Violent deaths among relief workers increasing

July 13, 2000

Education and debate: Deaths among humanitarian workers

Humanitarian workers in areas of conflict are at ever increasing risk of death by intentional violence, according to new research in this week's BMJ.

Researchers in the United States analysed cause of death in humanitarian workers between 1985 and 1998, using records from aid organisations. During this time period, deaths due to intentional violence (involving guns, bombs, landmines or other weapons) increased. Of 375 deaths, 68% were as a result of intentional violence. Overall, deaths from intentional violence were most common in 1992-5, when they accounted for 75% of all deaths - most victims died in cross fire or in cold blood.

Africa accounted for over half of all deaths, add the authors. The largest number occurring in Rwanda and peaking in 1994 during the Rwandan conflict. Since 1994, reported deaths among UN staff have decreased whereas deaths among workers in non-governmental organisations have continued to increase. This may be explained by the fact that these organisations often work in small but intense conflicts, which may have few UN staff, say the authors.

Continuing to provide assistance in the midst of violence will inevitably mean more deaths, conclude the authors, but actions can be taken to reduce the toll. For instance, a clearer understanding of risks, improved communication and clear evacuation plans should all be considered. Even limiting aid in high-risk situations is a sensitive, but potential option, add the authors.

Gilbert Burnham, Director, Center for Refugee and Disaster Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA Email:


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