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European Commission


Brussels, 20 June 2012

Q/A: The European Commission's work to help refugees

Who is a refugee?

Every year natural disasters, conflicts and human rights violations force millions of people to leave their homes and to flee to save their lives. Their survival often depends on international assistance and protection.

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country and is unable or unwilling to return due to fear of persecution. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees gives refugees legal protection under the international refugee law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to respond to refugee needs.

An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who was forced to flee his/her home but who did not cross a state border. IDPs benefit from the legal protection of international human rights law and, in armed conflict, international humanitarian law.

However, IDPs do not benefit from the specialised protection of international refugee law. No UN or international agency has been formally mandated to assist them. National governments have the primary responsibility for the security and well-being of all displaced people on their territory, but often they are unable or unwilling to comply with this obligation.

How many refugees are there?

Today, there are more than 43 million people in need of help and protection as a consequence of forced displacement, including refugees and IDPs. According to UNHCR, globally, some 26 million people are IDPs, around 15-16 million are refugees and a further 1 million are asylum-seekers. That's the combined population of London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

For humanitarian workers, helping the displaced is becoming more difficult, costly and dangerous. In countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen or Iraq, getting help to internally displaced populations means working in environments where access is difficult and conflict or criminality present deadly risks.

Eighty per cent of today's refugees live in the developing world, which means that they find refuge in countries and among people who already struggle with poverty and hardship. Greater international solidarity is needed to address this challenge.

What is World Refugee Day?

20th June was designated World Refugee Day by the UN General Assembly in 2001 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the UN refugee convention and UNHCR. A special day was dedicated to refugees in order to draw more international attention to the plight of these people on the need to help them survive where they are, and on the need to help them return to their homes or find a new place to rebuild their lives.

Humanitarian situation and needs

Many of the people forced to flee and abandon their homes, often have to do this at very short notice and to leave with nothing or very few possessions. Particularly in volatile contexts, they rely entirely on international humanitarian aid for their survival. Too often, their flight to safety turns into protracted and long term displacement, as the problems that uprooted them take a long time to resolve.

Sustainable solutions for refugees include voluntary repatriation in their home countries, which is the preferred long-term outcome for the majority of refugees. Another solution is local integration or resettlement either in the asylum country where they are living or in third countries where they can be permanently resettled. The IDPs can be reintegrated in their place of origin (return), integrated in areas where they have taken refuge (local integration), or integrated in another part of the country (settlement elsewhere).

The patterns of displacement are increasingly complex, as large numbers of migrants flow inside and between countries and regions. Their problems, and the burden on host countries, are worsened by climate change, increasing urbanisation, population growth and food insecurity. At the same time, the efforts of the humanitarian community to bring relief and contribute to lasting solutions are made more difficult by donors' budgetary constraints, triggered by the global financial and economic crisis.

The European Commission's humanitarian response

Refugees are among the most vulnerable in humanitarian crises. This is why the European Commission focuses substantial humanitarian resources to help them. The Commission allocates around 15% of its annual humanitarian aid budget (which exceeds 1 billion EUR) to projects which support refugees and IDPs.

Humanitarian aid delivered by the European Commission helps:

  • address the root causes for migration

  • meet the most pressing needs of refugees and IDPs

  • support and protect refugees and IDPs during their displacement and when returning to their place of origin

  • strengthen the capacities of the humanitarian organisations which specialise on helping refugees

The Commission focuses its support on organisations dealing with migrants, refugees and IDPs including the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration, the Red Cross and Red Crescent family and non-governmental organisations. In 2011, UNHCR remained the second largest humanitarian aid partner of the Commission, in terms of volume of funding.

Through this support, the Commission's action paves the way for durable solutions for refugees and IDPs. It coordinates its assistance with the organisations in charge of early recovery and development.

While supporting the victims of displacement, the European Commission is also working to decrease the number and scale of refugee crises: for instance, through its work on disaster preparedness and prevention, which aims to reduce the vulnerability of disadvantaged communities and prevent their displacement.


Following the outbreak of fighting in Libya, more than one million people fled the country. In early 2011, many of them – Libyans and foreigners who had worked in Libya - were stranded along the borders with neighbouring countries. The European Union made substantial efforts to ease the human load borne by Libya's neighbours and to repatriate the foreigners to their own countries. The European Commission focused extra resources to help assist the displaced along the borders with Chad and Niger, where thousands of exhausted returnees were trapped with no means, food or medical care.

In 2011, Cote d'Ivoire suffered a humanitarian catastrophe, which displaced one million people and triggered a refugee wave of more than 125,000 Ivoirians. Particularly alarming was the spill-over impact of the conflict, which placed an enormous burden on neighbouring countries, including Liberia where over 120,000 refugees fled to poor areas where their hosts were already on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. The European Commission was the first international donor to respond to this crisis in December 2010. The humanitarian support of the Commission increased several times to match the growing needs; it reached 30 million EUR in April 2011. This European assistance allows humanitarian organisations to assist internally displaced Ivoirians and refugees.

Yemen is another country which has been undergoing recent, rapid and violent transformation, on top of a protracted and largely forgotten humanitarian crisis. More than 200,000 refugees live in Yemen, mostly form the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, 500,000 of Yemen's own people are internally displaced by years of conflict. To address the pressing humanitarian needs of refugees and internally displaced people in the country, in January 2011 the European Commission mobilised 15 million EUR, opened a humanitarian office in Sana'a in 2011 and increased assistance to 20 million EUR in 2012.

Further east an estimated number of 200,000 stateless Rohingyas have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh and live there without recognised legal status. Only 29,000 of them have been granted refugee status and are under the protection of the UNHCR, with the support of the European Union. Since 2007, the European Commission has been providing €3million/year in humanitarian assistance (health and nutrition, water and sanitation, protection/security) to approximately 40,000 unregistered Rohingyas in two unofficial settlements (Kutupalong makeshift camp and Leda settlement).

For further information

IP/12/625 - The European Commission boosts its humanitarian aid for Syria as Commissioner Georgieva visits Syrian refugees

Homepage of Kristalina Georgieva, Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

Homepage of DG ECHO

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