Restrictions on humanitarian access (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1297)



What are the lessons learned from contexts where governments and de facto authorities have attempted to control, limit, and prohibit humanitarian access? How have humanitarian actors circumvented such blockages?


Humanitarian access is a challenge in many armed conflicts, both in areas controlled by state and non-state actors. While there is some general guidance on strategies to address such access constraints, there is very little publically documented evidence on how exactly different humanitarian organisations have overcome specific instances of governments and de facto authorities’ attempts to control, limit, and prohibit humanitarian access.

This rapid review finds that, broadly, humanitarian organisations have attempted to overcome access constraints imposed by governments and de facto authorities by:

  • Engaging in humanitarian negotiations with all parties to the conflict. This can be particularly challenging for small organisations who lack the capacity for the sustained dialogue needed or when there are objections to humanitarian organisations’ negotiations with non-state armed groups. The way in which humanitarian organisations are perceived plays an important role in how effective their access to negotiations will be. Humanitarian organisations should be seen to be neutral, independent and impartial.
  • Programming under limited access through strategies such as remote management, low profile approaches, working with local organisations, and cross border operations. These approaches entail compromises and have considerable risks, but may be the only way to gain access to populations in need.
  • Using the core humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law (IHL), as well as national legal, traditional, and customary norms, to encourage all parties to the conflict to understand and allow humanitarian access.

The review also highlights that there is a need for more evidence and independent academic research to understand the tensions and strategies used to overcome restrictions to humanitarian access.


Rohwerder, B. Restrictions on humanitarian access (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1297). Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2015) 13 pp.

Restrictions on humanitarian access (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1297)

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