Authored by: Raquel Recuero, Regional Security Coordinator
A deeper look into how humanitarian risk environments have developed to identify the most dangerous countries for aid workers in 2020.
Throughout 2020, humanitarian aid workers have continued to be targeted while facing a diversifying range of risks related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the subsequent mobility restrictions enforced by countries worldwide. Alongside novel risks, conflict and violence have continued to proliferate in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and South Sudan, while new conflicts have developed in countries such as Ethiopia, India, Libya and Azerbaijan. Some improvements have been reported for field workers in Yemen and Afghanistan, although the broad risk environment in both countries continues to be EXTREME.
Overall, the restrictions imposed by countries to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak have reduced the operational capabilities of NGOs and humanitarian aid providers, particularly leading to a reduced presence of international aid workers and underlining a reliance on national counterparts. A total number of 141 incidents were reported between January to November 2020, down significantly from the 244 recorded during the same period in 2019. However, humanitarian health workers have faced elevated targeting due to their increased and sustained risk exposure in the face of misinformation and rising fears of outsiders.
Healix Sentinel’s top 5 most dangerous countries for aid workers in 2020
South Sudan has climbed the rankings of our most dangerous countries for aid workers and came up top, after appearing fourth in 2019. Over 400,000 people and around 145 aid workers are thought to have been killed since the civil war erupted in 2013. Despite a peace agreement being reached in February 2020, this has not translated into an improvement in the security risk environment for NGO workers; 35 out of 41 security incidents in 2020 occurred after the agreement was signed. Furthermore, the number of aid workers killed in 2020 rose to 21, up from five the previous year. The majority of attacks have been perpetrated by armed unidentified groups and the perpetrators are rarely apprehended. Workers in rural and border areas are especially vulnerable to inter-communal violence.
From January to November 2020, one aid worker was kidnapped, while during the same period in 2019 this number had risen to 12. The single incident took place in July 2020, when a private vehicle transporting eight civilians and one aid worker in Jebel Thiik, Bahr el Gazhal state, was assaulted by an unknown armed group active in the area. The victim’s whereabouts are yet unknown. The significant drop in the number of aid workers kidnapped is likely related to the drawing down of the civil war, as both the South Sudanese Army and rebel groups loyal to the former vice president were previously known for targeting aid workers to use as bargaining chips during the conflict.
The peace agreements between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former vice president and opposition leader Reik Machar are likely to improve the security environment for aid and humanitarian workers in the long term, as the reconciled parties bring greater stability to South Sudan and sustained efforts to promote security. However, the lengthy conflict led to the emergence of a multitude of armed militias, which have been accused of killing, robbing, ambushing and kidnapping aid workers with impunity in the past. Despite the government’s efforts to reassert control over the areas controlled by these militias, particularly in Pibor, Central Equatoria and Yei State, a significant improvement of the security environment for aid workers in these areas is unlikely in the short term at least.
After dropping from the top of the list, Syria comes in as the second most dangerous country for humanitarian workers this year, with 28 aid workers killed in the first ten months of 2020 alone. During the same period in 2019, a total of 32 aid workers were killed, marking a marginal decrease. The majority of these fatal assaults occurred in Idlib and Ariha, both part of the Idlib Governorate in north-west Syria, an area controlled mostly by rebel groups. Yet again, the majority of these aid worker fatalities were the result of aerial bombardment and shelling by the Russian-Syrian coalition targeting rebel militias. While humanitarian workers are not the direct target of these attacks, combat and crossfire deaths account for more than half of the fatalities noted above.
The number of kidnapping incidents also decreased from the previous year from four in 2019 to just one in 2020. A British aid worker was kidnapped in June 2020 by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), one of the various Sunni Islamist militant groups operating in Idlib. The motive behind his kidnapping is unclear, although societal and cultural grievances against NGOs, especially those who challenge traditional and cultural values, have previously motivated attacks against foreign aid workers.
Despite the decrease in the number of security incidents involving humanitarian workers in Syria, it is likely that the Syrian-Russian coalition will increase the number of airstrikes in Idlib in the coming months, while Turkey is likely to deploy a larger number of troops to the area following an escalation of tensions between both parties. This could translate into a greater risk for humanitarian workers in the area. Furthermore, the occasional politicisation of foreign aid in Idbid Governorate is also likely to increase hostile attitudes towards humanitarian workers.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) remains in third in our most dangerous countries for aid workers this year so far. In 2020, 15 security incidents involving aid workers were reported in comparison with the 24 incidents reported for the same period in 2019. Similarly to the previous year, the two incidents occurred in North Kivu, a conflict-affected province where intense clashes between local armed forces and militias are ongoing. The conflict has generated more than 1.4 million internally displaced people and killed at least 11,800 people since 2014 alone. Some of the most notable incidents have occurred in recent years in the territories of Masisi, Lubero, Rutshuru, some of them involving humanitarian health workers deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo amid the ongoing Ebola outbreak.
