Two young girls walk through a makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni in Greece. Two young girls walk through a makeshift camp near the village of Idomeni in Greece. Photo credit: ©UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis
Applying the European Commission’s humanitarian expertise to respond to needs inside Europe
by Laetitia de Radigues and Ludovico Gammarelli September 2016

The European Union (EU) is the main humanitarian donor worldwide. The European Commission, through its Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO), has over the past 25 years provided funding and expertise to address needs caused by natural disasters and conflict. The Treaty of Lisbon underpins the EU’s commitment to provide assistance, relief and protection to victims of natural or man-made disasters around the world, and to support and coordinate the civil protection systems of its Member States. The humanitarian model established in the Treaty therefore identifies a clear role for European humanitarian aid to respond to needs outside of the EU. Today, however, the EU faces an unprecedented humanitarian emergency inside its own territory, raising new challenges for the European Commission.

EU humanitarian assistance and refugee response

Between January 2015 and February 2016, over 1.1 million people made their way to the EU, escaping conflict and poverty in their countries and seeking a better and safer life. The majority of these people used the Western Balkan route, reaching the Greek islands by boat from Turkey, continuing on to the mainland and the northern border of Greece and crossing into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and then onwards to Central and Northern Europe.

EU humanitarian aid has been active in countries of origin (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) and in countries of arrival and transit, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, FYROM and Serbia. Globally in 2015, the European Commission allocated almost three-quarters of its annual humanitarian aid budget (over €1 billion) to projects helping refugees and internally displaced people. The Commission supports refugees in Turkey who have fled violence in both Syria and Iraq, with particular emphasis on vulnerable people living outside of camps. Since the beginning of the Syria crisis in 2011, the Commission has provided a total of €455 million in assistance in Turkey, including humanitarian aid and longer-term assistance. In November 2015, the EU set up the Refugee Facility for Turkey, through which EU institutions and Member States have committed to funding up to €3 billion.

EU humanitarian funding in the non-EU countries along the Balkan route (FYROM and Serbia) assists refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in need and contributes to the provision of emergency assistance in places with high concentrations of refugees, including borders and registration points. Funding of over €21m is enabling nine partners to provide people in need with key essentials such as temporary shelter, food, health services and protection, in particular child protection.

Establishing a new humanitarian instrument

Migration is not a new phenomenon in Europe, and European institutions have over many years developed a series of tools to address the needs faced by people on the move. To tackle the current migration crisis, the European Commission, through its Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME), mobilised two main instruments, the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) and the Internal Security Fund (ISF) and the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) through its Regional Policy Directorate General (DG REGIO).

When the borders along the Western Balkan route were closed in March 2016, more than 55,000 people were left stranded in Greece. To support the Greek authorities as well as international organisations and NGOs operating in Greece in managing the refugee crisis, the Commission has awarded over €345m under these instruments since the beginning of 2015. This emergency funding comes on top of the €509m already allocated to Greece under the national programmes for 2014–2020. Greece itself responded generously to the needs of refugees, both through informal private groups of volunteers and with a significant effort by the Greek government to coordinate relief efforts and provide direct assistance. In December 2015, when the situation in Greece stretched available resources beyond their limit, Greece appealed to other European civil protection agencies for help. Through the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), coordinated by the Commission, in-kind support such as shelter, hygiene materials and medical supplies was provided to help Greece cope with the increasing number of arrivals. This request is still open, and some civil protection agencies continue to provide materials and expertise today.

The magnitude of needs made it clear that an exclusive response by national authorities was not sufficient, despite the tremendous efforts made by the Greek authorities, assisted by local initiatives, to organise the reception of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The presence and engagement of humanitarian NGOs and international organisations provided national first responders with technical capacity, but lacked the necessary financial support. With their role becoming more and more important, funding and coordination became crucial requirements to ensure a more flexible and timely response.

On 19 February 2016, the European Council called for urgent and concrete proposals from the Commission to ‘put in place the capacity for the EU to provide humanitarian assistance internally’. The Commission responded immediately with a proposal for a new Regulation to provide emergency financial support for humanitarian relief operations, to support Member States and complement their actions. The Council adopted the Regulation on 15 March.

