As Norway deals with its own influx of asylum seekers, The Norwegian Refugee Council (Flyktninghjelpen) has been dealing with some dramas of its own. A court in Oslo has convicted the humanitarian organization of gross negligence in the case of a kidnapped aid worker, while the organization itself fended off an alleged swindle.
The court case has sent shockwaves through both the Norwegian Refugee Council and other humanitarian organizations working in dangerous areas abroad. It also spurred a sharp rebuke of the Refugee Council from another of its former employees who also was among those kidnapped in June 2012: Astrid Sehl, who went on to work for Norway’s foreign ministry, wrote in Oslo newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that the court’s verdict sends a strong signal that aid organizations must take responsibility for the health and safety of their overseas workers, just like companies and other employers.
In this case, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) was not only convicted of gross negligence but it was also ordered to pay NOK 4.4 million in compensation, plus legal fees and court costs, to one of the kidnapped aid workers, Steven Dennis of Canada. After failing to secure the support he felt he needed after the ordeal, Dennis sued, and won a resounding victory. Dennis, who was also shot during the kidnapping, had claimed the lack of security and the Norwegian Refugee Council’s negligence had allowed the attack to occur, and the court clearly agreed in its 50-page verdict handed down late last week.
Attacked at a refugee camp
The attack occurred during a field visit by the secretary general of the Refugee Council at the time, Elisabeth Rasmusson, to the refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. The camp is located in what Sehl described as a high-risk area along the border to Somalia.
The Refugee Council’s management, Sehl wrote, “had chosen not to have security staff along on the trip,” nor had they listened to security recommendations. The management, with Rasmusson in charge, had also dismissed the armed escort that “routinely should have been along,” Sehl wrote. Information about the visit had also been allowed to circulate and was not controlled, according to Sehl, and “no measures were put in place to reduce the real danger of kidnapping.”
In Sehl’s view, that allowed a group of armed men to plan an attack on the council workers’ vehicle convoy, during which “they killed my driver, shot and wounded four colleagues and kidnapped three colleagues and myself,” forcing them into the bush in Somalia. “Fortunately we emerged alive after a hazardous rescue action, where we were shot out by a paramilitary Somalian group four days later,” Sehl wrote.
She readily conceded that she and her colleagues “must tolerate a lot when you choose to work in risky areas. But where’s the limit?” She noted that 120 aid workers were kidnapped around the world last year and 121 killed. The Norwegian Refugee Council itself registered more than 50 personal injuries and 420 reported “security incidents” last year alone. Sehl maintains that the management of organizations like the Refugee Council must themselves take responsibility for safety and security, and not “shove it downwards in the ranks and point to (in this case) one locally employed Kenyan.” The day before Rasmusson and her Norwegian delegation arrived, the Kenyan employee was asked to handle security, work as an interpreter and guide the VIP delegation, Sehl wrote. “It won’t be a problem,” she quoted one of the council managers at the time as saying. “He has multi-tasked before.”
Rasmusson left the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2013, to take a job at the UN, and was replaced by Jan Egeland. The council reported that it is now evaluating the verdict, which concluded that the kidnapping probably wouldn’t have occurred if the council had acted differently in planning and carrying out Rasmusson’s visit. The council itself noted that the court “put special weight on the lack of armed escorts.”
Geir Olav Lisle, assistant secretary general, described the court case as “an important examination of a serious incident.” He said the council’s staff would go through “all aspects of the verdict” and had four weeks to decide whether to appeal. The verdict was also to be translated into English and made available for all council employees.
Lisle repeated claims that the security of council’s employees had the “highest priority.” Sehl didn’t seem so sure, and called on the organization to not only provide employees with the necessary competence, equipment and training to tackle dangerous situations, but also to nurture a culture “where the employees dare to speak up about weaknesses, errors and deficiencies, without being afraid they’ll lose their jobs.” That applies especially, Sehl wrote, to locally employed workers, who often are subjected to greater risks and feel a need to be well-liked by their managers, to keep their jobs.
The case reportedly marked the first time an aid worker had sued a Norwegian humanitarian organization, and it doesn’t happen often internationally either.
Possible swindle averted
Meanwhile, the Norwegian Refugee Council faced another challenge last week, posed by a two Norwegian men in Tønsberg who launched a website for an organization they called Den Norske Flyktninghjelpen, suspiciously similar to the Refugee Council’s name in Norwegian, Flyktninghjelpen. Ads soliciting funds for the new organization set off a spurt of media coverage because of concerns of potential swindle. The men behind it failed to register it with state authorities and were vague about what they would do with any donations they received.
The Refugee Council contacted them and the regulators. “When a company chooses a name that’s so similar to ours, it’s problematic,” Harriet Rudd of the council told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Saturday.
By Monday the new website, its Facebook page and the campaign had disappeared, after regulators had warned Norwegians against donating any money to the organization. “Because of a lot of negative media uproar we choose to shut down the volunteer organization,” board leader Alexander Hagen wrote in place of where the website had been. He added that any money donated would be refunded.