Understanding the Security Challenges of Mass Evacuations

Understanding the Security Challenges of Mass Evacuations

The large-scale movement of Palestinians away from Israeli troops advancing into Gaza is just the latest of many mass evacuations to occur in human history. A case in point: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 6.2 million people have fled from the conflict in Ukraine (as of July 2023). Millions more have left their homes — sometimes en masse, other times based on individual initiative — due to conflicts in Syria, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Yemen, among others.

In this article, Transport Security International will look at the security issues associated with mass evacuations in particular, drawing on documents from the Norwegian Refugee Council, the UNHCR, and the Australian Government’s Attorney-General’s Department. We will also tap into the real-life experience of Osprey Flight Solutions, which handles aviation risk management. Our goal is to give TSI readers a sense of the security issues associated with managing mass evacuations, given the increasing possibility that some of them may be faced with such a challenge sometime in the future.

What an Evacuation Is, and Why People Do It

According to the Evacuation Planning Handbook published by the Australian Attorney-General’s Department (part of its Australian Disaster Resilience handbook collection), “Evacuation is a risk management strategy that may be used to mitigate the effects of an emergency on a community. It involves the movement of people to a safer location and their return. For an evacuation to be effective it must be appropriately planned and implemented.”

The circumstances in which both individual and mass evacuations occur are central to what makes them so risky from a security standpoint. In both instances, people are only leaving because they see no other way to protect themselves and their families in their homes, due to the conflict, violence and chaos raging around them. It is this trifecta of danger from hostile players that makes these evacuations so dangerous, and security of paramount importance — assuming that it can be enforced at all.

“Evacuations are one of the most delicate operations in a crisis environment,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) document, ‘Considerations for Planning Mass Evacuations of Civilians in Conflict Situations’. “While an evacuation can provide an immediate, lifesaving intervention in the face of an imminent threat, evacuations also carry substantial risks and the dilemmas they evoke can be significant. If humanitarians are faced with implementing an evacuation it means all other options have failed. Siege environments (where evacuations are most likely to be needed) are one of the most difficult operating contexts for humanitarian agencies and the process of evacuating can pose dangers for the affected population and humanitarians alike.”

Managing End-to-End Security Risks

For a security official tasked with protecting people in a mass evacuation, the dangers to be dealt with begin when the evacuation is being planned, and only end when the evacuees have arrived safely at a secure destination where they are being housed, fed, and properly protected.

If at all possible — and in war zones such an “if” can be difficult to achieve — the security official needs to identify areas of potential risk and take steps to deal with them before evacuation begins.

For a mass evacuation even to be feasible, there has to be a consensus among all of the parties involved in the conflict — including aid agencies — that such a movement of people can be executed safely and without interference. “If even one organization raises concerns about the rationale for the evacuation, partners should take this seriously and review (even if only quickly) the logic demanding the evacuation,” said the NRC document. “Critically, it is important to identify who is calling for the evacuation: is it the affected persons themselves? Humanitarians? The authority or state? [And] Are there potential alternative motivations driving them?”

This last reservation is worth heeding, because “some stakeholders may call for an evacuation (and even support it directly) in order to be seen to be doing something about a crisis” the NRC document warned. “This desire to be seen to do something can lead actors to call for an evacuation before the evacuees or humanitarians have even decided an evacuation is necessary.”

Internally displaced Syrians including children at a refugee camp near the Turkish border in Atmeh, Syria.
Internally displaced Syrians including children at a refugee camp near the Turkish border in Atmeh, Syria.

Assuming that a mass evacuation has been chosen as the preferred course of action, every step of the process needs to be mapped out to identify security risks. This includes everything from who is allowed to evacuate and how they will be screened to eliminate “bad actors”, to where the evacuees will assemble, how they will be transported (often in some form of vehicular “convoy”), what provisions will be made to feed and protect them en route (including medical support), where their final destination will be, and how they will be taken care of there and for how long.

Key Concerns To Plan For

The business of ensuring security during mass evacuations is an extremely complex and often dicey matter. This TSI article will not pretend to be able to authoritatively identify all of the threats a security official needs to watch out for — but we can highlight some key concerns to plan for.

Now, the task of identifying people to be evacuated and preparing them to leave is best left to professional humanitarian aid agencies. Where the security official needs to step up is in ensuring the safety of transportation to and from the staging sites, plus perimeter and access security. Of key concern is whether or not hostile players may take advantage of such a mass gathering to stage terror attacks designed to inflict maximum casualties — such as the August 26, 2021, suicide bombing near Kabul’s international airport that killed 183 people during the West’s retreat from Afghanistan. There is only so much that anyone can do to prevent/deter such attacks, but all possible security steps should be taken nevertheless.

Once the mass evacuees have been readied for transportation — often on buses and/or trucks — ensuring security along the convoy’s route is a top priority. Again, achieving this goal can be very difficult, particularly if the convoy is moving through territory held by those hostile to the evacuees. “Obtaining reliable guarantees from the parties to the conflict to permit safe evacuation of civilians across the frontlines is a challenge, particularly where the parties to the conflict are using civilians as pawns,” said the UNHCR document, ‘Humanitarian Evacuations’. “Even small-scale attempts to evacuate civilians sometimes require arduous negotiations before the warring parties allow the evacuees to leave.”

Even when mass evacuation negotiations have been successfully concluded, “Humanitarian actors should undertake contingency planning for eventual breaches of agreements on safe access and passage by parties to the conflict,” the UNHCR document advised. “Meticulous forward planning will be critical to minimize potential loss of life and any other risks to the civilian population and humanitarian staff.”

Meanwhile, no matter what ceasefires have been arranged to permit the convoy’s safe passage, security officials should assume that trouble will occur and prepare for it as best they can.

