February 11, 2015 / 10:44 PM / 2 years ago

Experts warn independent aid workers of conflict zone dangers

4 Min Read

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Independent aid workers heading to conflict zones must be aware of the danger they face compared to staff from international organizations, humanitarian experts warned on Wednesday following the death of an American aid worker in Syria.

Kayla Mueller, 26, was held hostage for 18 months by Islamic State militants who sent her family an email and photograph over the weekend that enabled American intelligence to determine that she had been killed, said U.S. officials, who are investigating the cause of death.

Patrick Skinner, director of special projects for The Soufan Group, a security consulting firm in New York, said there was a "world of difference" between independent aid workers such as Mueller and those affiliated with major organizations.

"People like Kayla Mueller are at a real disadvantage without a trusted local network," Skinner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Mueller went to Turkey in December 2012 to work for a Turkish organization providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, having previously volunteered for schools and aid groups in the West Bank, Israel and India.

She was last seen in the Syrian city of Aleppo in August 2013 by Doctors Without Borders employees.

Security experts said there had not been a noticeable increase in the number of independent aid workers in Syria but there have been several recent cases of aid workers and journalists being captured by Islamic State.

Non-Staff Workers More Vulnerable in Conflict Zones

Some independent workers may think it is safer not to be affiliated with an aid organization, especially in countries where they are targeted, said Abby Stoddard, partner at London-based consultancy firm Humanitarian Outcomes.

Yet there is not much that someone can do without an organization behind them, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"If you're going to stand out as a foreigner, you might create more distrust as to what you are doing there and bring more risk on yourself, and aid workers are treated suspiciously anyway," Stoddard said.

Independent aid workers may believe they are safe in certain areas, such as the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, Skinner said.

But he warned that the Syria conflict does not respect boundaries, with Westerners facing particular risk.

"International aid workers used to be caught in the crossfire, now they are targeted," he said.

Attacks on aid workers worldwide reached a record high in 2013, according to the latest Humanitarian Outcomes report, which said 155 aid workers were killed, 171 wounded and 134 kidnapped – a rise of 66 percent compared with 2012.

Trevor Hughes, director of risk management and global security for U.S.-based NGO International Relief and Development, questioned the presence of independent aid workers in conflict zones.

He said, "Unless humanitarians have specific skill sets, such as doctors, nurses and medics, and join established networks, which have structures and security and training in place, then you have to ask – are conflict zones the place to go?"

Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Lisa Anderson

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