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- Kidnap and hostage taking in disputed zones has become big business, and it is now an industry that affects all walks of life.
On April 28, Australian aid worker Kerry Jane Wilson was abducted from her office in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Since then, her case has been out of the news. We don’t know if negotiations are going on behind closed doors and how she is doing. What we do know, is that Wilson is only one out of an estimated 12,000 people who are kidnapped every year. We also know that the fact that she was taken in Afghanistan and belonged to a small aid agency does not bode well for the future.
In January, a Canadian tourist called Colin Rutherford was released after being held in Afghanistan for five years. On May 10, the son of a former Pakistani Prime Minister, Ali Hiader Gilani, was freed during a joint raid by US and Afghan forces, after he had been locked up for three years. Both had been imprisoned by the Taliban, which is also active in the region where Wilson disappeared. The Australian government’s website, Smartraveller, does not mention Wilson’s kidnapping on its special page dedicated to the phenomenon. It does, however, put Afghanistan at the top of the list of dangerous countries. It is followed, at some distance, by Colombia, Iraq, Malaysia, large parts of North and West Africa, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Hostage taking is big business throughout the world. According to research done by The Independent, in 2010 it was worth a cool 1 billion British pounds. Since then, this industry has been growing – for the hostage takers and for the companies that have become experts in helping the corporate world deal with this menace. Last year, CNBC interviewed an executive of the US-based Pilgrim Group, which provides kidnapping training; he was proud to say that his business had increased “fivefold since 2010.” As it stands, 75 percent of the Fortune 500 companies now hold what is called Kidnap and Ransom Insurance, which can amount to “a pricey retainer” plus about $1,500 dollars per day per employee. The newspaper estimated the premiums paid in 2014 to be around 400 million dollars, and growing. This is not counting the services of companies like Pilgrim, who train employees in how to act when they are kidnapped.
Afghanistan, and countries like Syria and Yemen, are rising fast in the top ten. According to Control Risks, one of Pilgrim’s colleagues, the whole of the Middle East has grown, from making up five percent of the worldwide hostage industry in 2010 to 16 percent in 2015. The company also estimates that around 96 percent of people taken are either local staff or foreigners passing for locals, like Dr Wilson. Eighty percent are taken by criminals, 14 percent by armed groups and six percent by Islamist extremists. Of course, the problem with the Taliban is that they are all three. Worldwide, locals are 30 times more likely to be kidnapped, but they also get released sooner than foreigners, who stay imprisoned five times longer.
If the threat of kidnapping is scary for business people, tourists and workers in the resource industries, spare a thought for journalists. On May 9, three Spanish freelance journalists were released after Turkey and Qatar assisted the Spanish government in getting them out of Syria after ten months. They were relatively lucky. Most freelance journalists do not have Kidnap and Ransom Insurance and cannot afford to protect themselves in other ways. And most of them belong to countries like Australia, who actually keep their word that they don’t negotiate with terrorists. Although member states of the UN are required to prevent paying ransoms under UN Security council Resolution 1904 (2009), Spain, along with France and Italy, does anything in its power to free its citizens, including paying money.
For aid workers, the problems are even greater than those of freelance journalists. The latest reports by the British Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) make for grim reading in that regard. In 2013, they called kidnapping “the new normal” and calculated that between 2003 and 2013 the amount of aid workers who had been kidnapped had quadrupled. Last year, they could celebrate a 30 percent drop in 2014, but this was mostly because aid organisations had decided to pull their workers from the countries where the risk was greatest. Still, 329 aid workers were attacked in 2014. 121 were killed, 88 wounded and 120 kidnapped. Again, Afghanistan’s numbers were worse than anywhere else.
Aid workers are more at risk than anybody else. Not only does their organisation usually not have the money or the capacity to protect them properly, their work often takes them into areas that are dangerous. According to one of her colleagues, and even her father, Kerry Wilson had acknowledged that the risk of being kidnapped was part of her job and accepted the dangers. This attitude, though, is changing. In November 2015, a court in Oslo, Norway, found the Norwegian Refugee Council guilty of gross negligence in its handling of the kidnapping of five staff members in Kenya in 2012. The aid workers had been taken hostage while they were driving through a refugee camp. One was killed, another shot in the leg and held for almost a week with three of his coworkers. Normally, their release would have been the end of it, because the culture of the aid industry is to suck it up and move on. But this time, one of the aid workers, Steve Dennis, was so overwhelmed by physical and mental problems that he decided to fight his now ex-employer in court. The verdict was that the Norwegian Refugee Council was just another business and, therefore, had a duty of care towards its employees. The aid workers were awarded compensation and the Council got a severe slap on the wrist.
Even in cases of kidnapping it seems to matter who you are and what you do. When local workers are taken hostage, it does not even make the newspapers. People working for big companies are in less danger and are more protected than journalists. Journalists who are on the payroll are better off than freelancers. At the bottom of the pile are aid workers, especially those employed by small NGOs, like Kerry Wilson. And on both sides of the divide people are making money. Big money. It led Terry Waite, himself a hostage in Lebanon for five years between January 1987 and November 1991, to advocate for a more level playing ground, at least after the fact. In an interview with The Independent, he said that “Hostage negotiation should be put into the hands of an independent, not-for profit organization, under the auspices of the UN or the Red Cross.” That would certainly help Kerry Wilson. Because it would also cost the kidnap and ransom industry hundreds of millions of dollars, Waite’s sensible plan is not likely to become practice any time soon. In the choice between profit or people’s lives, it seems the verdict is in. God help Dr Wilson.