Ukraine: abduction of UK aid workers raises safety questions over humanitarian organisations

Recent video footage showing British aid worker Paul Urey wearing handcuffs has sparked outrage in the UK. The 45-year-old from Warrington in Cheshire made several comments critical of the UK media’s reporting of the invasion, which his mother dismissed as her son “not acting in his natural way”, implying some manner of duress. But his abduction, along with fellow aid worker Dylan Healy, 22, is a direct breach of international humanitarian law.

Our research with international humanitarian organisations (IHOs) working in war zones suggests that, unfortunately, such disregard for the protected status of aid workers is increasing.

This problem is more widespread in conflicts we have classified in our research as “globally oriented conflicts” – meaning that the stakes are so high that multiple countries, often with strong military power, are drawn in. The conflict in Ukraine, though unique in some ways, falls under this category of conflicts.

In this type of conflict, it’s not uncommon for one or another of the warring parties to extend their suspicion of the motives of western governments to those of western IHOs. This has led to aid workers being accused of spying. These accusations are most often invented – although very occasionally there is substance to them.

Over the years, this has led to a worrying trend of attacks against western aid workers. Sometimes they are abducted as bargaining chips or to make political statements. In the case of Urey and captured British fighters Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin it appears to be both. All three have appeared on state television making what appear to be scripted statements, critical of the west and requesting a prisoner swap.

To be clear, abductions are also a problem in other conflicts we have studied where non-western aid workers face almost certain death if they are captured.

IHOs now realise the painful truth that their protected status granted by international humanitarian law is no longer sufficient to protect their staff in globally oriented conflicts. The question of how to operate safely in such conflicts weighs heavily on every IHO decision-maker’s mind.

Staff profiling

Squeezed out of options, IHOs have started “profiling” their staff to reduce the risk of targeted aid worker attacks. In globally oriented conflicts, this has meant deploying non-westerners as expatriate aid workers – or at least people who are not citizens of the countries regarded as an enemy by any of the armed groups involved in the conflict. Aid organisations will, likewise, deploy western expatriates to locally oriented conflicts where aid workers from the countries involved face greater risks. Though far from ideal, this has proved to be an effective strategy.

But whether this will be a viable approach in Ukraine depends on several factors. To begin with, this conflict has drawn in more western actors than we have seen since the second world war. This conflict is also rooted in the west – and the list of countries that Russia views as unfriendly is long. As a result, aid workers from countries on the unfriendly list could be in imminent danger if they choose to work inside Ukraine. So what options do IHOs have?

Our work suggests that it may be possible to deploy western aid workers in globally oriented conflicts – but this is contingent on two things. First, IHOs must negotiate terms of access with all parties to the conflict. This is difficult in Ukraine because of the lack of progress with negotiations. Second, if the parties to the conflict agree to negotiated arrangements, these are more likely to be adhered to if all parties have a strong chain of command. Loosely controlled groups with a weak or broken chain of command have no control over what individuals further down the chain do on the ground. This makes any negotiated agreement worthless.

What can be done?

Unfortunately, it seems that at least one of these conditions have not been met in Ukraine given the repeated attacks on humanitarian corridors. For these reasons, it appears that the safest approach would be to avoid sending aid workers to Ukraine from countries that Russia regards as unfriendly.

The second option is to deploy non-western aid workers. The main concern here relates to the uncertainty over their treatment by civilians when things go wrong. The acceptance of aid workers by communities is a proven safety net when attacks happen. But if the treatment of black students by Ukrainian civilians and authorities at the start of the conflict are a reflection of deep-seated attitudes, non-western aid workers will not be safer than their western counterparts in areas where danger is most pressing.

Some IHOs adopted a third option during the Arab spring, when they were essentially ejected from countries like Syria. They continued to assist groups of people who chose to stay behind and tended to be less visible targets. These included community members, medical professionals and others who would be expected to respect the sanctity of life and offer assistance without discrimination. Doctors Without Borders, for example, began remotely working with networks of doctors and supporting healthcare facilities in Syria – a strategy they have maintained to this day. But very little is known about the effectiveness of this strategy on humanitarian outcomes.

No perfect solution exists to address the challenge of aid worker safety in Ukraine and better approaches should be explored. A good enough solution might be to work with all three models by carefully selecting the best option in each situation. It is neither perfect nor desirable, but it’s the best one we’ve got – at least for now.The Conversation


Nonhlanhla Dube

Lecturer in Operations Management

Lancaster University



Nathan Kunz

Associate Professor, Operations Management, Coggin School of Business

University of North Florida



This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.