ROME (CNS) — The kidnapping of Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar has made Jesuit Refugee Service reassess the way it operates in many high-risk countries, said an agency official.
Staff have been getting training from experts who have worked for the United Nations or who have military experience to learn how to “monitor and evaluate the security situation” in the places they are working, said James Stapleton, the agency’s international communications coordinator. This might include “how to get to a safe place in time of crises, where to go, who to talk to,” he told Catholic News Service.
This new step in training was important because local staff “tend not to pay attention” to the security aspects of being on the ground, concentrating as they are on the social and humanitarian situation, Stapleton told CNS in a phone interview Feb. 23, the day after Father Kumar was freed and returned to New Delhi, more than eight months after being kidnapped in Afghanistan. At the time of his kidnapping, Father Kumar headed JRS in Afghanistan.
Just as the situation changed rapidly in Afghanistan, resulting in Father Kumar’s kidnapping, it has been changing in other volatile countries where JRS operates — like Syria and northern Iraq.
Stapleton said JRS staff now must take into account the effect a security situation or risk will place on the organization as a whole. People want to stay close to those they are helping, but the organization needs to consider whether that staffer’s presence “could put the whole project and people in the community at risk.”
The fact “that we’re there with the people lets us strengthen our relationships with the community and strengthen (staff) security with the interests of the community in mind, too,” he said.
He told CNS there have always been risks with their work, but that “this is a relatively new experience for our organization.”
For instance, he said, when JRS worked in Colombia or El Salvador, the situation was dangerous “but we weren’t specifically targeted. Now it has changed,” because JRS staff may be from another country or be of a different religious background.
“In Latin America, if the Jesuits were targeted it was because of what they were saying, not because of who they were,” he added.
With the additional training and information from local staffers, JRS has a better handle on the situation, he said.
He added that removing staffers from the field does not mean permanently shutting down a project.