New report calls for protection and support for volunteers in emergencies

Published: 30 November 2011 12:31 CET
Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are often first responders to disasters and need protection and support.
Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are often first responders to disasters and need protection and support.

The International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies today launched its first advocacy report on volunteers acting in emergencies. Protect. Promote. Recognize. Volunteering in emergencies looks at the ways in which National Societies and government partners can encourage volunteering by making it safer, easier and more fulfilling for people to get involved.

The report demonstrates that, while volunteers are an important part of every society, they don't always recieve the protection and support they need, especially when they're undertaking work in dangerous situations.

On 7 April 2011, Mohamed Mustafa Almisrati, a Libyan Red Crescent first aider, was travelling in a clearly marked Red Crescent ambulance with a driver, two doctors and a nurse. They had taken wounded people from the frontline to Ajdabiya Hospital and were attempting to return to help more casualties. Conditions deteriorated: forces from all sides were pushing into the town and panicked civilians attempting to escape the danger. The ambulance crew's supervisor instructed them to return to base. They drove slowly so they could collect any casualties along the way.

Suddenly, a missile hit the back of the ambulance, scattering shrapnel. Almisrati leapt out when he heard the blast fearing the vehicle would explode. When he looked around for the others, he couldn’t see Saleh al-Awami, one of the doctors, and so he ran back to the ambulance calling for him. “I opened the door,” he said. “I saw him lying down near the door. I lifted his head with froth coming out of his mouth and shrapnel on his chest with his shirt covered in blood. I burst into tears and couldn't control myself.” Al-Awami died on the way to the hospital. The young paramedic had been volunteering at the hospital since the start of the uprising and had asked to join the ambulance crew and go to the frontline.

Other healthcare volunteers have also found themselves in dangerous situations, notably during vaccination campaigns. Afghanistan is one of the last polio-endemic countries in the world, but vaccinators have been threatened, or even killed, while trying to access Taliban-dominated parts of the country. In 2007, at the request of the World Health Organization (WHO), ICRC took advantage of its neutrality to contact the Taliban leadership and ask for its support during vaccination campaigns. In return, Mullah Mohammad Omar issued a letter that vaccinators can carry, instructing people to cooperate and provide them with safe passage.

These intrepid volunteers visit households, administering two drops of oral polio vaccine to each child. They stain the children’s fingers with permanent ink to indicate they have received the vaccine, and they put chalk marks on the doors of their homes. More than 12,000 Afghan Red Crescent Society volunteers joined the campaign in March 2011, alongside volunteers trained by UNICEF, WHO and the Afghan government. Together, they have vaccinated some ten million children against the crippling disease. “We aim at decreasing the polio threat to zero level, but we have not yet succeeded and there is a long way to go,” says Fatima Gailani, President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society. However, are already signs of success. According to UNICEF, Afghanistan reported 25 cases of polio in 2010, while neighbouring Pakistan and Tajikistan reported 144 and 458 cases respectively.

The report concludes that while there are disasters, there will be volunteers willing to face danger in order to improve the lives of those around them. "Volunteers who risk their lives to help save others deserve our shared commitment to protect, promote and recognize each and every one of them."

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