17&18 OCTOBER 2019



The Humanitarian Congress Berlin is a forum to analyse and discuss the theory and practice of humanitarian action. Each year, it brings together over 800 leading and emerging experts from around the globe to share experiences and knowledge in an international and multidisciplinary setting. Over the past two decades, the Humanitarian Congress has created a platform for a growing community with a shared interest in the major issues and challenges confronting humanitarian action.

Across the globe, more people are on the move than at any time since WW2. In the Central Mediterranean, desperate attempts to flee Libya have led to a shocking number of lives lost. The Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh has created one of the largest refugee crisis since the Great Lakes in 1994. In the Central African Republic, hundreds of thousands of people are internally displaced due to the ongoing conflict and through Central America; one of the largest migration corridors in the world, people continue to be subjected to violence and deplorable conditions. 65.5 million people have been forced from their homes by war, violence and persecution worldwide. They join hundreds of millions who migrate in search of a better life every year. Their plight serves to illustrate the increasingly polarised landscape in which humanitarian action takes place. Arguably, what we are witnessing is not a humanitarian crisis but a political crisis marked by certain states prioritising deterrence, containment and externalisation over a humane response to individuals in need.

This polarisation is marked by an accelerating trend of nationalist movements and populist governments turning inwards, making the lives of the most vulnerable even more precarious. What we see is a divided international system of governance whose top decision making body, the UN Security Council, is stalemated by rival big-power interests. Relatedly, the work of humanitarian organisations has been increasingly politicised, bringing into question many organisations’ motives and complicating access to the people most in need.

The situation in Libya demonstrates this clearly. Instead of putting enough pressure on Libyan political actors to substantially improve the intolerable situation for refugees and migrants, European governments enable them to intercept people trying to flee across the Mediterranean and return them to inhumane detention camps. Whilst access to detainees is almost impossible, the humanitarian efforts to save lives on the Mediterranean are being heavily criticised and is subject to criminalisation. The results are horrendous – thousands of people have lost their lives during the crossings and countless others are arbitrarily detained in Libya, stripped of any human dignity, suffering ill-treatment without access to medical care.

The case of Libya is but one example that challenges not just politicians but also aid workers. Among our spreadsheets and strategic plans, are we losing sight of the people at the core of our work? The young man escaping forced conscription in Eritrea and stuck in a detention camp in Tripoli; the old woman displaced by airstrikes and unable to access medical treatment in Sana’a, the refugee child in Bangladesh whose family was killed in Rakhine State, and the woman unable to escape and find safety from the violent conflict in Bangassou, Central African Republic; the aid worker who has been sexually abused by a colleague. We need to put the individual human being back at the heart of our work: to see the patient, rather than the disease; to hear the story, rather than the statistic.

On 4 - 5 October 2018, the 20th Humanitarian Congress Berlin will gather to discuss the current political trends and their implications for the most vulnerable, the people at the core of humanitarian work. How can we successfully advocate for action that supports the people most in need, recognising their fundamental human rights and without looking for political advantage? How can we ensure that our work has the interests of the people at its centre? What are the changes that are needed in order to be able to deliver an inclusive humanitarian response? How can involve local actors and the affected populations in all stages of our response? How can we ensure that each perspective is being heard and empowered? How can we involve actors from related fields, combining our strengths to form a stronger movement? What could effective advocacy for human dignity look like in this polarised political environment? What do we need to prevent abuse directed at the people we serve and the people we work with?

As we discuss the major issues and challenges confronting humanitarian action, the 20th Humanitarian Congress Berlin explores how we can move the focus of attention back to the people and advocate for human dignity.

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