Over 140 humanitarians killed in 2021 amid soaring crises

A UN humanitarian compound attacked by violent demonstrators in Bunj in the Upper Nile region of South Sudan on 23 July 2018. (Credit: UNMISS/Isaac Billy)

As the number of people affected by crisis reach all-time-highs, humanitarian interventions face increasing dangers.

Last year was deadly for the humanitarian sector as 141 aid workers were killed worldwide, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Friday. This is the highest number of recorded deaths since 2013, according to the UN agency. 

“All but two were national staff, highlighting the perils that national aid workers often face,” OCHA said in a statement. According to the data by the UK-based NGO Humanitarian Outcomes and relayed by the UN, an additional 203 workers were injured and 117 were kidnapped in 2021.

There have already been 168 attacks in 2022, including 44 fatalities, the UN agency said.

Why it matters. A record number of 303 million people are living in crisis across the globe as conflict, Covid, climate change and poverty converge. As humanitarian needs rise, so do the scale of humanitarian interventions and the risks aid workers take to reach populations in need of food, health, shelter or protection.

To raise awareness and call for the protection of humanitarians, the UN celebrates every year World Humanitarian Day on 19 August – the day of the 2003 bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, where 22 aid workers perished.

The world’s hottest spots. South Sudan has been the world’s most dangerous place for humanitarians for the last decade, since a civil war broke out in 2013. Conflict, coupled with climate change-driven drought and floods, have left two thirds of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to OCHA. 

Five humanitarian workers were killed in the country last year, and another five have already been killed since the beginning of 2022 amid a rise in looting and attacks against aid convoys and warehouses.

Afghanistan and Syria follow in the list of most perilous contexts. In Afghanistan, for example, 10 aid workers were shot at in 2021 while in Syria 11 were injured in air strikes and shelling incidents.

Funding woes. The unprecedented level of humanitarian needs has been accompanied this year by a record amount in funding requests from UN humanitarian agencies and other NGOs – almost $50bn. So far, roughly one third of the amount has been gathered, leaving a $33bn funding gap.

“Even though we have seen generosity from donors, (…) the largest we've ever seen, the needs are outpacing that,” OCHA’s deputy spokesperson Jens Laerke told reporters in Geneva.