month Red Cross workers were shot in Yemen. And earlier this summer, nine workers were killed in Afghanistan. According to the Aid Workers Security Database, 329 aid workers were victims of attacks in 2014; that is a threefold increase since 2004.  

World Humanitarian Day was established in tribute to the 23 workers who died in the 2003 bombing of UN headquarters in Iraq.  Among the victims was the UN Special Envoy to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello.  De Mello, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a lifelong humanitarian aid worker had done stints in Cambodia, Bosnia, and even served as the de facto president of East Timor following that country’s transition to independence. 

Described by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power as, “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy,” de Mello was the poster child for the kind of exciting international work that young aid workers thirst to have.  

“There’s probably no other industry in which you are given the opportunity to take on so much responsibility, with such immediate rewards and with the capacity to impact the lives of millions of people.  It’s not just sexy work, it’s good work,” said Lara Martin, a programs coordinator at the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies at Emory University. 

Despite its rewarding nature, aid workers still face significant challenges — and even death– in achieving their goals of making the world a better place.  

The 2003 attack highlighted the risks that humanitarian workers take in doing their jobs-and those risks are increasing.   According to the Aid Workers Security Database, the number of incidents rose steadily between 2001-2013.  While the overall numbers were down slightly in 2014, the locations of most attacks should come as no surprise; Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia top the list.  But the ongoing conflict in Syria is also making an impact with 44 incidents there in 2013 alone.

The CIA use of medical doctors in fake vaccination campaigns during the hunt for Osama bin Laden only exacerbated existing dangers.  Where in the past aid workers had been protected under the doctrine of medical neutrality, those days are over.  Aid workers are now highly valued targets.       

The numbers of people affected by humanitarian emergencies is increasing.  The UN Refugee Agency is serving more refugees and internally displaced persons now than at any time since World War II.  The protracted conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as well as natural disasters such as past earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal have significantly contributed to these figures. 

These events added to scandals surrounding aid agencies and the ongoing health epidemics of HIV and Ebola have resulted in individual and country level donor fatigue. 

Yet the work doesn’t stop even if the funding does. 

Humanitarian aid workers need guarantees that their safety and security is valued among the agencies they work for and that their independence is not jeopardized by political games.

In the age of ISIS threats, aid workers can no longer count on the shield of the Red Cross or the blue helmets of the UN to protect them.  These symbols designed to symbolize neutrality are now tantamount to a bull’s eye.       

We owe aid workers the assurance that once on the ground they will have the resources needed to support people in need.  This effort requires that donors–at the individual and country level–keep their promises. 

So far the US has been slow to respond to the protracted emergency in Syria; donors have only provided a third of the funds needed to respond to existing humanitarian crises.  Even if we cannot guarantee safety to aid workers, they deserve our best efforts at making sure they have what they need to operate on the ground. 

The refugees knocking on Europe’s door at not there because they want to immigrate.  They are there because they saw no other choice. 

They need help and so do the aid workers who serve them.  It is these aid workers who represent each of us as human beings. They offer us a chance to reconnect with the post war values of humanitarianism, that led us to proclaim, “Never again.”  

Evans PhD, MPH is an assistant professor of global health and Director of the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies at Emory University.

Tags Samantha Power

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