Navigation path

Left navigation

Additional tools

Other available languages: none

European Commission


Brussels, 20 June 2014

Q/A: The European Commission helps 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 because of 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. The most important reference document to address the issue of protection and assistance to IDPs is the non-binding Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement from 1998. The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance to IDPs in Africa (the so called Kampala Convention), which entered into force in 2012, is the first ever binding international legal instrument on the rights of IDPs.

How many refugees are there?

Today, there are more than 51 million people in need of help and protection as a consequence of forced displacement, more than at any time since comprehensive statistics have been collected, with the continuing crises in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan as major aggravating factors. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), globally some 33.3 million people are IDPs, around 16.7 million are refugees and 1.2 million people applied for asylum in 2013. Together, these forcibly displaced people represent the combined population of greater London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Lisbon, Athens, Barcelona and Brussels.

Afghanistan remains the largest source of refugees with an estimated 2.6 million, followed by Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated that around 54% of the world's refugees are trapped in protracted situations (in exile for five 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, Central African Republic, South Sudan, 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.

86% 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. 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 to 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).

Refugees and those internally displaced (IDPs) 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 provides substantial resources to help them. In 2013 it funded refugee-related projects in 33 countries, amounting to €546 million (or 42% of 2013 budget).

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 2013, 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.

Refugees and development policy

The European Commission believes that displacement challenges should be addressed not only by humanitarian means, but also by long-term development strategies to prevent displacements.

The perception of refugees, IDPs and refugees who have returned to their homes (known as 'returnees') as passive recipients of assistance needs to change. Development aid on this area seeks to achieve that they are no longer only regarded as persons requiring protection but also as potentially contributing to development and the economy.

At EU level, there are a number of recent key policy developments in the field of refugees and forced displacement. The European Commission is currently working on developing new approaches with the aim to seek sustainable solutions for refugees, IDPs and returnees. The objective is to ensure that development actors, in close coordination with humanitarian actors, engage in a displacement crisis as soon as it starts, in order to ensure that the development dimension of forced displacement is taken into account from the beginning.


The humanitarian consequences of the crisis in Syria have reached an unprecedented scale. Around ten million Syrians are internally displaced or are living as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa. Many of those who were able to reach the neighbouring countries are now living in hardship; struggling to find shelter and food for their families and schooling for their children. To support the Syrian refugees and their host-communities, the European Commission has since the beginning of the crisis allocated 55.2% of its total humanitarian funding of €615 million to the neighbouring countries hosting large number of refugees. EU humanitarian assistance channelled through the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) primarily supports life-saving medical emergency responses, the provision of essential drugs, food and nutritional items, safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), shelter, distribution of basic non-food items and protection programmes. This funding is channelled through UN agencies and accredited international humanitarian organisations to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people.

As part of the EU long-term response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the European Commission has launched this year a new regional development and protection programme for refugees and host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. With a total budget of €26 million of development funds, this pilot initiative aims at ensuring that refugees can find durable solutions as well as to improve their access basic rights. It will therefore support socio-economic development in host countries at the same time that it will benefit both the host populations and refugees.

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 communist, Mujahidin and Taliban times (1979 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, 4 million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran between 1992 to 1997 and more than 5.7 million individuals have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan in the last 10 years. The European Commission is providing funding to UNHCR and other partners to support the voluntary and sustainable repatriation of Afghan refugees and other durable solutions where conditions are not conducive to return. This is done through information dissemination, education, health and protection services, livelihood initiatives via vocational training and cash-based programmes, and more broadly by sustaining the preservation of the protection and asylum space in hosting communities.

The on-going crisis in the Central African Republic has forced an estimated 133 700 people to take refuge in neighbouring countries since December 2013. The ongoing influx brings the number of Central African refugees in neighbouring countries to more than 369 000 people and increases the humanitarian needs in the region. The European Commission provides EUR 10 million to help Central African refugees in neighbouring countries. Half of the funding is spent in Chad, which was facing the biggest influx of people fleeing CAR at the beginning of the crisis, €4 million for Cameroon and €1 million for the DRC and the Republic of Congo. The humanitarian assistance addresses the basic needs of refugees such as shelter, food, health, protection, water, sanitation and hygiene. The funds are implemented through the European Commission's partners such as UN agencies, International NGOs, and international organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Societies.

For further information

Homepage of DG ECHO

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

Side Bar