We cannot accept attacks on aid workers, says British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson. 

I received a message around lunchtime yesterday informing me that six of our colleagues from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been killed in Afghanistan in an apparent deliberate attack by unknown armed men. Two colleagues are still unaccounted for.

A matter of hours later I was told that one of our aid distribution centres, near Aleppo, Syria, had also been attacked. One staff member from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) was killed. Two other people, who had come to the centre to receive aid, were also killed.

These developments highlight a profoundly worrying escalation in loss of life of humanitarian workers. They risk marking the moment that the death of people who should be protected under the international rules of war became the norm. We cannot accept that.

Under international humanitarian law, aid workers are protected as civilians. As such, anyone bearing the red cross or red crescent emblems should be identified as protected. That is how we operate to help people in areas affected by conflict, reconnecting water supplies in Aleppo or delivering supplies in Afghanistan. If that loses its meaning the very ability to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world could be compromised.

In January, six aid workers from the Nigerian Red Cross were mistakenly killed in an airstrike on the town of Rann. They were part of a team bringing food to more than 25,000 people made homeless by conflict. Dozens of civilians were also killed.

Around 20 civilians, including one SARC staff member, were killed in a horrific attack in rural Aleppo in September last year. They were unloading trucks carrying vital humanitarian aid destined for thousands of people.

And of course it’s not just the Red Cross and Red Crescent workers affected. Back in October 2015, a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was hit by a series of bombing raids. At least 30 people were killed, including 14 MSF staff members.

After each attack comes a chorus of condemnation. Such condemnation is starting to fall on deaf ears. How many more times are we going to find ourselves in this position? How many more families are going to be ripped apart by such horrific acts?

Although it is too soon to say how yesterday’s attacks may affect humanitarian operations in Afghanistan and Syria, such insecurity does have consequences. Take as an example: as of September, insecurity had forced the closure of more than 40 health centres in Nangarhar, Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan. This could deprive more than 579,000 people from accessing basic health care.

The safety and security of humanitarian personnel, relief supplies and essential logistics infrastructure is indispensable for the delivery of humanitarian relief to populations in desperate need.

Local volunteers and staff, driven by the Red Cross principle of humanity, are often at the forefront of humanitarian response, risking their lives to provide life-saving assistance to populations in conflict zones. It is unacceptable that their selfless work should carry such dangers.

Written by British Red Cross chief executive Mike Adamson.