By Chris Dolmetsch
July 29 (Bloomberg) — Attacks on aid workers are forcing humanitarian groups to curtail operations in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and other war-torn countries, and relief agencies say they may have to make wider cuts.
Killings, kidnappings and violence against aid workers have more than doubled in the past five years, according to a draft of a report to be published by London-based Overseas Development Institute in the next three months. The average annual number of incidents rose to 76 from 2003 through 2007, compared with 35 in the previous five-year period.
For the first time, humanitarian workers are being specifically targeted, said Nan Dale, the U.S. executive director for Paris-based Action Against Hunger/Action Contre la Faim, which had two French workers kidnapped in Afghanistan on July 18.
“It’s a terrible period in our history,” Dale said in an interview in New York. “We’re hardly the only agency.”
Doctors Without Borders withdrew its 97 international staff members from Somalia after three workers were killed by a roadside bomb in January and eight were kidnapped this month. The charity, the main health-care provider in central and southern Somalia, has been there since 1981. Atlanta-based CARE suspended operations last month in the Galadud region of Somalia following the abduction of two staff members, who are still missing.
Action Against Hunger stopped operations in countries including Burundi, where a staff member was killed in December, and Sri Lanka, where 17 workers were killed in 2006, Dale said. The group may halt more operations if threats against its members increase, she said.
`Seeing a Spike’
Global attacks fell last year to 82, with 55 killed, from a 10-year high of 95 incidents with 85 killed in 2006, according to the institute’s report. In the first half of this year, though, the violence appears to have increased, aid groups said.
“We definitely are seeing a spike this year in countries which are already dangerous, and it’s getting more difficult for us to move around,” said Patrick McCormick, a spokesman for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s charity, in New York.
Humanitarian groups are taking security measures to prevent attacks, with some going undercover by removing identification from vehicles and staff and others using armed guards to protect workers, said Abby Stoddard, a non-resident fellow at the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, and the lead author of the institute’s report.
“Aid workers are a soft target, and in places like Somalia, they are the only international targets, so if someone wants attention and wants to sow fear and chaos, that’s who they attack,” she said.
The number of attacks on Action Against Hunger workers is “unprecedented” for the 29-year-old group, which has about 6,000 members around the world, Dale said. The organization suspended its operations in Afghanistan after the kidnappings, set up crisis units in Kabul and Paris to secure their release and revised its security procedures, she said.
“I see it happening with other aid organizations, including the big ones, UNICEF, CARE and Save the Children,” Dale said. “I think we’re all daily taking the temperature of the situation and doing what we have to do, which includes unfortunately sometimes having to close programs.”