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European Commission


Brussels, 20 June 2013

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 45 million people in need of help and protection as a consequence of forced displacement, more than at any time since 1994 with the crises in Syria and Mali emerging as major aggravating factors. According to UNHCR, globally some 28.8 million people are IDPs, around 15.4 million are refugees and almost 1 million are asylum-seekers. That's the combined population of London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

Afghanistan remains the largest source of refugees with an estimated 2.6 million, followed by Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated that around 75% of the world's refugees, almost 10 million people, are trapped in protracted situations (in exile for 5 years or more without prospects of immediate durable solutions).

For humanitarian workers, helping the displaced is becoming more difficult, costly and dangerous. In countries such as Syria, 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?

Each year, on 20 June, the world focuses on the plight of people who are forced to flee their homes due to conflicts or natural disasters – refugees. This day has been significant since 2001, when the UN General Assembly designated it on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

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 on local communities and 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).

Those staying internally displaced (IDPs) or in refugee camps face major challenges in terms of protection, access to shelter, food and other basic services such as health, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene and education. Those who end up living in urban areas (IDP's, refugees) may encounter poverty, lack of psychosocial support and difficulties in normalizing their status. Violence, abuse and exploitation against the most vulnerable often peak in the aftermath of emergencies, which underlines the importance of effective protection mechanisms to be put in place immediately.

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 resources to help them. It allocates around 28% 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:

  • meet the most pressing needs of refugees;

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

  • increase the self-reliance of refugees and reduce their 'dependency syndrome'.

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.


As violence intensifies, the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. There are now over 1.66 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa. In Lebanon, most of the over 500 000 people who are registered or awaiting registration as refugees live in rented accommodation and spontaneous tented settlements and struggle to survive. To support them, ECHO has funded various types of assistance, including food vouchers (distributed by organizations like WFP), WASH activities (with Fundación Acción Contra el Hambre), shelter rehabilitation and winterization (implemented by UNHCR, Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, Mercy Corps, Solidarités International), aid-packages to new arrivals (with Association of Volunteers in International Service), protection (International Rescue Committee), emergency health care (Handicap International).

Afghanistan is currently the country of origin for the largest number of refugees in the world. A major part of this population arrived in Iran and Pakistan during the Mujahidin and Taliban times (1992 to 2001). Pakistan continues to host the largest number of Afghan refugees (around 1.6 million registered refugees), and Iran hosts over 850 000 Afghan refugees. In addition, more than 5.7 million have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan in the last 10 years. The European Commission is providing funding to UNHCR for its work to facilitate the voluntary and sustainable repatriation of Afghan refugees. This is done through information dissemination, education, health and protection services, livelihood initiatives via vocational training and cash-based programmes.

In the East and Horn of Africa there are 1.87 million refugees, mainly coming from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea as a result of two decades of instability. In 2012, the Commission allocated €30 million to meet the basic needs of those forcibly displaced people, providing shelter, food, water, health and protection services as well as education and livelihoods support. Dadaab, in Kenya, is the largest refugee camp in the world with more than 500 000 people. The European Commission is funding a project of the International Rescue Committee on healthier, safer and productive environment for refugees living there, and is also implementing a strategy aimed at building the capacity of the camp residents to manage services themselves. ECHO also works together with development partners in supporting educational programmes for young people.

For further information

MEMO/13/506 - Statement on new EU funding for Syrian humanitarian crisis

IP/13/583 - Joint Statement on World Refugee Day

Homepage of DG ECHO

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

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