Images of conflict and disaster fill our television screens and newspaper front-pages every week. In these situations, the EU has one aim - to get help to those who need it as quickly as possible, whether the crisis results from a man-made conflict or a natural disaster.
The EU is present in crisis zones around the world including Libya, Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territory, and many parts of Africa and South-East Asia. It also runs relief operations in areas with long-running crises and post-conflict instability. Helping the world's most vulnerable populations is a moral imperative for the international community and the European Commission has a longstanding commitment to help the victims of such crises. Its Humanitarian Aid department provides relief assistance that goes directly to people in distress, irrespective of their nationality, religion, gender or ethnic origin.
The EU's relief operations are handled by ECHO, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department. ECHO’s activities reflect the proliferation of serious crises around the world and the EU’s willingness to take the lead in getting help to the victims both within its borders and beyond for both humanitarian aid and civil protection. The average budget for humanitarian interventions in recent years has been around €900 million.
ECHO’s first duty is to help save lives, reduce suffering and protect the integrity and dignity of those affected. Emergency assistance can include tents, blankets, food, medicines, medical equipment, water purification systems and fuel. ECHO also funds medical teams, mine-clearance experts, and transport and logistical support. It has operated in more than 130 countries since 1992.
A civil protection expert photographing the damage caused to wildlife by red sludge in Hungary.
In addition to humanitarian assistance, ECHO helps to facilitate the coordination of civil protection across the EU. It operates the Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC), which is the operational heart of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and is accessible 24 hours a day. Any country inside or outside the EU affected by a major disaster can appeal for assistance through the MIC. It acts as a communication hub between the 31 participating countries (27 EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Croatia), the affected country and experts sent into the field, and provides updated information on the status of an ongoing emergency. In addition, the MIC plays a coordination role by matching offers of assistance from participating countries to the needs of the disaster-stricken country.
Displaced women receive assistance in Darfur.
The EU and ECHO cannot themselves mobilise the resources on the scale required to deliver emergency relief supplies, provide rescue teams, set up emergency field hospitals and install temporary communications systems. While ECHO funds and coordinates these operations, the help from EU countries themselves is needed for civil protection. For humanitarian operations however, ECHO relies on aid from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the UN specialist agencies and the international Red Cross/Red Crescent family to handle emergency programmes.
For humanitarian assistance, each partner plays a special part. NGOs often play a key role in regions hit by civil war as do the Red Cross. In complex crises involving wide areas and large-scale population movements, only major UN agencies like the World Food Programme or the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have the ability to deliver large amounts of aid to all the victims. The International Committee of the Red Cross, with agents around the world, is often the organisation that can move aid fastest to regions hit by unexpected natural disasters.
The EU's humanitarian assistance consists of:
Disaster relief and emergency assistance are almost by definition short-term. EU-funded operations generally last for less than six months. But the EU wants to ensure that, when humanitarian aid is withdrawn, either the people it has helped are able to cope by themselves, or there is another form of longer-term development assistance available for them. The risk is that nothing is in place after humanitarian relief is phased out.
To reduce this risk, the EU asks its partners in the field to build in an exit strategy when they define a project, whereby either they hand back control to a local authority on completion or, if this is not possible, they ensure other aid structures can replace them after they leave.
The EU’s main focus for emergency operations is the Middle East, Asia and especially Africa.