Syria is the deadliest place in the world for those delivering medical aid — after the Assad regime made providing medical care in opposition areas effectively illegal in 2012 and subjected medical personnel to intimidation, torture and killing. One out of every six White Helmet volunteers whom Le Mesurier helped train has reportedly lost their life.
The vast majority of aid workers who are targeted for kidnapping and killing are often local members of international aid organizations who, like Syrians working for foreign aid groups inside Syria, are citizens of the countries where interventions are taking place. In fact, even as the humanitarian industry grows and the absolute number of attacks on aid workers rises, the attacks are more than keeping pace with increased national staff presence in the field but declining relative to the presence of their international staff counterparts.
National staff fatalities climbed from 19 percent of all reported aid worker deaths across the United Nations, the Red Cross and Crescent movement, and INGOs before 2000 to 71 percent in the period before the Arab Uprisings in 2010.
And yet, research I conducted in the Middle East among humanitarian responders to the Syrian War in 2011 shows that despite the deadly toll already borne by national staff, international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) transferred a great deal of additional risk to Syrian workers and local organizations.
This was after measures to protect staff adopted during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq swung the pendulum of protection far in favor of international aid worker lives. Violent events like the bombing of the Canal Hotel in Iraq in 2003 led aid agencies to move their staff behind walls and into compounds, to hire private security contractors, and to limit aid worker movement.
Going underground, leaving, or becoming remote.
Humanitarian operations in Syria were carried out in increasingly clandestine ways. Hospitals moved underground and identifying emblems were removed from project sites and vehicles. GPS coordinates were no longer shared with warring parties who were once expected to spare hospitals from violence but now might deliberately target them.
Organizations conducted cross-border operations from neighboring states of Turkey and Jordan, leaving Syrian staff and NGOs in “the field” to carry out their activities. Numerous agencies reported working remotely and sending funds into Syria without the capacity to oversee their distribution or use. Calls for greater oversight of activities inside of Syria by funding agencies, such as USAID, were scoffed at.
The use of these approaches was not unique to Syria. Aid has been delivered across borders from Kenya into Somalia for years now. Projects and emblems have been hidden before. What was unique was the widespread adoption of these kinds of cross-border and clandestine approaches under circumstances that greatly limited the quality of aid that organizations could deliver.
In 2014 under Res. 2165, the United Nations authorized the delivery and monitoring of aid across borders into Syria and with notification, rather than permissions, from the Syrian government. This overrode sovereign rights that had been upheld in previous conflicts. International organizations that adopted cross-border approaches operated in a context that they did not know well, lacking pre-existing ties to networks inside Syria.
As international workers were increasingly pulled away from potential recipients, the value that aid organizations claimed they brought to humanitarian response by bringing in international experts with humanitarian expertise developed in other contexts was diminished.
So why compromise aid in the name of protecting the best-protected?
It would be a mistake to assume that organizations and international aid workers chose self-preservation over their preferred approaches to aid delivery because they are naturally risk averse. Aid workers regularly weigh threats to their own survival against the potential that they might save lives. They have historically assumed significant risk.
Leading organizations – like, Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent – set the expectation that volunteers understand the risks and dangers they will face and make no claims against the organizations for compensation should those risks become real in charters and contracts.
But I find that changes in the nature rather than rate of attacks against aid workers led humanitarian organizations to see the Middle East after 2010 as a new security environment and compromise the ways they operated in favor of self-preservation.
First, humanitarian actors believed that access and security guarantees that would have held before 2010, for example if given by the Taliban in Afghanistan, would not be upheld in a post-Arab Uprising Middle East.
Second, they knew that aid workers could be targeted for brutal, cruel, and humiliating killing, or die in the name of violent actor propaganda. This kind of brutal targeting, often of international workers, crossed a security threshold for organizations.
Third, non-state armed groups were seen as irredeemably deviant and norm-defiant while United Nations member states and their proxies were seen as backsliding on their commitments under International Humanitarian Law. Using language thought relegated to the annals of colonialism, humanitarian leadership warned against a return to barbarism, particularly in Syria.
Changes in what risks are tolerated by humanitarian organizations raise questions about whose security matters. Many organizations expect their national staff to be more willing to risk their lives and better able to ensure their security than their international colleagues because it is their home. But the evidence of the last decades does not bear this out. Nor do these assumptions take sufficient account of the risks Syrian nationals face when they cannot leave.
How organizations work to level-out the protections they offer staff with different passports is likely to have significant effects on the rapidly evolving and growing humanitarian enterprise and its commitments to equality and solidarity.
Emily K. M. Scott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy and Oxfam America, in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She is also a research affiliate at McGill University’s Centre for International Peace and Security Studies.