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Don’t I Matter? Civilians Under Fire - Global Protection Update (September 2021)

Situation Report
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“This crushing feeling of being alone. No one knows. No one cares. No one is willing to go one extra mile to save us: don’t I matter? The feeling of being insignificant is the hardest part of surviving attacks, crimes, conflicts, madness. This invisible loneliness is the machete that chops off dignity, the mine that explodes peace, the bullet that kills hope”

All protection responders would have heard an echo of what the Global Protection Cluster was told in DR Congo earlier this month by a lady that, with another 10 mothers, set up a group that save and reintegrate boys and girls recruited by armed groups. For them, like for us, Protection of Civilians is not an abstract idea. It is a village, a hospital, a school, a market, a water network, a camp for boys, girls, men, women, elderly, displaced who have names and dreams.

Since our last global protection update we have seen the protection and coping crisis in our operations deepen due to the converging challenges of armed conflict, the pandemic, economic downturn, rising inequality and climate change. It is complex. Yet our operations report it simply.

Conflict and violations of basic norms remain the single biggest driver of protection challenges today. Individuals and local communities are under fire. People we work with and who are already pushed to the back of the queue – women, children, people with disabilities, displaced, minorities, the elderly – continue to be hit the hardest and are increasingly marginalized.

Today, civilians are not only collateral damage in wars but deliberate and direct targets. Displaced persons increasingly find themselves caught up in or near armed conflict with States and non-State groups who often disregard the basic principles of the law. With 90% of our Clusters (28 out of 31 field operations) operating in active conflict settings, the protection of civilians remains critical and deserves greater consideration in humanitarian decisionmaking and response.

Sixteen years after the establishment of the cluster system, this report features good practices from our Protection Clusters in Afghanistan, CAR, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine, where we exert efforts in providing more effective protection to civilians through a collective push and a system-wide response. It highlights the use of protection tools, programming, and collective advocacy – connecting the dots between the global protection of civilians’ agenda in the Security Council and the reality of our field work. It reinforces our understanding that local networks are the main framework for protection, like Jeel Albena, this year’s UNHCR - Nansen Refugee Award winner, supporting displaced persons on the frontlines of the crisis in Yemen.


In May 2021, the Secretary-General published his annual report on the global state of the protection of civilians in armed conflict, depicting that armed conflict continued to be characterized by high levels of civilian deaths, injury and psychological trauma. In September 2021, the High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement made concrete recommendations on how to better prevent, respond to and achieve solutions for IDPs. During this reporting period, Protection Clusters across multiple operations reported an intensification of attacks against civilians, threatening the safety of millions and damaging vital infrastructure needed for the response.

Despite the reiteration by the Security Council of its call for a global ceasefire (Resolution 2565 (2021)), conflict continues to exact a devastating toll on civilian populations. In Afghanistan, civilian casualties reached record levels, with a total of 5,183 civilians killed or injured. Civilian casualties during May and June were the highest since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009 (Protection Analysis Afghanistan). In Ethiopia, public reports have recorded at least 4,000 fatalities as a result of conflict and political violence across the country (excluding Tigray) between January and August 2021. When violence escalated in Gaza in May, 260 Palestinians were killed and over 2,200 injured, some of whom may suffer a long-term disability requiring rehabilitation. On 28 July, the situation escalated in Dara’a Al-Balad, Syria, causing civilian casualties and the displacement of around 38,600 people. In addition, 73 people were killed in Al Hol camp in north-east Syria in the first half of 2021 alone, compared to 57 killed in all of 2020; the majority of the victims were women, sometimes under the guise of “honour killing”. Similarly, the escalation of the crisis in the North-West South-West regions of Cameroon is also reflected in the number of civilian casualties with more than 70 civilians killed in July. In Niger between 25 July and 20 August, more than 160 civilians were killed during a series of attacks in Banibangou, Tillabéri region, bringing the total to 635 as of August 31, and in Burkina Faso, the attack of the Solhan village on June 4, killed more than 130 people, becoming the biggest attacks since 2015. In Ukraine, civilian casualties and critical infrastructure damage were also reported in 120 (77%) settlements.

In many contexts, objects and goods essential to the survival of civilians are deliberately targeted, damaged or destroyed, sometimes involving the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects. Besieged villages, burning of granaries and crops, and looting of livestock have become commonplace in the Sahel (Protection Analysis Burkina Faso and Protection Analysis Mali). Similarly, in South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, the destruction of stocks and agricultural assets has had a direct impact on food security and raised the spectre of famine. In Ukraine, July 2021 saw a 50% increase in collateral damage to civilian property. Similarly, July was marked by the second highest rate of demolitions in Palestine, culminating in 627 structures demolished in 2021. Despite the adoption by the Security Council of Resolution 2573 (2021) on the protection of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such attacks are still common.

Meanwhile violence, threats and attacks against medical care persist, and significantly weaken the ability of health systems to function. Five years after the adoption of the Security Council Resolution 2286 (2016) which addressed the protection of the wounded or sick, and of medical and humanitarian personnel carrying out medical duties in a conflict setting, and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people are left without access to health care. According to WHO, since January 2021, 666 probable or confirmed attacks on health care took place in 14 countries: Myanmar, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, CAR, DRC, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine.

Similarly, attacks on education continue to expose children to heightened risks of recruitment, forced labour, early marriage, trafficking, sexual violence and exploitation. In Burkina Faso, 2,250 schools are closed and over 305,000 students are deprived of education. In Yemen, 2 million children are out of school, putting them at heightened risks of child labour and recruitment. Attacks on education also continued in the North-West South-West regions of Cameroon where protection monitors reported in July several incidents against school buildings and personnel by the NSAGs.