Associate Security Consultant (Humanitarian Lead)
Over the past year, humanitarian aid and NGO workers have continued to be on the front lines of conflict, disease and insecurity.
2019 has been characterised in the development world by proliferating violence in South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, while the situation has seen some relative improvements for those in the field in Iraq and the Republic of Congo. Following one of the most treacherous years on record for humanitarians in 2018, below we take a look at the biggest changes in the world’s most dangerous countries for humanitarians.
Continuing to top the list as the world’s most dangerous country for humanitarians, 22 aid workers were killed in Syria in the first nine months of 2019 alone. The majority of those killed were operating in Idlib province, in north-west Syria, which is almost entirely under the control of rebel-groups. Air strikes delivered by the Syrian-Russian coalition were the most routine cause of death, although targeted terror attacks, crossfire and criminal attacks were also recurrent.
However, despite continuing to be the world’s most dangerous country, a like-for-like comparison with the same period in 2018 shows a more than 50 percent decrease in the amount of humanitarian fatalities, as well as a decrease in the number of kidnapping incidents. In part the reduction in fatalities this year has been due to the occasional limited successes of a campaign for brokering partial demilitarisation in Idlib between the rebels and the Syrian-Russian coalition forces, although this has been mostly unsuccessful.
For the year ahead, the security of aid workers operating in Idlib will largely be dependent on the success of the recently reignited peace brokering attempts. If the Syrian government is able to negotiate a de-escalation that sees the absorption of the governorate back into the state with protections for the dominant hardline Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), then we are likely to see fatality figures for humanitarians fall markedly in the coming year. However, if the dominant actors are unable to reach agreement, a return to heavy aerial bombardment in a renewed regime takeover attempt would see a major surge in both humanitarian and civilian casualties.
Despite the number of aid groups working in the field declining over the past five years, Afghanistan continues to be one of the world’s most dangerous countries of operations for humanitarians, with seven aid workers killed during the first three quarters of 2019 alone. One of the most concerning events was the targeted attack against the American NGO Counterpart International in Kabul, which utilised a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) and consequent gun attack, killing three employees of the NGO CARE who maintained a nearby compound. The attack was perpetrated by the Taliban and was allegedly motivated by US government funding, and the mixing of men and women on aid projects.
Comparative to the same period last year, the number of those killed, wounded and kidnapped has decreased – but a range of actors continue to demonstrate fatal threats to the sector. An airstrike from the international military coalition killed two people in Farah province in May, while the Afghan security forces are believed to be responsible for the killing of two aid workers in Wardak province during a raid on an NGO-administered health clinic. Moreover, a deteriorating security environment in the traditionally safer northern provinces saw five UN workers kidnapped by the Taliban in September, during an ambush on their convoy in Baghlan.
There is huge uncertainty in regards to what 2020 will hold for the aid sector in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of US forces is likely to generate further insecurity in general, particularly in areas where Islamist groups had not been able to operate. However for those NGOs working on mandates that radical Islamist groups consider incompatible with religion, such as girls education or gender-based violence, a boost to the capabilities of the Taliban is likely to be particularly detrimental. That being said, the cessation of coalition air strikes will be welcomed by field workers operating in Taliban-controlled areas where their programmes have good acceptance. The most important influencing factor will be determined by the outcome of any resumed peace talks, and if a total US troop withdrawal does go ahead.
3. Democratic Republic of Congo
The efforts of aid programmes in the DRC continue to be severely hampered by insecurity, even in the face of the current outbreak of Ebola virus disease declared in August 2018. During the first nine months of 2019, five aid workers were killed, seven wounded and a further six were kidnapped. The majority of these incidents occurred in North Kivu, a conflict-affected province where prolific violence between militias and the armed forces has generated millions of internally displaced persons in recent years. Aid workers have been recurrently targeted in North Kivu, especially those involved in the Ebola response, with attacks driven by distrust over the causes and treatments of disease at the community level.
