What happens when aid workers are kicked out of a country?

The threatened expulsion of two UN humanitarian staff from Syria could have a major impact on the lives of thousands of people who depend on the support of humanitarian organizations to survive.

By Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, OCHA’s Chief of Policy Development

Late last week, the UN announced that two key humanitarian staff had been expelled from Syria. The staff — both field-based and considered essential to the ongoing humanitarian effort in the war-torn country — had been negotiating with opposition parties to secure access for the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian supplies.

The development was first shared by UN Humanitarian Deputy Chief Kyung-wha Kang in her briefing to the UN Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. It could have a major impact on humanitarian operations, she warned.

“This will hinder our work tremendously. We call upon the Government of Syria to reverse its decision so that we are able to continue our life-saving work for all Syrians in need.”

It now appears that one of our staff may be allowed to remain in Syria for a little longer. Nevertheless, this development speaks to the dilemma at the heart of humanitarian work today. The work of humanitarian workers — those entrusted with providing neutral and impartial assistance to the innocent victims of conflict and disasters — has never been more difficult and dangerous than it is right now. The consequences of this are catastrophic.

The centrality of access

On the face of it, the equation is quite simple. Access to people in need is the fundamental prerequisite for effective humanitarian action. Without timely and unimpeded access for impartial humanitarian organisations, humanitarian assistance is prevented delayed or rendered inadequate .

This idea is enshrined in international law and is perhaps the most important cornerstone of relief operations in conflict zones. A significant portion of the 57.5 million people identified by UN as in need of humanitarian assistance in 2015 are affected by conflict in some way. The four major humanitarian crises of today — Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the Central African Republic — are all the consequence of conflict. These four crises absorb around 80 per cent of all humanitarian funding.

But access is far from being just a legal or technical issue, or the sometimes claimed “Trojan Horse” for “Western” aid organisations. Access is real, with a real impact on real people.

Negotiation, trust and acceptance

A UN convoy carrying supplies to people living in areas “outside of government control” in northern Myanmar. Securing humanitarian access often involves interacting with groups who are opposed to central authorities. Credit: OCHA/Eva Modvig

Humanitarian actors are unarmed and rely on negotiation, trust and acceptance to access people in need. Humanitarian access is a process, not a single event. Trust and acceptance must be earned — daily — and the best way for humanitarian actors to achieve this is to be relevant. We need to walk the talk about access by being ready to engage with parties and communities, build trust and make a concrete difference to people’s lives. Trust and acceptance depend on predictability and familiarity.

Access must be obtained and maintained to all people in need, regardless of their ethnic, social, political or other background, and irrespective of whose control they are under. This often requires humanitarian organisations to interact and negotiate with non-state armed groups, including groups that have been designated as “terrorist” by national governments or, in some cases, by the Security Council. They can do so discretely, at technical levels, and without bestowing political legitimacy. As an aid worker once said to me “I would sit with the devil if it saved one life”.

Laws or policies that inhibit engagement or negotiation with particular armed groups can prevent humanitarian actors from reaching people in need. For example, we are increasingly seeing that counter-terrorism laws and policies, and the general climate that these create, can have a “chilling effect” on humanitarian action. The consequences for people in need are increased risks and protracted suffering.

Obtaining and maintaining access: a daily struggle

Obtaining and maintaining access is a daily challenge for humanitarian organisations, who are increasingly being forced to overcome any number of obstacles.

As we saw last week, staff can be expelled for no apparent reason. Visas can be revoked or delayed. Humanitarian convoys are subjected to extravagant and opaque clearance procedures, effectively stalling crucial humanitarian supplies behind walls of red tape.

At the other, more violent extreme, access can be constrained by direct attacks on humanitarian workers or infrastructure. In 2013 alone, 155 aid workers were killed while 171 were injured and 134 were kidnapped, making it the most dangerous year for the industry in a decade.

With every aid worker killed, with every attack on a humanitarian convoy, with every lengthy procedure that delays a shipment of medical supplies, with every arbitrary withholding of consent by a party to a conflict, there is a tangible and serious impact on people in need. Aid that is destroyed, looted, withheld or obstructed will no longer benefit tens of thousands in urgent need of food, water, medicines or shelter. The result is prolonged suffering, disillusionment, harm and even death.

Credits (clockwise from left): UNRWA, OCHA, OCHA, UNICEF, OCHA/Iason Athanasiadis

Parties to conflict cannot arbitrarily deny humanitarian access

So what is the solution? Humanitarian actors need to get better at coordinating with each other and joining up in their efforts. The often fractured way that humanitarians operate in conflict environments does little to build trust with different parties to the conflict.

We must also resist pressures to link humanitarian action to political objectives. Blurring humanitarian activities and political agendas can impair lifesaving operations and impact negatively on how humanitarian actors are perceived.

But responsibility for securing access cannot reside solely or even largely with humanitarian actors or their donors. The responsibility falls on Governments and other parties to conflicts. Parties to armed conflict have the primary responsibility for the safety and well-being of populations under their control. We must continually emphasize this responsibility and we must seek accountability when it is not fulfilled.

For too long it appeared that states and non-state armed groups had an unfettered discretion to turn down offers of humanitarian assistance, mostly without any consequences. This can no longer be accepted. Parties to armed conflict cannot withhold consent to humanitarian relief operations on arbitrary grounds. On the contrary, it is increasingly being recognized that the arbitrary withholding of consent to relief operations is a violation of international humanitarian law and, in some circumstances, international human rights law.

A series of resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council in 2014 are designed to facilitate access for the UN and its humanitarian partners into parts of Syria previously cut-off by fighting. Credit: OCHA/P. Palmero

This emerging doctrine paves the way for more proactive advocacy and promotion of respect for the law, in the interest of tens of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfires of conflict. In Syria, the Security Council itself has adopted a proactive approach to facilitating humanitarian access, in particular by passing resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191 last year.

Where consent to humanitarian relief operations is arbitrarily withheld, there cannot be impunity. Where parties to armed conflict repeatedly obstruct or deny access to people in need, where access denial is used as a method of warfare, and where people suffer as a result, this also needs to be addressed at a political level.

Withholding urgently needed humanitarian assistance — food, water, shelter or medicines — to people in need is a crime. It kills people, prolongs suffering and deepens vulnerability. We must ensure that states and non-state armed groups do not arbitrarily deny humanitarian access, and where they do, we must ensure that there will be consequences and accountability.

Hansjoerg Strohmeyer is the Chief of OCHA’s Policy Development and Studies Branch. He joined the UN in 1996 working on a war crimes portfolio within the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo/Bosnia. Since then he has held senior positions in several UN political and peacekeeping missions, including Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Kosovo, East Timor and Liberia. Before taking over OCHA’s policy portfolio, he was Chief of Staff to the Emergency Relief Coordinator/Under-Secretary-General for OCHA (between 2002 and 2006) and served as Secretary of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Crisis in 2008.

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The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the UN entity responsible for coordinating humanitarian action in conflict and natural disasters. We advocate on behalf of people affected by crisis and shed light on what humanitarian actors are doing to respond.

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