Following a needs assessment to determine funding priorities, on 19 April, just five weeks after the adoption of the Regulation, European Commissioner Christos Stylianides announced a first allocation of €83m to eight organisations: the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, the Danish Refugee Council, Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund Deutschland, Save the Children and Médecins du Monde (MDM). At the time of writing (August 2016), an additional allocation of up to €115m is under discussion to address four operational priorities:

  1. Shelter: ‘winterising’ existing sites, potentially opening new sites and upgrading some sites in line with plans designed by the Greek authorities.
  2. Multi-Purpose Cash Transfer: developing full coverage of needs including food and non-food items, transport and phone communication.
  3. Education: supporting plans developed by the Greek Ministry of Education.
  4. Unaccompanied Minors: providing residential options, including care, case management and psychosocial support.


For an institution used to funding humanitarian aid outside the EU, providing emergency assistance within the Union was not without challenges.

The Emergency Support Instrument (ESI) mirrors the practice of EU humanitarian aid provision outside the EU, which is provided based on needs and on the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. Impartiality requires that humanitarian aid must be provided solely on the basis of need, without discrimination between or within affected populations. Given that Greece has been suffering from a deep economic crisis, Greek nationals in need could also have been included in the target population. The general assessment of the Commission’s humanitarian aid partners, and of the Greek authorities, was that refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants lacking access to services and family networks were in most need. Services provided with this new funding would not cover the local population, which could be supported by other EU-funded instruments. In terms of operational priorities, the ESI would not be involved in relocation, resettlement and return schemes, which are funded by other Union instruments.

Independence refers to the freedom of humanitarian objectives from political, economic, military or other objectives, and ensures that the sole purpose of humanitarian aid is to relieve and prevent the suffering of victims of humanitarian crises. In this sense, in order to preserve the independence of humanitarian partners it is important to distinguish between the support provided by the European Commission to the management of migration politics and the funding of emergency relief operations for the benefit of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. Humanitarian aid is not a crisis management tool.

One illustration of this is the operational decision to exclude the so-called ‘hotspots’ from the funding provided through the ESI. After the EU–Turkey Statement of 20 March, these ‘hotspots’ became closed centres with a prominent function in the management of asylum processes, and hence instruments of a migration and asylum policy that is not the primary objective of the ESI. As such, despite being fully coordinated with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), Frontex, the Greek Asylum Service and other actors operating inside the centres, the ESI does not fund operations in them, although should needs require the expertise of a humanitarian partner the ESI could be activated to support this.

Another prerequisite was to find the additional financial resources required without having a detrimental effect on levels of humanitarian assistance provided outside the territory of the EU. This has been resolved by using funds exclusively earmarked for internal use. However, with €83m already contracted and up to €614m more budgeted in 2016–18, the response to the emergency in Europe might look high when compared to other humanitarian crises outside of the EU. Two points are worth making: first, a humanitarian crisis affecting a Member State of the EU is a whole new theatre of humanitarian operations, requiring a much higher initial investment in the development of infrastructure, partners’ capacities and coordination models; and second, such a crisis calls for a much higher commitment from the EU budget compared to crises where other donors are also actively involved.

Funding humanitarian assistance in a Member State for the first time might have challenged the principle of impartiality. In fact, most EU-funded policies are implemented through Member States. However, mirroring the practice of humanitarian aid outside of the EU, the ESI preserved partners’ independence by excluding the national authorities as a potential operational partner. In doing so attention must be paid to the need to ensure good coordination between humanitarian partners and the authorities, which remain in charge of the overall response. In the case of Greece, a regular coordination meeting allows dialogue and the exchange of views between the humanitarian partners, DG ECHO, and the Greek authorities.


Facing the largest refugee movement in Europe since the Second World War, the EU has succeeded in mobilising fresh resources to address the needs of these people, aiming to show solidarity, both towards refugees and towards the Member States that find themselves on the front line. Maintaining humanitarian principles as the common theme for its action, the Commission’s efforts have focused on its traditional role of addressing human suffering, with particular attention to the most vulnerable.

The support provided so far has allowed more than 40,000 refugees and migrants to access basic medical services; 30,000 to benefit from psychosocial support; improved water and sanitation facilities, including gender-adapted facilities, for 37,000 people; and put in place child-friendly spaces. As needs evolve, the Commission and its partners will have to demonstrate flexibility and the capacity to intervene in a continuously changing context, which may include opening new operations in other Member States should the need arise.

Laetitia de Radigues and Ludovico Gammarelli, European Commission, Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO). Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the authors.