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UN: Risks Increasing For Humanitarian Aid Workers

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VOA News - August 19, 2010
António Guterres

In observing this year's World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations aims to raise public awareness of the risks run by the men and women who provide aid to victims of conflict and natural disasters around the world. The day also honors humanitarian workers who have lost their lives or been injured while on the job.

Global crisis

Catastrophic floods in Pakistan are affecting an estimated 20 million people. A powerful earthquake in Haiti early this year has affected about three million people, hundreds of thousands of whom are still without proper shelter.

Millions of people are suffering from drought in Niger. Millions more are struggling to survive in war-torn Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- and the list goes on.

Wherever there is war, wherever a natural disaster occurs, humanitarian workers quickly appear on the scene. If there were no humanitarian workers, hundreds of millions of victims of man-made and natural disasters would be without help -- and many would not survive.

Risk to life

Despite the vital service they provide, the United Nations says humanitarian workers are under increasing threat. A spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Emilia Casella, tells VOA humanitarian workers are running increasing risks to their safety.

"In 1999, there were 30 humanitarians who were killed on the job. And, I would like to point out the vast majority of those were actually national staff in the country they were working in. Ten years later, last year, there were 102 humanitarian workers killed on the job and our own organization," Casella said. "The World Food Program lost 16 people last year in incidents, while they were carrying out work to feed the most hungry and vulnerable people in the world."

Casella says there is a misperception that humanitarian aid is delivered exclusively by Western organizations, many of whom are motivated by ideological or religious beliefs.

She says this false perception is responsible, in large part, for the escalating targeted attacks on humanitarian personnel. The reality, she says, is quite different. She notes most humanitarian workers are local people. And, all humanitarian workers, she says, administer aid in a neutral and independent way.

"When you see your colleagues who lose their lives or who are injured when they are doing really vital and important jobs, it makes you feel angry and upset that it is not understood that what they are there to do is something that nobody else is willing to do," Casella explaines. "They are there to help children, widows, the elderly--people who cannot help themselves.

Events impacting aid operations

Seven years ago, on August 19, a terrorist bomb destroyed the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. At least 22 people were killed, including Special Representative, Sergio Vieiro de Mello. More than 100 people were wounded.

A second bombing a month later resulted in the UN withdrawing its 600 staff members from Iraq, to the detriment of humanitarian operations.

WFP's Casella says it is important for people to understand humanitarian workers are doing a vitally important job. She says without them, there would be a lot more suffering in the world.


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