On Thursday 15 December 2016, Patricia Garcia AO spoke on the topic of “Humanitarians under Fire” at the ILA (Australian Branch) End of Year Function. She is a highly respected humanitarian and human rights advocate, who has lived and worked in war zones for over 20 years.

Patricia’s work to assist refugees and internally displaced persons (“IDPs”) has taken her to Afghanistan, Sudan and Burma, amongst other conflict zones. In recognition of her laudable efforts, she was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia and a State Finalist for Australian of the Year in 2016.

Patricia began the evening by speaking about her background, and used examples from her personal experience to call for improved support for humanitarian workers on the Front Line. When you have run a refugee camp in Sudan, or helped to deliver humanitarian aid during the Rwandan Genocide, as Patricia has done, these traumatic events may take a personal toll.

Aid workers deal with conflict, violence and tragedy on a daily basis, to provide key humanitarian services. This makes self-care strategies, and resilience support for people who provide aid essential. It is also imperative for organisations to develop a Good Practice Code, which sets a standard for aid worker performance and takes a peer support approach. Large institutions and organisations, such as the UNHCR and Oxfam, offer some support for humanitarian workers. Yet according to Patricia, the smaller bodies offer little support.

Patricia also spoke about the main challenges facing humanitarians in conflict zones. Firstly, aid workers are targets of armed attacks. In Afghanistan, Patricia was arrested following a military raid, an engineer colleague was murdered and a NGO director was imprisoned for 6 months. Secondly, in light of these significant risks for personal safety, recruitment and retention of humanitarians is also a challenge.

Furthermore, the humanitarian landscape is changing rapidly. With the scale, and speed of disruption from emerging technologies such as drones, terrorism and principles of international humanitarian law under pressure from armed groups, aid workers must adapt to their environment and the needs of vulnerable groups.

It was an eye-opening experience to hear from Patricia, as she shared these insights. The ILA (Australian Branch) would like to offer our sincere thanks for her support, and we look forward to working together in the future.

From left: Dr Keith Suter, Patricia Garcia AO and President Chris Ward (photo by Jennifer Tridgell)