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The cost of being humanitarian

Is it a dangerous time to be a humanitarian? There are disturbing reports of humanitarian actors being shot at while they work and chased out of the places where they are most needed.

Friday August 14, 2015

An ambulance crew in Yemen prepares a patient for transport. Photo: ICRC

Four aid workers have been killed in Yemen since April. More than 50 have been killed in Syria: mostly young women and men volunteering to save lives over the last five years of conflict. In South Sudan, heavy fighting forced doctors and nurses to flee a hospital in Kodok. And the list goes on.  

Christoph Hensch feels that the nature of conflict itself is changing, posing new threats to humanitarian work. He first wore the red cross more than 25 years ago, working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide health care in Afghanistan and Chechnya.  

"Once, the lines of a conflict were quite clear," says Hensch, who now recruits and sends aid workers to Red Cross missions around the world. "Nowadays, wars have become a much more complex context to work in, with multiple international players and different rebel groups with continually changing alliances."  

Christoph has a very personal experience of what happens when humanitarian workers are targeted. When an ICRC field hospital in Chechnya was attacked in 1996, Christoph was shot and left for dead; six of his colleagues were killed. The incident forever changed the way Red Cross managed the security of its personnel and its approach in conflict situations.  

Listen to Christoph and Vicki talk about the costs of being humanitarian in our latest How Aid Works podcast episode.

"It's not just governments that control wars any more," Christoph says. "It's a process of building trust with all the different parties of the conflict. Building an understanding that Red Cross is there solely to meet people's humanitarian needs, and that we are an independent, impartial and neutral player. That can be a difficult thing to do."  

The red cross and red crescent emblems are vital to the safety of their bearers. Used in armed conflict, these emblems mean 'don't shoot!' People bearing the emblems are not part of the fight, but are there to provide impartial assistance.  

Likewise, Red Cross or Red Crescent aid workers may have access to places others cannot go, but they must take no sides and show no preference.  

Vicki Mau heads a team of Australian Red Cross humanitarian observers, who regularly visit detention centres to monitor conditions and speak with detainees. This work, she explains, is rarely about going public with any issues they observe.  

"It's about making sure the dignity and wellbeing of the people in detention is upheld and respected," she says. "We are not part of partisan political debate that is happening in the public sphere - we stay neutral, we stay independent, and our first preference is to engage directly and confidentially with the authorities to address the needs that we see in detention."

These principles come with a personal cost. Sometimes they mean treating those who suffer and choosing private advocacy over public outcry over the cause of their suffering. Sometimes they mean accepting harsh limits.  

"A lot of people go out there and they think they can change the world," says Christoph. "I think as a humanitarian you very quickly learn that there is only a very limited amount of influence you have and a very limited amount of things you can change, if anything at all."  

Despite the risks and the compromises, both Vicki and Christoph want to see more humanitarian workers in action.  

"Following your passion, being pragmatic but also being principled are key to me," Vicki explains. "And being willing to throw yourself into the work and get your hands dirty - it's not an easy path."  

Learn more

What's a Humanitarian When It's At Home? Podcast Episode

Discover the fundamental principles that guide our work.  

Kick-start your humanitarian career

Register for a Red Cross training course in humanitarian action