COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized ...

COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

COVID-19 | Remote research in times of COVID-19: considerations, techniques, and risks by Rodrigo Mena and Dorothea Hilhorst

The current COVID-19 pandemic is preventing many scholars and students, especially those in the social sciences, from visiting identified research sites and interacting with the groups or actors important for ...

Counter-terrorist legislation is threatening independent humanitarian relief, and is set to get worse today by Dorothea Hilhorst and Isabelle Desportes

The Netherlands has recently joined a handful of other Western countries in developing counter-terrorism legislation with the hope of stifling terrorist activity and threats. The new legislation on counter-terrorism recently passed by the Dutch Parliament (Tweede Kamer) will be discussed in the Senate (Eerste Kamer) today. Thea Hilhorst and Isabelle Desportes warn that the effects of such legislation should be examined critically, in particular implications for humanitarian actors whose work risks to be criminalized when they operate in areas with high levels of terrorist activity.

The formulation of counter-terrorist regulations has proliferated ever since the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York that served as a major wakeup call on the potential impact of terrorism. Aiming to prevent terrorists’ mobilization of new members and resources, such regulations forbid any form of direct or indirect support to armed groups designated as terrorist organizations. Although legitimate in themselves, the regulations can come with negative political and human rights implications, in particular for humanitarian aid.

A key historical example there is the worst drought in decades that hit the Horn of Africa in 2011. In Ethiopia and Kenya, state, non-state and international actors managed to respond in time to prevent mass casualties resulting from a lack of water and food security. In Somalia, however, the drought resulted in an estimated 260.000 deaths. This was partly down on the long-time conflict that rendered Somalians extremely vulnerable to drought, and the ongoing operations of Al Shabaab, that restricted people’s mobility to migrate to safer areas. However, it is now becoming apparent that the death toll was also exacerbated by donor counterterrorist measures, especially from the United States. Fearing that aid would fall into the hands of terrorist organizations, restrictions were put on international agencies that wanted to come to the rescue of Somalians in need, leading to lower humanitarian financing, non-access to people in need, aid delays, suffering, and death. Similar developments are now happening in Yemen.

Both counter-terrorism legislation and International Humanitarian Law are aimed at protecting people, especially civilians. Yet, counter-terrorism legislation, as well as accompanying donor requirements, can stand in the way of impartial life-saving humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian action should always be needs-based and non-discriminatory. A humanitarian doctor’s first question to a patient should be “Where does it hurt?”, not “What group are you from?”. Counter-terrorism laws can shift the focus in the humanitarian sector to the labelled identity of those in need, resulting in the refusal to help victims who are extremely vulnerable and whose survival is dependent on humanitarian assistance based on their (religious) identity and the fear of ‘supporting terrorist organizations’.

A 2018 survey of aid agencies conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council identified numerous problems resulting from counter-terrorism legislation. This includes difficulties in channelling funds to areas requiring humanitarian assistance because banks fear being seen as supporting terrorist organizations. In addition, humanitarian actors feel restricted because negotiating with terrorist organizations controlling specific regions could be viewed as an act of support. Last, international agencies find themselves cut off from local implementing partners because of the possibility that they might have been in contact with terrorist organizations, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The ultimate consequences are that humanitarian actors risk being detained and held personally liable for doing their job, and that impartial care for people in need gets blocked.

Blanket bans on presence in entire geographical areas

Most recently, we are seeing a new wave of legislation that steps away from only branding organizations as terrorist and criminalizing support to these groups. Instead, new counter-terrorism laws are applied to entire geographical areas. Such bills, covering humanitarian action as well as independent journalism and academic research, have been passed in 2018 in countries including Australia and Denmark.

The new legislation is an answer to the situation of people who travelled to Syria to join IS. But experience in Syria also shows how assistance is affected by these types of measures. The Assad government has been criminalizing aid since 2012, and aid workers report in the above-mentioned Norwegian report that this meant, for example, that banks were not allowed to transfer their money and that they sometimes had to travel with more than half a million Euros in cash through difficult areas, which was of course much more risky than wiring the money.

Yet, another route can be taken. An EU package of measures that proposed restrictions for travelling to designated terrorist-dominated areas adopted in 2017 therefore made an exemption for humanitarian action. Following advocacy efforts of INGOs amongst others, similar exemptions were made in the UK’s Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill in January 2019.

Dutch legislation needs to exempt independent humanitarian action

Today (12th November), the Dutch Senate will discuss a law already passed in Parliament that does not make exemptions for independent humanitarian action, apart from the Red Cross. Its proponents argue that exemptions would be too complicated, not least because wannabe terrorists often pose as humanitarians. However, it would be possible to incorporate more nuance and make sure that exemptions are extended to humanitarian agencies who operate following International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles, as done by the EU and argued by international law specialist Piet Hein van Kempen. As academics working on humanitarian issues, we call for a more engaged and thorough discussions between policy-makers, practitioners and scientific experts from the fields of both counter-terrorism and humanitarian aid. We call for counter-terrorist measures to ensure that they avoid hurting some of the world’s most vulnerable people, thereby creating further grievances in areas already under the influence of terrorism.

