Driven by its longstanding commitment to helping victims of emergencies worldwide, the EU has been providing humanitarian aid since 1992 in over 140 countries. It seeks to help people in distress, whether as a result of man-made conflicts or of natural disasters, and irrespective of their nationality, religion, gender or ethnic origin. These wide-ranging activities reflect the proliferation of serious crises around the world and the EU’s commitment to taking the lead in supporting victims.
Since 2010, the European Commission has built up a more robust and effective European mechanism for disaster response both within and outside the EU. EU humanitarian aid and civil protection are now integrated in a single organisation, greatly improving their efficiency and the extent to which each complements the another.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism operates hand in hand with EU funding for humanitarian aid when addressing the needs arising from a conflict or disaster. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, for instance, the Commission and EU countries pooled financial and in-kind resources to provide humanitarian aid to the people affected.
The EU is present in all major crises zones around the world, including Syria , South Sudan , and the Central African Republic , and in countries facing post-conflict instability, such as Côte d’Ivoire . It is committed to help saving lives, reducing suffering, and protecting the security and dignity of those affected.
In recent years, the annual budget for humanitarian operations has been around €1 billion - just over €2 per EU citizen. Despite the limited budget, EU humanitarian aid reaches some 120 million people in need every year.
Humanitarian aid, broken down by type (2012)
An ECHO expert talks to members of a local community affected by cyclone Phailin, which struck the east coast of India in October 2013.
EU-funded relief is handled by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). The EU does not provide humanitarian aid directly; rather, it funds and coordinates partner organisations working in the field. There are over 200 of these worldwide, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), international organisations and UN agencies.
EU-funded aid includes
Emergency aid is provided wherever needed: where the crisis strikes and/or where refugees or displaced persons end up.
Disaster relief and emergency aid are by definition mostly short-term. EU-funded operations generally last up to 12 months. However, once humanitarian aid comes to an end, either the beneficiaries must be ready to cope alone, or another form of longer-term development aid must be in place.
A Turkana woman adorns an Oxfam worker with jewellery, bags and gourds for carrying water/milk, which the women sell locally.
To reduce the risk of aid being cut off before its beneficiaries are ready, the EU asks its field partners to build exit strategies into their project design. Typically, they should either hand back the services they provide to a local authority or, failing that, make sure that other aid structures can take over.
To help the EU tackle crises more effectively, the EU Aid Volunteers programme (2014 – 2020) enables some 18 000 European citizens to volunteer in EU-funded projects worldwide. By the programme's completion around 4 000 will be trained and matched with humanitarian organisations for deployment in disaster-affected countries; 4 000 volunteers and NGO staff will benefit from training and capacity building; and 10 000 online volunteers will support projects in their home countries.
After the 2011 Van earthquake in Turkey, an EU civil protection team helped deliver EU assistance.
The European Commission plays a key role in coordinating civil protection responses to crises across Europe and around the world through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. The Mechanism's operational heart is the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), set up in 2013, which monitors existing and potential crises worldwide round the clock.
It coordinates communication between the affected country, experts in the field, and the 32 participating countries (28 EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Norway). Participants' offers of help are matched to the needs of the disaster-stricken country.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism has responded to over 80 emergencies (2010-2013):
New legislation on civil protection, in force since January 2014, provides a framework for closer cooperation in disaster prevention, risk assessment, preparedness and planning, including more regular joint training and exercises for European civil protection teams. It also puts in place a voluntary pool of EU countries' capacities and experts.
Manuscript updated in November 2014
This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series