“Regardless of the preparations or negotiations that take place in advance of an evacuation, it is possible that the convoy may come under attack,” warned the NRC document. “There is little concrete advice that can be offered on how to manage such a situation, as it will vary significantly by context and by the nature of the attack. The best thing that can be said is to discuss how an attack will be managed prior to departing on the evacuation … Human rights monitors should ideally be present in all evacuations, but this is particularly true if humanitarians feel that there is a risk of part of the convoy being stopped, diverted or having individuals detained.”

Armed Escorts: Yes or No?

In theory, the risk of a mass evacuation convoy being attacked can be mitigated by it being accompanied by armed escorts. However, unless these escorts have enough firepower and depth to successfully deter/repel attacks along the entire route without provoking hostile players, relying on them may not be a good idea.

“In particularly dangerous environments, humanitarians may feel that there is a need for armed escorts to accompany an evacuation convoy,” the NRC document observed. “The use of armed escorts can carry significant risks however, and at times can actually increase the dangers to the convoy if the escorts are not perceived as neutral. [As such] Humanitarians should make every effort to negotiate safe passage so as to avoid having to use an escort and should only resort to an escort when all other alternatives have been ruled out.”

The Need for a Safe and Secure Refuge

So far, we have touched on the security concerns of assembling and moving people safely in mass evacuations. But these concerns do not disappear once the evacuees arrive at their destination unless that location is truly a safe, secure, and well-equipped refuge.

For this to happen, “An evacuation center should be a safe and secure place for meeting the basic needs of people away from the immediate or potential effects of an emergency,” said the Australian Attorney-General’s document. “While the arrangements across jurisdictions will vary, the primary function should be to address basic human needs and support requirements.”

These needs include essentials such as adequate food, water, shelter and medical care; adequate aid personnel to assist and secure the mass evacuees; and a location that — while accessible to mass evacuees — is at “a safe distance from hostilities, besieged or hostile areas as well as border areas.”

All of these elements should be part of consultations with persons of concern and negotiations with the host government and relevant non-state armed actors, who must remain the guarantors of the physical security of the evacuated populations.

Osprey’s Experience

Osprey Flight Solutions’ mission is to “enable systematic risk management,” said the company’s website. “On their own, data, technology and human analysts cannot deliver objective, consistent and dynamic risk management. But by bringing these essential components together — hundreds of thousands of reliable data sources, an industry-leading analysis team, and a proprietary software package to seamlessly fuse them together — we enable operators, governments and regulatory bodies to truly understand the broad spectrum of risks facing each and every flight and thus the global aviation network.”

In recent years, Osprey has provided risk management services to clients fleeing Afghanistan in 2021 and Sudan in 2023. These included detailed strategic analysis of the aviation situation under the names, “Afghanistan: Analysis of the post-war aviation operating environment” and “Sudan Conflict: Osprey’s analysis of the impacts on aviation.”

Even after the event, both documents make for compelling reading. Take Afghanistan in 2021: “The presence of armed conflict within Afghanistan coupled with heightened levels of crime, social unrest and aviation infrastructure deficits pose logistical constraints to civilian flight operations within the country,” wrote Matthew Borie, Osprey chief intelligence officer. “In addition, the threat of militancy posed to aviation within Afghanistan is highlighted by recent attacks against airports and aircraft inflight. Afghanistan does not meet International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards for safety, and the security posture at airports in the country varies considerably. Security personnel are unlikely trained to the highest international standards, and staff responsible for safeguarding airport operations likely face severe difficulties in handling significant aviation-related safety or security events.”

Then there’s Sudan in 2023, following the outbreak of armed conflict in April of that year. “Rerouting of civil aviation overflights away from both FIR Khartoum (HSSS) and FIR Juba (HJJJ) is likely to persist in the near team amid the ongoing armed conflict in Sudan between the RSF [paramilitary Rapid Support Forces] and Sudanese Army,” wrote Osprey Aviation security analyst Sean Patrick. “Operators should remain prepared for an ongoing loss of access to Sudanese and South Sudanese airspace for overflights of FIR Khartoum (HSSS) and FIR Juba (HJJJ) until a ceasefire is reached between the Sudanese Army and RSF, or until adequate ANS [air navigation service] provision can be re-established by the authorities in Sudan.”

Reflecting upon these and other volatile situations, Osprey Fight Solutions’ CEO Andrew Nicholson said, “The fact is that any evacuation, whether due to natural disaster or conflict, is extremely difficult and fraught with challenges, logistical and security … The level of confusion, stress, anger, fear and desperation that is felt by those on the ground puts huge pressure on evacuation routes to be less than perfect in their screening. At the end of the day — and having done this operationally, I know the feeling well — those coming in to actually effect the evacuation are desperate to get everyone out. The feeling of doing your bit to protect the citizens of your nation is almost overwhelming. This feeling is extremely difficult to suppress and can, if unchecked, lead to corner-cutting in order to get as many people out as quickly as possible.”

Three Conclusions

TSI’s research into mass evacuations, as explained by experts in this field, has led us to the following three conclusions:

First, due to the difficult circumstances they are typically conducted in, mass evacuations are inherently risky and insecure. As such, every contingency must be examined by security officials with respect to such operations, guided by the assumption that what can go wrong, will go wrong.

Second, security must be considered at every single stage of a mass evacuation. Every element — from identifying and assembling evacuees through transport and eventual arrival at the destination — entails risks due to hostile players.

Finally, although trust is necessary to broker mass evacuations, trust is frequently broken by players who perceive an advantage in deception and deceit. As such, security officials handling mass evacuations must be prepared to cope when this occurs, to keep evacuees as safe as possible when the proverbial hits the fan.