Soaring violence in Somalia and Afghanistan helped make 2008 the most dangerous year on record for aid workers, with 122 killed while carrying out their work, a new report shows.
Aid work is now more risky than U.N. peacekeeping as attacks become increasingly politically motivated in some countries, researchers said.
Last year saw a marked surge in violence against international relief workers and local U.N. contractors such as the truck drivers who deliver food aid in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region.
There has also been a dramatic increase in kidnappings over the past three years. The latest in Sudan took place on Saturday when unknown armed men snatched two foreign aid workers, a French and a Canadian, from their compound in southern Darfur.
Altogether, 260 humanitarian workers were attacked in 155 serious incidents in 2008 - up from 32 incidents a decade ago, according to figures compiled by the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) in New York and the Overseas Development Institute in London.
"We were surprised," said CIC fellow Abby Stoddard who co-wrote the report. "We did not expect the jump in the past three years that we saw. There seems to be an alarming trend.
"It's a very dangerous profession indeed and I don't think that's understood as much as maybe it should be. The numbers are quite startling and certainly the fatality rate exceeds that of U.N. peacekeepers."
Most of the violence is being driven by three countries - Somalia, where 45 aid workers were killed in 2008, up from 7 in 2007; Afghanistan with 33 deaths; and Sudan with 19.
The overall number of aid workers killed has soared four times in the last decade, according to the CIC and ODI, which have been measuring violence against aid operations since 1997.
Relief workers say this is partly because the aid sector has grown, but also because they are increasingly seen as political actors.
In 2008, politically driven attacks accounted for around half the incidents where the motive was known Â? up from 29 percent in 2003, according to the CIC/ODI report, Â?Providing Aid in Insecure EnvironmentsÂ?.
It said aid workers were targeted not just because they were perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors but because they were seen as part of a Western agenda.
Eighteen international staff were killed in 2008, more than double the previous year. Of the 62 kidnappings in 2008, 18 were of international staff, who are more valued because they command higher ransoms and make for a stronger political statement.
Stoddard said in some cases criminals were kidnapping aid workers and then striking deals with political groups.
Although deaths of expatriates make the headlines, the vast majority of victims are locals - 104 national staff were killed in 2008, up from 71 in 2007. Nationals are more exposed because they are more likely to work in the field due to their local knowledge and language skills.
Stoddard said aid agencies had made some progress in improving security, but urged them to do more to protect local staff and partners.
Â?ThereÂ?s this false assumption that national staff are safer than international staff because they are locals and they donÂ?t stand out as much,Â? she said.
Â?The threats are different, but there are still threats that havenÂ?t been adequately assessed and mitigated by the agencies.Â?
Stoddard said agencies often failed to appreciate that a community might consider an aid worker from a different region of the country as much an outsider as a foreigner. In some conflicts, an aid workerÂ?s ethnic background might also put them at increased risk.
Humanitarian workers came under attack in 25 countries last year. Other dangerous places included Pakistan where five aid workers were killed, Democratic Republic of Congo, with a death toll of four, and Sri Lanka, Chad and Mozambique, which saw three deaths each.
Aid workers told Reuters they feared 2009 would prove as bad if not worse. And some believed the global economic crisis could increase attacks for money and goods.
Stoddard was also pessimistic about the coming year. "Based on the number of incidents we're seeing already in this quarter, I think that's a correct assessment," she said.
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