The number of kidnapped aid workers has decreased considerably, comparable to the same period in 2018 where 23 kidnaps were recorded. Moreover, in the two kidnapping incidents to have occurred up until September this year, at least six of the eight victims are known to have been released. That being said, kidnap continues to be employed en masse by multiple actors in the DRC, as demonstrated by the high occurrence of kidnapping incidents that have continued to occur outside of the NGO sector. The decrease noted so far this year is likely to be more indicative of bolstered security precautions on the part of humanitarian organisations rather than a decreased intent by militant groups.
The Kivu conflict shows no signs of coming to a close, and while it has been officially ongoing since 2004, it is strongly rooted in even earlier conflicts. More than 130 separate armed groups are believed to be active in North and South Kivu, and the participation of so many separate actors makes prospects for reconciliation in the near future highly unlikely. Progress is mostly centred on depriving militant groups of financial resources through discouraging the export of minerals from the conflict affected areas – although groups starved of financial resources may be increasingly likely to employ kidnap as a tool of sustainability.
4. South Sudan
South Sudan is a routine fixture at the top of lists of world’s most dangerous countries for humanitarians, with over 100 aid worker fatalities since the civil war broke out at the end of 2013. This year there have been some relative improvements, with the number of aid workers killed up until September falling to two, compared to 13 at the same point last year. The vast majority of incidents are perpetrated in one-off scenarios as a consequence of lacking acceptance. Often aid workers are attacked owing to their ethnicity, or misconceptions about their ethnicity or political affiliation, and violence is regularly employed at all levels during aggrieved confrontations. Organised armed militant groups are also repeat perpetrators of attacks, although owing to the local security dynamic it is usually difficult to ascertain who is behind an attack, or what the motive for it was.
In 2018, 37 aid workers were kidnapped in the first nine months of the year. During the same period in 2019, this number had fallen to zero. This is likely to be the result of a combination of factors, including successes at brokering an official peace deal in 2018, as well as the closer alignment between the security functions of NGOs and international aid agencies as a consequence of the huge levels of violence witnessed in 2018. As South Sudan’s reputation for violence against aid workers has been increasingly established over the past three years, organisations have adapted field operations, including withholding staff from some of the most problematic areas, and implementing increasingly heightened security measures.
A fractured peace process has been holding since September 2018, with the UN and regional powers applying pressure on the involved parties to speed up the implementation of the power-sharing agreement. Negotiations have had some successes, and at least three more rebel groups resolved to join the peace process in August under the banner of the United South Sudanese Opposition Movements. However, while progress has been made at reconciliation between the President and the former Vice President, whose rift ignited the civil war, the prolonged period of instability has enabled the proliferation of armed militias – and reasserting government control over these areas is likely to require significant coordination between the recently warring parties. Aid workers continue to be dependent on the fragile peace process holding into 2020, and a return to full-scale conflict cannot yet be ruled out.
5. Central African Republic (CAR)
Despite at least half of the population of the CAR requiring humanitarian aid in 2018, the aid sector has continued to be marred by violence making it one of the most dangerous countries. Five aid workers have been killed in the first three quarters of the year, a slight decrease from nine in the 2018 period. The number of wounded aid workers has, however, increased threefold this year to a total of nine so far, signalling that any improvements in aid worker safety in the CAR have been minor and statistically insignificant.
Attacks during transit have been notable in 2019, and ambushes as well as apparently unprovoked shooting attacks have occurred repeatedly. Attacks, both fatal and non-fatal, have been regularly driven by economic incentives – with assailants utilising weapons to target humanitarian aid workers for either their organisation’s possessions or their own. There had been no reported kidnapping incidents against aid workers in the first nine months of 2019, although that is only a marginal decrease on the two incidents recorded by the same point in 2018.
While the current conflict has been ongoing since 2012, the CAR has fluctuated in and out of conflict since its independence. A peace agreement was signed in Bangui in February this year between 14 rebel groups and the government, although rebel leaders appear to exercise little control over their affiliated militants in other parts of the country. The population continues to be divided along ethnic and religious lines, and most of the country is de facto outside of the control of the government or legitimate police forces. Capacity building programmes for the CAR security forces are being delivered by both Russia and the European Union, although it is likely to be considerably longer before the aid sector in the CAR can rely entirely on the local security forces for protection.
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