Fleeing relief workers leave gap in aid delivery

Iraq is the deadliest country in the world for aid workers, specialists say. Treated as Western collaborators by insurgents and assumed to have sectarian bias by militias, they face death on a daily basis in the course of meeting the needs of an increasingly desperate population.

“I cannot stay in Iraq anymore. The situation for aid workers has been getting very difficult over the past few months. We are being targeted so I started look for refuge in a European country or in the US,” Samir Marouf, a 33-year-old aid worker, said.

Marouf has been working as volunteer for various aid agencies in Iraq since January 2005. When he began, he never imagined that he would one day receive death threats for helping a neutral organisation feed people in need. Now, he is desperate to get his wife and daughter out of the country.

“One of our colleagues was killed two months ago while trying to deliver aid to a neighbourhood in Sadr City [a Shia-dominated area of Baghdad]. Militants stopped his car and asked for his documents. When they saw from his surname that he was a Sunni Muslim, they took him away. His body was found two days later near the capital. He was going to help their [militants’] Shia relatives but they killed him.

Like Marouf, dozens of aid workers have been seeking refuge in foreign countries after being threatened by militants or insurgents.

Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NGOs Coordinating Committee in Iraq (NCCI), said at least 84 aid workers (18 international and 66 local) have been killed in Iraq since 2003, the highest number for any country worldwide in that period.

“These aid workers are staff and activists of international organisations, UN agencies and NGOs. Our data is for incidents reported to NCCI,” said Turlan. “The [death] figure for aid workers is certainly higher, particularly regarding local NGOs’ staff.”

“One of the major problems is that Iraqis in general don't know what an aid worker is and what an NGO is. For years we [aid workers] have been presented as spies by the former regime. And since 2003, the line between military, private sector and humanitarian aid is so blurred that we can’t blame anybody who doesn't respect aid workers, although we are working to support the most vulnerable,” he added. “But we have to blame those responsible for the violence that affects all civilians, including aid workers.”

Agencies close Iraq offices

Since 2003, dozens of international NGOs and UN agencies have closed their Iraq offices after their volunteers or staff were targeted. The UN and most international NGOs operate from neighbouring countries and rely on Iraqi organisations to deliver supplies to families in need.

The Iraq Red Crescent has been at the centre of aid delivery in Iraq but after its staff and volunteers were kidnapped in December 2006, it has been keeping a low profile and thereby providing less assistance to people countrywide, especially in the capital, Baghdad.

The Iraq Aid Association (IAA), a Baghdad-based NGO, has also been threatened repeatedly and has had three of its volunteers killed over the past eight months.

“We are trying to continue our work by working in different areas and trying to send people of the same sect to their neighbourhoods when delivering aid,” Fatah Ahmed, a spokesperson for IAA, said.

“Twelve of our 32 volunteers have travelled to Jordan and Syria over the past few months, seeking refuge in foreign countries after receiving threats from armed groups,” he added.

Fighting among militants, insurgents and US and Iraqi forces has often prevented NGOs from delivering aid to some of the most volatile areas, where people need assistance the most.

“They don’t allow us to enter those areas for different reasons. When we ask for protection to reach needy people, the answer is always that if we want to go in, we’ll be considered as any other civilians and would have to suffer the consequences of the fighting,” Ahmed said.

“Displaced families in cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, Diyala and some neighbourhoods of the capital are desperate, urging help from NGOs but we can’t get close to them. We leave families to drink dirty water from rivers or to have one meal a day,” he said.

as/ar/ed