Access: Uncovered

Operating in some of the world’s most dangerous and complex environments, humanitarian workers face extreme challenges.
This docuseries will take you on a journey alongside aid workers as they negotiate with rebel leaders, avoid air strikes and landmines, and travel through cyclone-ravaged terrain to deliver their life-saving assistance.

Democratic Republic of the Congo | Mozambique | Yemen

Reaching vulnerable people who are caught up in a war zone, or who need life-saving assistance following an earthquake or deadly outbreak, is hugely challenging.

It is also at the heart of the humanitarian endeavour.
Humanitarian organizations negotiate and advocate with all parties to conflict for safe, timely and unhindered access across the world.

What are access constraints?

Constraints can include dangers associated with conflict and insecurity; limitations implemented by parties to a conflict; bureaucratic impediments imposed by national and local authorities; and sanctions and counterterrorism measures that make it difficult to deliver assistance in areas controlled by armed groups.

Fighting in Nigeria, Syria, Yemen and beyond challenge the ability to deliver assistance. Aid and health workers all over the world are sometimes subject to attacks, including maiming and killing, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and looting of aid supplies.

To ease the work of the humanitarian system, the UN General Assembly in 1991 instituted the role of the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who is specifically tasked with “facilitating, including through negotiation if needed, the access by operational organizations to emergency areas for the rapid provision of emergency assistance by obtaining the consent of all parties concerned”.

Humanitarian access in the age of COVID-19

In 2020, the fast-spreading coronavirus has added a new layer of difficulty to humanitarian operations worldwide.

How does the humanitarian community continue to serve the most vulnerable people when public health measures restrict its movements, disrupt the life of the people it serves and challenge its supply chains?

By adapting, innovating, and adapting some more.

Although UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are continuing to deliver assistance, their work has been significantly challenged by flight suspensions, border closures, quarantine measures, lockdowns and curfews. This has drastically hampered the ability to move across and within countries, triggering delays, additional costs and, in some instances, partial suspensions of humanitarian activities.

The humanitarian community has been working closely with Governments so that operations can continue and humanitarian workers are considered as essential staff. Other countries have issued “laissez-passer” rules for humanitarian staff, allowing them to cross borders or including them on lists of essential workers.

At times, humanitarian flights have been grounded for weeks, and not all humanitarian organizations have been allowed to resume movements or activities. The dialogue with concerned Governments to address these challenges continues.

In the field, humanitarian agencies have been implementing innovative ways to minimize the risk of COVID-19 while continuing to reach people. The use of personal protective equipment, safe distancing measures, contactless biometrics, home delivery and other approaches are now the new normal.

For instance, humanitarian agencies are increasing the proportion of emergency relief they can provide through digital money transfers on mobile phones instead of in-kind assistance.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has piloted contactless biometrics using an iris scanner to register refugees in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia, as well as to authenticate recipients for assistance. And where food distributions still need to take place, the World Food Programme (WFP) and other agencies are trying to deliver several months’ worth of food at a time and ensure that recipients remain two metres apart.

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Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2015.
A UN helicopter lands in the Mungote displacement site in North Kivu.

OCHA/Giles Clarke


Somalia, 2017.
In the western desert town of Dinsoor, newly arrived drought victims rush towards food supplies delivered by the UN World Food Programme. .

OCHA/Giles Clarke


Chad, 2015.
Following an attack by Boko Haram, Nigerian refugees leave their camp in Ngouboua, on the coast of Lake Chad, to be transferred to a safer location near Baga Sola.

UNHCR/Olivier Laban-Mattei


Homs Governorate, Syria, 2015.
UN vehicles travel on a dusty road lined with the remnants of destroyed buildings, in the Old City of Homs.



New York, January 2019.
A session of the UN Security Council on the humanitarian situation in the Middle East. OCHA addresses Council members on humanitarian crises and advocates for action to help those people who need it most.

UN Photo


LEBANON, 2020.
A nurse takes a girl’s temperature at a primary health-care centre.


Liège, Belgium, 2020.
Airplanes are loaded with aid supplies.



Ecuador, 2020.
A Venezuelan doctor in Ecuador explains to refugees and locals how to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

UNHCR/Jaime Gimenez


Kenya, 2020.
Food and relief items distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNHCR/Samuel Otieno