Attacking the lifesavers

NRC's Secretary General Jan Egeland|Published 08. Nov 2017
Today, Tuesday, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK’s programme Brennpunkt airs an important documentary on aid workers under assault.

This op-ed was first published by the Norwegian newspaper VG on 7 November 2017.

The TV programme recounts the horrible attack on the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) convoy in 2012, when the then-Secretary General visited Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

The Dadaab incident is the most serious in NRC’s history. Our staff members were victims of a brutal attack carried out by armed men. A young driver was killed, several were wounded and four staff members where abducted. Over five years later, a mother is still mourning her deceased son. Our colleagues who lived through the incident still suffer from traumas and physical injuries.

Unfortunately, the attack was not exceptional for a humanitarian organisation working in war and terror zones. Just last year, 288 colleagues in other organisations were killed, injured or abducted. In the five years that have passed since the tragedy in Dadaab, more than 1,000 aid workers have endured attacks. The security of our staff members and the people we assist is our highest priority and crucial for us to be able to continue our humanitarian work.

NRC has, in the hardest and most painful way, learned a lot from the attack in Dadaab. We have done everything we can to learn from the incident, to reduce the risk of anything similar happening again and to ensure better follow-up on staff members’ wellbeing after serious incidents. The organisation has undergone major changes in our security systems and procedures for following up on staff members.

With contributions from 40 donor countries and international organisations, we assist more than six million refugees with food, water, shelter, legal assistance and education. More than 12,000 people work with and for displaced people on behalf of NRC, most of whom are working in countries of conflict and great insecurity. We have been working systematically to strengthen our security systems, risk management, staff care, threat assessment, analyses and trainings.


One of the things that failed in Dadaab in 2012 was information security. Too many people knew about the Secretary General’s visit too far ahead of time. In the aftermath, there was too little openness about the choices made during the visit, too little willingness to listen to criticism, and too much poor communication with those directly affected.

One of the abducted, Steve Dennis, suffered from post traumatic syndrome and occupational disability. He ended up taking NRC to court. It took too long for him to receive the insurance settlement and the compensation for lost income that he was entitled to. The communication between us and Steve Dennis wasn’t good enough, and we are deeply sorry about this.

In the documentary, it’s implied that NRC has not settled with local staff members in Kenya. This is not correct. All of them have received the same medical and psychological follow-up as their international colleagues. All staff members who were directly involved in the incident received personal follow-up. Through our insurance package, compensation has been paid where the terms have been met. NRC has tried to meet each staff member based on their needs and offer them new jobs when possible. The mother of the deceased driver received a sum equivalent of four annual salaries and a promise of further follow-up when she needs it.

We have been in renewed contact with both the mother this year, as well as all the staff members affected by the attack. This dialogue continues to be important to us. One of the injured drivers, who is still working for NRC, now has the same Norwegian lawyer who represented Steve Dennis in court. He, and all those involved, have been offered further medical and psychological care. They have been offered compensation according to the same principles that dictated the compensation Steve Dennis received as a Canadian, adapted to Kenyan law. The difference in sums reflects the differences in their medical needs, their working ability and the different salary levels in Kenya and Canada. But the principles stay the same.

Dangerous areas

We often hear that donor countries would rather assist displaced people in the areas where they seek refuge than give them protection in our own, safe countries. Unfortunately, few people know how dangerous, difficult and risky aid work in these areas is. Aid workers are attacked, abducted and killed every year in the countries that have the greatest needs.

The security of our staff members must be constantly safeguarded. At the same time, we know the consequences can be fatal for the people we serve, if we are not there to help. Our leaders in the field must make difficult decisions every day based on the information and analyses they have at hand. Can we organise a distribution or not? Can we walk or should we go by car? Should we use an armed escort or not? Is it safe to spend the night in the field or should we return? Should we evacuate or stay? In the end, our colleagues always have the final say – they have the right to decline a mission if they don’t want to join. This is crucial.

We hope to be able to continue our aid work in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen and South Sudan – countries where there are more terror attacks on civilians than in the rest of the world combined. In these countries, tens of millions of displaced people and war victims live in desperate need. Several thousand NRC colleagues are working in and around these countries.

With increasing attacks and threats against our aid work, we need more help from political authorities and diplomats. Combatting parties also need to respect our protected status according to international law. We must be humble and learn from all our mistakes and experiences, and be open to criticism – internal and external – when we are not living up to the standards our employees and partners expects from us. Only then we can continue our important work.