Aid workers who bring humanitarian relief to war-torn areas say their jobs are getting more dangerous, as they frequently are becoming targets in conflicts. As VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington, the issue was discussed in a panel convened Wednesday by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

One of the most recent examples of violence against aid workers is Margaret Hassan, who was kidnapped and murdered by unidentified gunmen in Iraq. She was Iraq country director of the group, CARE International.

The director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Pierre Kraehenbuehl, told the panel that Ms. Hassan's death is an example of how life has become more dangerous for aid workers.

"Now, looking at the changes in the environment, one striking feature, certainly that has occurred since September 11, is a renewed polarization and radicalization in the world, stemming from a global form of confrontation between states engaged in the fight against terrorism and radical non-state actors that are prepared to use and resort to non-conventional methods, such as deliberately targeting civilians or so-called soft targets, among which also are humanitarian organizations."

The Red Cross official said, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, security is one of the biggest problems for humanitarian workers. He added that many workers from Western aid agencies face an additional risk. They are now being targeted by some radical groups that consider them just another instrument of Western powers.

A U.S. official at the conference, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Richard Greene, said America is aware of the dangers facing these workers and is trying to take steps to improve the situation, when it can.

He spoke of a meeting earlier this year between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the Darfur region of Sudan.

"The focus of the discussion was not capacity and what we could do to get to populations who are clearly in need now, today, and will continue to be in need. The focus of the conversation, from the leading American NGOs is what are you, the U.S. government, doing to bring about a political settlement, where these issues of security, where issues of humanitarian access, are taken care of?"

Security is not the only issue. John Prendergast, of the International Crisis Group, says he is concerned political leaders are using humanitarian aid as an excuse to not take more action to stop crises that are happening.

"For example, during the first debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry, the candidates were asked what would you do, or what will you do, now that both of you believe that genocide is occurring in Darfur. What would you do to stop that genocide? And President Bush responded very frankly by saying we're providing 200 million dollars in humanitarian assistance to Sudan."

Mr. Prendergast says humanitarian aid has become the means by which governments around the world exonerate themselves from what he called the grave and urgent responsibility to protect human lives.