2008 was deadliest year for aid workers – study

Soaring violence in Somalia and Afghanistan helped make 2008 the most dangerous year on record for aid workers, with 122 killed while carrying out their work, a new report avers. 

Aid work is now more risky than UN peacekeeping as attacks become increasingly politically motivated in some countries, researchers said.

Reuters says last year marked a surge in violence against international relief workers and local UN contractors such as the truck drivers who deliver food aid in Sudan‘s war-torn Darfur region.

There has also been a dramatic increase in kidnappings over the past three years. The latest in Sudan took place on Saturday when unknown armed men snatched two female aid workers, a French and a Canadian, from their compound in southern Darfur.

Altogether, 260 humanitarian workers were attacked in 155 serious incidents in 2008 — compared with 27 incidents in 1998, according to figures compiled by the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) in New York and the Overseas Development Institute in London.

“We were surprised,” said CIC fellow Abby Stoddard, who co-wrote the report. “We did not expect the jump in the past three years that we saw. There seems to be an alarming trend.

“It’s a very dangerous profession indeed and I don’t think that’s understood as much as maybe it should be. The numbers are quite startling and certainly the fatality rate exceeds that of UN peacekeepers.”

Most of the violence is being driven by three countries — Somalia, where 45 aid workers were killed, up from 7 in 2007; Afghanistan with 33 deaths; and Sudan with 19.

The overall number of aid workers killed has soared nearly fourfold in the past decade, according to the CIC and ODI, which have been measuring violence against aid operations since 1997.

Relief workers say this is partly because the aid sector has grown, but also because they are increasingly seen as political actors.

In 2008, politically driven attacks accounted for around half the incidents where the motive was known, according to the CIC/ODI report, “Providing Aid in Insecure Environments”.

It said aid workers were targeted not just because they were perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors, but because they were seen as part of a Western agenda.

Eighteen international staff were killed in 2008, more than double the previous year. And of the 62 kidnappings in 2008, 18 were of international staff, who command higher ransoms and make for a stronger political statement.

Stoddard said in some cases criminals were kidnapping aid workers and then striking deals with political groups.

Although deaths of expatriates make the headlines, the vast majority of victims are locals — 104 national staff were killed in 2008, up from 71 in 2007. Nationals are more exposed because they are more likely to work in the field.

Stoddard said aid agencies had made some progress in improving security but urged them to do more to protect local staff and partners.

Humanitarian workers came under attack in 25 countries last year. The other most dangerous places included Pakistan, where five aid workers were killed, Democratic Republic of Congo, with a death toll of four, and Sri Lanka, Chad and Mozambique, which saw three deaths each.

Aid workers told Reuters they feared 2009 would prove as bad if not worse. Stoddard agreed. “Based on the number of incidents we’re seeing already in this quarter, I think that’s a correct assessment,” she said.