From January to November 2020, a total number of 26 aid workers were kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 11 different incidents, 20 more than in 2019. While the majority of the kidnappings took place in South Kivu, six humanitarian workers were kidnapped in Ituri, where confrontations between Hema and Lendu communities have extended to aid workers. The kidnap-for-ransom of locals and expatriates by criminal and militant groups is a common practice in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been since 2015 amid the rampant economic crisis, political turmoil, lawlessness and environment of impunity for perpetrators.
There are no signs of improvement in the security scenario for the Democratic Republic of Congo, and particularly for North Kivu as rebel advancements are reversed by local army forces. It is likely that the number of humanitarian workers kidnapped remains high in the following months amid militant groups increasingly relying on ransoms to finance their activities. Despite international peacekeeping efforts in the region, the humanitarian crises and consequent security risks continue to be extreme.
The situation for humanitarian workers in the Central African Republic has improved slightly from the same period last year. From January to November 2019, 14 security incidents involving aid workers were reported in the CAR, while 10 incidents were reported during the same period in 2020. Three aid workers have been killed in the first 10 months of 2020, in separate incidents that occurred in the regions of Vakaga, Bamingui-Bangoran and Nana-Grebizi. However the number of wounded aid workers has reduced significantly, marking a notable improvement in aid worker safety.
One incident of kidnapping occurred in the first ten months of 2020 with five aid workers kidnapped in an ambush in Batanfago, Ouham region. In November, Anti-Balaka militants broke into the home of a local aid worker and attempted to kidnap him after he resisted. Ambushes and shootings remain the most prevalent incidents and assailants are well known for kidnapping and assaulting aid workers for economic purposes. In October, the escalation of tensions between two armed groups in Batangafo forced the suspension of all activities by humanitarian actors as well as the evacuation of several aid workers.
The civil war has been ongoing in the Central African Republic since 2012, although a series of conflicts between the government and rebel militias have been ongoing since the CAR gained its independence in 1960. The current conflict has caused around 5,200 deaths and created more than 700,000 internally displaced people and 290,000 refugees. A renewed peace agreement was signed between the government of the CAR and 14 armed groups in February 2019, although diverse challenges have continued to affect the stability of the country including several violations of the agreement in the past few months. The upcoming general election in December 2020 challenges the current situation and the results are likely to trigger an escalation of violence by militant groups, and a consequent increase in the security risks for humanitarians.
Somalia has made our list of most dangerous countries for aid workers in 2020 amid an increase in the number of security incidents involving aid workers, as well as their lethality. From January to November 2020, 13 humanitarian workers were killed in four incidents. Three succumbed to shelling in South West State, two were killed in a vehicle-born IED in Mogadishu, one was shot in Afgoye district and seven were kidnapped and later killed in a village on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Nine of those killed were directly involved in the delivery of health services. Although no group claimed responsibility for the last incident, it is likely that the perpetrators are affiliated with the al-Shabaab group. The group is known for its high fatality attacks in pursuit of the destabilization and overthrow of Somalia’s central government, to establish its own rule based on their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam’s sharia law.
Four humanitarian aid workers were wounded from January to November, while six were kidnapped. The majority of these incidents occurred in the Gedo region of Jubaland in southern Somalia, where clashes between opposing factions occur frequently, as well as in Lower Juba and Bay districts. Both roadside and vehicle IED attacks were the most common means of non-fatal attacks against humanitarian aid workers, underlining the continued capabilities of militant and terrorist groups to disrupt operations, alongside their reaffirmed intent to do so. Kidnapping is employed partly as a means to defer humanitarian aid organisations from operating in the area, alongside economic drivers.
The recent increase in attacks against humanitarian aid workers in Somalia occurs alongside a growing demand for humanitarian aid due to the acute impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, desert locust invasions, protracted conflict, political and economic instability and recurrent climatic shocks in the form of floods and droughts. Logistical challenges related to travel restrictions and the halting of domestic flights has forced organisations to deliver supplies via ground moves, increasing their exposure to potential ambushes and assaults. Despite the progressive withdrawal of US and Ethiopian troops from Somalia, a peaceful solution to the civil conflict in the medium term remains unlikely.
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