International instability is at fever pitch, with civil war continuing to tear away at the very fabric of Syria, while North Korea looms large as a potential hotspot for a major international conflict. However, as the rhetoric of political leaders sways between measured and hysterical, non-profit organisations (NGOs) continue to operate in the most hostile and dangerous environments, and then continue to do so long after the media spotlight has shifted to the next big story.
The US has announced a ban for its citizens travelling to North Korea, but this directly affects the NGOs currently inside the hermit state trying to make a positive difference. Seven “White Helmets” were executed in Syria after responding recently to the site of heavy conflict. European countries are squeezing NGOs after rescuing migrants fleeing Libya has simply become too dangerous.
However, it is not only in conflict combat zones that NGOs face increasing threat. In many regions around the world members of NGOs and humanitarian organisations trying to affect positive change are being kidnapped by rebels and terrorists for ransom, in their efforts to raise funds for their nefarious activities and publicity for their Holy War.
Jared Higgins, CEO of the Arcfyre Group, a leading protective and risk consulting firm, said that humanitarian aid workers and NGO employees being kidnapped for ransom remains a real threat. Criminals are unmoved by the noble intentions of those delivering humanitarian aid.
“While these individuals have completely neutral and non-hostile reasons to be in these countries - to assist those in need of medical aid and other support, it is crucial for them to undergo proper training and preparation before and during their trip. The aim is to know how to minimise the risk of becoming a victim and knowing what to do to survive if they do,” he said.
“This year alone, there have already been a number of cases of humanitarians being kidnapped including an American aid workerin the Kasai Central province of the Congo in March, four members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Red Cross organisation who were set free in May after being kidnapped in Mali.”
According to Higgins, larger NGOs are likely to have a kidnapping and ransom (K&R) programme or policy in place - often linked to an insurance company or an underwriter. “These insurers are then aligned with specialist K&R security firms, whose job it is to engage with kidnappers and ensure hostages are returned to their families.
“However, this job is made a lot easier and more efficient if effective planning has been done and the correct processes followed,” he said.
While being fully prepared for any eventuality, requires in-depth and expert intervention, Higgins said there are basic, and non-negotiable, preparation considerations for employees or volunteers of NGOs, charities and other humanitarian organisations travelling to unfamiliar, remote and often dangerous countries.
Prior to travelling to a remote, developing region to undertake charitable work, individuals should be familiarised with the risks involved. A major part of such training is developing their level of awareness.
There are a number of basic considerations that are overlooked too often. For example, it is advisable that – before travelling – you provide your family and employer with a copy of your itinerary, certified copies of your passport and all local contact details. This is incredibly important for ensuring that communication is consistent and that someone knows where you are, or should be, at all times. Any itinerary changes should be communicated immediately to ensure the shortest possible time from the last point of contact which assists in tracing movements quickly and accurately.
Likewise, this same information should be shared with the embassy in the country that you are travelling to when you alert them that you have arrived in the country.
Another factor to take into account is to avoid disclosing information that may make you seem more vulnerable and to be aware of who is listening to your conversations. Such information includes who your employer is or that you are a single woman travelling alone, for instance. The same applies to your appearance, it should not give away any information or hints as to who you are. Your clothing and luggage should be free from revealing logos, for example.
Just as it is important to be aware of risks you face merely by entering and working in a country, it is essential to familiarise yourself with basic cultural differences so that you understand the environment you are in. While you may believe that common practices from home will be perceived the same across the world, they may be offensive within some communities. This can include everything from gestures, to the types of clothing you wear, and which parts of your body are exposed. Always do your homework on local traditions and customs before you arrive.
When you land in a new country you will need to make use of service providers, be it taxi operators, accommodation, catering and much more. Remember that you will most likely stand out being a foreigner and become a target for exploitation, scams or worse. Be sure to thoroughly check every service provider, using references where possible and relying on advice from a source that is reputable and you can trust.
Higgins said that thorough vetting forms the foundation of Arcfyre’s operations because peace of mind can only be achieved when every box has been ticked. “For instance, our agents and security drivers undergo an intensive vetting process that includes background checks, psychometric evaluation, cross-checked references and a thorough assessment of all the hard skills required for the job,” Higgins says.
Not only should NGO employees know how to avoid dangerous situations, but they should also be prepared for such situations if they do occur. This is where hostile environment awareness training comes in.
While one may think that such training would be extremely high-level, technical and complicated, it is actually best to focus on the seemingly simple points such as how to use a GPS, satellite phone and a compass. These are the tools that will prove most useful in a situation where you feel as though you are in danger, are lost or are trying to get away.
In addition, basic survival training - like how to prepare a grab bag may seem somewhat obvious but can mean the difference between life or death. This is a prepared bag, packed with all the basics you will need to survive including items like a satellite phone, medical kit, food for 24 to 48 hours, a map, matches, solar-powered portable charger and emergency contact details. There are times when rescue teams or military personal can only go out to retrieve a victim, safely, in a few days. In these scenarios, having knowledge of survival basics and having prepared accordingly is priceless.
Humanitarians are most likely going to be in developing or underdeveloped environments where access to medical treatment is little to none. With this in mind, it is highly advisable that those working in such regions undergo remote medical training.
Beyond the skills learnt in a basic first aid course, remote medical training takes into account that you won’t have access to any specialised equipment or treatments and aims to ensure that you are able to take the necessary action to potentially save your life or the lives of colleagues in a medical emergency to what to include in your first aid kit from a malaria kit to rehydration salts and anti-bacterial medicines.
Another, often underestimated, point to consider is for humanitarian travellers to learn practical skills which can aid their attempt to escape if they find themselves in a threatening situation. Examples of such skills would be learning to drive a manual vehicle (many foreigners are used to driving automatic cars and have no idea how to drive ‘stick’) or practising driving in an off-road environment. If you have managed to escape captivity, you are likely to be panicking, and wasting time trying to do something that you have never done before can seriously compromise your safety. Something as simple as putting a car key in while panicked can be incredibly difficult.
Higgins concludes that, sadly, criminals are always looking for any indication that someone may be a person of influence, where a big organisation would pay money to see them return safely. “All precautionary measures should be taken seriously by NGOs and other groups - of all sizes - as well as by the employees on the frontline.”