Backing aid heroes in world conflicts

Today's wars are setting near records in refugees, need for aid money – and aid workers killed. Bringing peace requires more than arms or diplomacy. It needs more compassion toward the displaced.

Syrian refugees walk at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, Dec.7.

If the world had a compassion meter, it would likely register the sacrifice among wealthier nations and aid workers for the help given to people displaced by war. This year, the meter for this frontline work would be setting records not seen since World War II.

On Tuesday, a group of government donors met in Geneva to pledge money for humanitarian aid in conflict zones such as Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The amount needed for 2015 is estimated to be nearly a third higher than last year’s, or $16.4 billion. The reason? The United Nations and other groups face a rising number of people forced to flee their homes – more than 51 million – in conflicts where peace efforts are failing. 

“This is not business as usual in the humanitarian world,” said António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees.

It is also not business as usual for the aid workers themselves in the world’s hot spots. Last year saw record violence against civilian aid operations, with 251 separate attacks and 155 killed, according to the group Humanitarian Outcomes. That is about double the norm of a decade ago. This year might set a new record.

As troops from the United States and its allies have withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, the world must now focus on the higher casualty figures for people who work in the line of duty to bring peace and comfort to refugees and others. They are as much heroes as brave soldiers trying to bring peace in civil wars.

Most of the aid workers killed have been locals hired by international groups. The most prevalent attacks occur during road travel. “Nurses, engineers, logisticians, and drivers, for example, all take great risk doing their work in sometimes extremely dangerous and difficult circumstances,” says Valerie Amos, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

The greatest need for international relief remains for the estimated 6 million Syrians displaced by a conflict that began in 2011 and now includes the Islamic State militant group. Reaching civilians within Syria, especially in areas controlled by IS, is extremely dangerous, and yet many aid groups try. About half of the displaced civilians are in five neighboring countries, placing burdens on the local economies.

As diplomacy, drones, and other means are deployed toward ending these conflicts, the world must also commit just as much in money and people to the relief side. Aid money and aid workers are necessary challenges to any indifference toward these distant wars.

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