This post was simultaneously published at From Poverty to Power.

Image Credit: European Union 2018 (photo by: Peter Biro). The image was cropped.

TheaAbout the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here. isa

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD candidate working on the governance of disaster response, in particular the interplay between humanitarian and local actors.


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Venezuelan refugees on Curaçao have entered the Kingdom of the Netherlands! by Peter Heintze, Dorothea Hilhorst and Dennis Dijkzeul

“Reception of refugees in the region” is a central concept in the foreign policy of the Dutch government. It means that the Netherlands wants to financially support countries that accept refugees fleeing from a conflict in a neighboring region rather than enabling refugees to migrate onwards to Europe. Usually, the regions where refugees need to be sheltered are far away from the borders of our Kingdom. Suddenly, however, the Netherlands Kingdom has become the region itself.

Refugees from Venezuela are arriving in small but growing numbers on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Curaçao is a remnant of colonial history, in that it is an independent country that continues to be part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The response to the fleeing Venezuelans now arriving on the island is highly inadequate and it is recognized that human rights are being violated on a large scale.

A recent report of Refugee International states that: “In displacement crises, the quality of services and assistance typically varies from one host country to another, but the fate of Venezuelans seeking refuge on the small island of Curaçao, only 40 miles from the coast of Venezuela, could very well be the worst in the Americas”. It is high time that the Netherlands, as the main country of the Kingdom, starts to make a serious effort to ensure that refugees are properly accommodated in their own region.


Curaçao, an island state with 160,000 inhabitants, is struggling with major problems. The exploitation of the Curaçao oil refinery by the Venezuelan oil company brought jobs and foreign currency. And so did wealthy Americans and Venezuelans who came to spend their money in the paradise-like tropical tourist resorts.

Now everything has changed. Due to American sanctions against Venezuela, the refinery has almost come to a standstill, hotels have closed their doors, and the Insel Air airline was declared bankrupt in February. Twenty-six percent of the population is unemployed. The crisis in Venezuela is deeply affecting the economy of Curaçao, and its public finances are running out. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, less than eighty kilometers away from Curaçao, a political, social and economic tragedy is taking place. The international community is preparing for the large-scale provision of humanitarian aid. Distraught Venezuelans are leaving the country.

And that’s how the problems arise on Curaçao. Under pressure from a complaining population, a faltering economy and declining government revenues, the government in Willemstad is trying to prevent the arrival of undocumented Venezuelan migrants. Instead of recognizing their desperate situation, the Venezuelan migrants are being portrayed as criminals.


For generations, people have travelled back and forth between the South American mainland and the Caribbean Islands off the coast. Boats brought fish, fruits and seasonal workers. This has always gone on openly, outside of official rules and without international supervision. Besides fish and fruit, the boats also bring drugs and weapons and facilitate human trafficking. Nowadays they also bring more and more refugees from Venezuela.

The Venezuelans, who could be entitled to international protection under international law, are suffering the consequences. They do not receive shelter or protection. Instead, they are treated as criminals who need to be expelled as soon as possible. The Curaçao government does not acknowledge that this entails grave human rights violations. The government is resorting to fear mongering and repeatedly states it needs to act against illegal migration in order to avoid a potential pull effect, which might cause the country to attract even more migrants.

The role of the Netherlands

Curaçao is an independent state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is responsible for its own asylum policy and migration issues. However, the Statute of the Kingdom stipulates that the states have a duty of care for each other, especially in times of emergency. Moreover, foreign and defence policy is formally a responsibility of the Kingdom as a whole. If there are human rights violations within the Kingdom, the Kingdom is responsible. However, the Netherlands is currently failing to extend support to the forced migrants who are entitled to protection. Observers in Curaçao are advocating a more hands-on attitude on the part of the Netherlands: less distant and more in cognizance of the spirit of the Kingdom.

As early as July 2018, the Advisory Council for International Issues (Adviesraad voor Internationale Vraagstukken / IAV) warned of legal inequality within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and pointed out the importance of respect for human rights. The potential impact of the Venezuela crisis on Curaçao forces the Kingdom to take a pro-active stance to protect Venezuelan refugees. Everyone understands that in the current situation, Curaçao can neither handle the influx with its own resources nor uphold refugee law. It is time for civil servants from Curaçao and the Netherlands to jointly set up a functioning asylum procedure for Curaçao and make it work!

Protecting Venezuelan refugees is in the first place a responsibility of the state of Curaçao. Nonetheless, the Netherlands should step in and support the country to provide a decent level of care to the despair migrants from Venezuela. The Netherlands has always favoured reception of refugees in the region; it is time to walk the talk.

Image Credit: Cookie Nguyen. The image was cropped.

About the authors:

Peter Heintze 2016 01 19_048Peter Heintze is an independent researcher, as well as coordinator of the KUNO – platform for humanitarian knowledge exchange in the Netherlands.


TheaDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here


dennis finalDennis Dijkzeul is a Professor in Conflict and Organization Research at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany.