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Column There has never been a more dangerous time to be an aid worker

On World Humanitarian Day, Dominic MacSorely hails the men and women who have dedicated their lives, and sometimes lost them, in an attempt to reduce suffering across the world.

TEN YEARS AGO today, 22 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations’ Special Representative in Iraq, were killed in Baghdad by a suicide bomber who drove a truck bomb into the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. The bomb – which also injured at least 100 people – was so large that its shockwave was felt more than a mile away.

In December 2008 the UN General Assembly designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day – an annual event to give special recognition to all those who have worked to promote the humanitarian cause, and especially those who have lost their lives in doing this. Today marks its fifth year but, in truth, there has never been a more dangerous time to be an aid worker. According to the Aid Worker Security Database, 272 aid workers were murdered worldwide last year, and so far this year, a further 207 have also been killed.

Saving lives

Humanitarian work is driven by the imperative to save lives, reduce suffering and maintain human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies.  Simple in its intent, it is often highly complex in practice, particularly in the testing environments in which assistance is typically required.

It is underpinned by four key principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.

The first of these – humanity and, the attendant ‘humanitarian imperative’ – is fundamental. It means that all humans have the right to life with dignity, and that humanitarian organisations have an obligation to provide support to people affected by disasters.

The remaining principles dictate how humanitarian organisations go about their work – often in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Syria today presents one of the most challenging environments for agencies to be working in. Over the last two years, intense fighting has led to a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis including the world’s biggest refugee exodus since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Over 100,000 people have been killed and two million people have been forced to flee their country.

Funding is scarce

I have just come back from Lebanon, a country with a population of just over four million that has now taken in over 750,000 refugees, and there are an estimated 3,000 more arriving each day.  Already home to some 400,000 migrant workers from Syria and 450,000 Palestinian refugees, Lebanon is fast exceeding its capacity to absorb more people.

Concern Worldwide is working in Akkar, one of the poorest districts in the north of the country where we will be providing clean water and proper sanitation services to some 60,000 refugees.  The scale of the crisis is stretching the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including the UN. We could and should all be doing more, but funding is scarce. Only 36 per cent of the UN appeal for €3 billion has been realised, meaning agencies on the ground simply cannot hope to meet the needs of the affected population.

But in Lebanon we have access. We are able to sit down and talk with the refugees and the host community. We can deliver on the humanitarian promise and the right that everyone has to the basics – food, water, shelter, basic healthcare and protection. The same cannot be said for the more than four million people inside Syria who are displaced, on the move, struggling, living in fear, under siege. The challenges we face in simply trying to reach this population are enormous – the operating environment is highly insecure and, as a result, access to those most in need is both dangerous and grossly inadequate.

Negotiating access is becoming more difficult

For humanitarian organisations, negotiating access to beneficiaries in Syria becomes more and more difficult as different factions hold different territories and are highly mobile, so agencies constantly have to re-establish trust and agreements to access conflict-affected populations. This often means explaining who we are, why we are there, and that as independent, neutral, organisations, we are seeking to  provide assistance to the civilian victims of war based on urgent life threatening needs – regardless of where they live, what political party they support, or what their religious or ethnic background is. This message has to be given at every border check point, road block, to every local official, or rebel with a gun.

Aid workers are not just technical or health specialists, engineers or logisticians, they also have to be skilled negotiators, mediators, diplomats, persuaders, sometimes explaining for hours over cups of tea to obtain travel permits, or within 30 seconds as someone with a gun demands to know who you are.

Those who have lost their lives

And it does not always work – standing on the side-lines of a massive humanitarian crisis, being ready to assist but powerless to do so, is one of the most frustrating and difficult challenges for front line aid workers. Safety is not assured – risks go with the territory, and in Syria already nine UN and 20 Red Cross workers have been killed, but these numbers could be even higher.

Despite the challenges, insecurity, and funding shortages, the scale of humanitarian activity across the world is vast. Each year tens of thousands of lives are saved and an enormous amount of human suffering is abated. In Syria, and other parts of the world far removed from the glare of publicity, humanitarian aid workers are providing a lifeline to people caught in a life threatening cycle of conflict and disaster.

It is my privilege to salute all those people who bring humanity and relief into some of the most inhumane, brutal situations around the world, and to pay particular respect to all those who in striving to save lives, have lost their own.

Dominic MacSorley is the CEO of Concern Worldwide

[Main image: a man carries a boy who was severely wounded during heavy fighting between Syrian rebels and Syrian Army forces in Idlib, north Syria. AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd]

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Dominic MacSorley
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