LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Attacks against aid workers hit a record last year, with 167 major incidents reported, according to a study published on Monday which says kidnappings have quadrupled in recent years.
The attacks across 19 countries left 67 aid workers dead and 115 seriously wounded, the Aid Worker Security Report said.
The incidents included assaults, shootings, explosions and kidnappings, which have become the most common type of attack. An average 92 people a year have been kidnapped in the last four years.
Although the number of attacks was the highest recorded, the number of victims dropped to 274, down from last year’s high of 308. This was partly because there were no high impact attacks like the suicide bombing in 2011 at the United Nations' headquarters in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
The vast majority of victims in 2012 were nationals working on aid projects in their home countries. International staff comprised less than a fifth of victims, but because their numbers are far smaller, the attack rate on international staff was more than double.
Syria entered the top five most violent countries for aid workers with 18 reported incidents in which 22 aid workers were killed or wounded, many caught in shelling and crossfire, according to the report by the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD).
Afghanistan headed the danger list with 56 attacks, but Somalia, with 17, had the highest rate of violence as there are far fewer aid workers in the Horn of Africa country. Pakistan and South Sudan were also in the top five.
Many kidnappings and killings took place during ambushes on the roads where aid workers and their cargo are easy prey. The report said there was a pressing need for fresh thinking on travel in dangerous environments.
It called for new donor funding and a collective initiative involving the humanitarian and private sectors to come up with innovative ways of keeping aid workers safe in transit beyond simply adding armed security.
The report, which paid special attention to the rise in kidnappings, said international staff are more attractive targets than local staff, not least because they are easier to spot, are generally expected to fetch higher ransoms and generate greater media and political attention.
However, many national staff are also kidnapped every year. They are often seen as having more money than fellow locals and are targeted for their association with foreign organisations.
KIDNAPPING IS "THE NEW NORMAL"
For some agencies the threat of kidnapping underlines the need for physical protection, the report said. But it cautioned that such measures must be carefully designed so as not to restrict contact with the local community or alienate them.
Kidnappings in Afghanistan outnumbered those in all other countries combined last year, with 49 people seized in 21 separate incidents. Yemen was second highest, with 10 people abducted in four incidents. Aid workers were also kidnapped in Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia (including from the Kenyan side of the border) and South Sudan.
However, the report pointed out that hostages are often released relatively quickly in Afghanistan following interventions by community elders. This indicates that the local communities appreciate the aid agencies' projects and want the services to continue.
The report says the kidnappers - mostly local Taliban forces - use the detention period to question the aid workers intensively about their activities and intentions.
Calling kidnapping “the new normal”, one NGO leader is quoted as saying that every agency working in unstable environments can expect to have to deal with a kidnapping at some point.
Based on reports dating back to 1997, the average length of captivity for international staffers is 53 days, compared to 12 days for national staffers.
But the average for international staffers is driven up by a handful of protracted kidnappings. The most frequent length of kidnapping is under 10 days, but with internationals still held for more than twice as long as nationals.
The AWSD, a project managed by research consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes, has tracked data on aid worker attacks since 1997.
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