Aiding ISIS victims: ‘We need access, not more funds’

Veteran humanitarian worker François Audet discusses the dilemmas ISIS has created for crisis-response operations.
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April 24, 2015

Long-time humanitarian worker François Audet has participated in countless aid operations around the world, including those in Haiti, Colombia, Somalia and the Darfur region of Sudan. He is currently a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal and the Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid (OCCAH).

In an interview with MIGS’ Marie Lamensch, Audet discusses the reality of those who under threat from extremists, the loss of the humanitarian community’s “impartial” reputation, and the need to negotiate access into ISIS territory in order to deliver aid and services.

Which minorities are particularly at risk or are targeted by ISIS?

Groups at risk vary according to regions and countries. For example, Sunnis are particularly targeted in Iraq. However, if we look at Boko Haram, who recently swore allegiance to ISIS, women and girls are particularly at risk.

Beyond distinctive groups, what is clear is that the main victims of the Islamic State (ISIS) are Muslims who live in regions under the control of the group. This is not what we see reflected in traditional media, which tends to focus on actions that affect Western interests. Of course all attacks committed by the group are a tragedy, but we must remain vigilant to the fact that civilians in Muslim countries are the main victims of ISIS. And those victims are now estimated in the tens of thousands.

If UN agencies lack funding and resources to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict in Syria and the Islamic State, to what extend can NGOs like MSF and the Red Cross help them?

I don’t think lack of funding is the real challenge. Yes, there is a lack of funding but that is one of the chronic problems of humanitarian aid. In order to fulfill their role of protecting and delivering humanitarian assistance to civilians, humanitarian organizations require access. But that access is almost impossible. There is a real break in the paradigm of humanitarian aid in zones of conflict in West Africa and the Middle East where the Islamic State is active. Humanitarian access has become the real challenge of the contemporary humanitarian system. As a result, if organizations no longer have access to the populations they are supposed to protect, we need to question the humanitarian model.

In Syria for example, organizations cannot enter the territory. The population must therefore flee on its own, beyond borders, in order to get help — with all the risks that it entails. However this means that civilians are literally taken hostage and that they must take the risk to flee, without protection, in order to leave the country. We can all agree that humanitarian organizations have failed at achieving their mandate of protecting civilians.

Is there a risk then that refugee camps might become a breeding ground for jihadism? Does the lack of humanitarian aid benefit ISIS?

It is clear that some camps are prone to hosting potential supporters of jihadist movements. Considering that conflicts are extremely complex and that impunity is rampant, it is possible that individuals will take justice into their own hands and join the jihad. However, I don’t think that camps are explicitly breeding grounds for radicalization.

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that humanitarian aid is likely to be a factor that prolongs conflict. Indeed, humanitarian aid can give more resources to combatants. The problem is therefore not the lack of humanitarian aid per say but rather the fact that humanitarian access is almost no longer possible in zones controlled by ISIS.

ISIS has killed hostages, including humanitarian aid workers. What is the situation for humanitarian workers on the ground? What is the impact of the offensive against ISIS on humanitarian action?

From Mali to Somalia, all the way through Libya, Syria and Iraq, the humanitarian space is being questioned. This place, generally considered a space where civilians could access aid workers and vice-versa, is no longer respected. ISIS specifically targets Western symbols, which aid workers are part of. However, the fact that aid workers have lost their separate identity is not new but has particularly increased with the integrated politics of the fight against terrorism that followed 9/11. The “with us or against us” motto of the allied intervention in Afghanistan and then in Iraq turned that impartial image and identity upside down. ISIS confirmed, or perhaps put an end to a debate on a trend that was already under way, that of the loss of the impartial legitimacy of contemporary humanitarian aid.

The solution requires a new narrative and a new diplomatic and humanitarian negotiation system. It requires making contact with ISIS and negotiating humanitarian access. This narrative is not yet well-defined but the humanitarian regime must find a solution in order to access the civilian population. The lives of many civilians depends on it.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It was originally conducted in French.

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