Europe’s response to the refugee crisis within its borders is shamefully inadequate. Basic elements of the humanitarian response are failing in frontline countries that refugees are moving through, leaving thousands of people without adequate shelter, food or safety. Experienced International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid workers on the ground - who have responded to major conflicts and disasters around the globe - report that conditions in Europe are amongst the worst they have ever witnessed. With winter approaching, the number of refugees fleeing to Europe is increasing, rather than decreasing. As a matter of the utmost urgency, the EU and its member states must act now in five key areas to ensure there is a co-ordinated, well-funded humanitarian response that provides safe reception for refugees. If this does not happen, many more people will die.

IRC’s current work in Europe

In June, the IRC deployed emergency staff to work inside Europe. We are working to support refugees in Greece and in Serbia. In Lesbos, Greece, our staff are providing water and sanitation; protection, including clothing and information; and transportation and additional support for the most vulnerable. We are also working with partners on the islands of Kos, Samos and Chios. In Serbia, we are working with partners to assist refugees on the northern and southern borders. This summer, our CEO David Miliband described the need for the IRC to provide an emergency response inside Europe’s borders as “a terrible commentary on Europe failing to respond to the refugee crisis.” In the more than four months since, the humanitarian response in Europe has barely improved. 

Action is needed in five areas to secure an effective humanitarian response in the frontline countries of Europe:

  1. Refugees must be properly received when they arrive in Europe
  2. Conditions in camps are terrible and must be improved
  3. Specialist protection is needed for the most vulnerable groups 
  4. Clarity is needed over who is co-ordinating the humanitarian response
  5. Not enough funding is available to meet needs - at least €500 million is required

Whilst some European Union (EU) countries are coping relatively well with the thousands of refugees who have come across their borders, it is clear that frontline countries, especially Greece, cannot cope with this crisis without major assistance from the EU, its member states and other actors. More than 647,000 people have arrived by sea to Greece this year, with some 125,000 arriving on the island of Lesbos in the month of October alone.  Greek authorities cannot adequately receive, register and assist the thousands of people arriving every day, much less offer refugees a path to asylum. 

Greece has struggled for years to cope with much smaller numbers of arrivals. In fact, Europe’s highest human rights court and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have found that conditions for refugees in Greece fall well below international standards.  The situation is much worse this year, with nearly fourteen times the number of arrivals to Greece as in 2014, and the country deep in economic crisis.

1. Refugees must be properly received when they arrive in Europe

Refugees need safe, organized reception throughout their European journeys. EU policy is to create a new series of “hotspots”  intended to fast-track refugee registration at points of arrival. But the way hotspots are currently being rolled out is causing chaos, increasing tensions and violence, and leaving more people without basic shelter. Hotspots have been placed on already-overwhelmed islands like Lesbos, which lack the physical facilities to handle huge numbers of arrivals. They have been introduced without any co-ordination at all with those NGOs and others providing services to refugees on the ground. EU member states have failed to provide sufficient staff and equipment needed for hotspots to function effectively. The IRC understands that the EU needs to register people who have arrived in its territory. Yet the hotspot approach can only work if hotspots are sensibly implemented and co-ordinated alongside the overall humanitarian response, discussed at local co-ordination cell meetings e.g. in Lesbos, and with well-managed and well-run reception facilities to meet the basic needs of the refugees using each particular hotspot.

Recently, the EU and Greece agreed that an additional 66,400 refugees will be processed out of Greece through hotspots in the next two years. Yet the experience with hotspots so far reveals that Greece simply does not have the capacity to run safe, organized reception facilities on such a scale. Its current capacity has been to process 10,000-12,000 cases per year. Moreover, it is totally unclear where most refugees will be sent after being processed: the EU has offered to relocate only 160,000 people from Italy and Greece. More than 792,000 people, many of them likely to be refugees, have already arrived in Europe this year. This situation requires an honest and urgent reassessment.

With conditions worsening on the ground the EU, Greece and Western Balkan countries instead need to prioritise creating safe reception centres, with sufficient staff and supplies, in locations suited to hosting large numbers of vulnerable people. All asylum-seekers need access to safe reception.

2. Conditions in camps are terrible and must be improved

Refugees registering at inadequate hotspots are stuck queuing for days outdoors in the cold and rain, sleeping without shelter, unable to leave their places in line even for medical evaluation. While conditions are poor for Syrian refugees, they are even worse for nationals of other countries, like Afghanistan. Afghans have to wait longer for assistance and are treated as if they are unlikely to have valid asylum claims, despite the increase in conflict inside Afghanistan. Conditions at Moria in Lesbos, where Afghans go for registration, are unacceptable and are approaching those that forced the closure of Pagani detention centre, which was previously in its place. 

3. Specialist protection is needed for the most vulnerable groups

Key bodies that assist with the humanitarian response to refugees need to step up their response: bodies such as UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration (IoM). To address the needs of lost, separated and unaccompanied children requires UNICEF to establish a presence in Greece and a co-ordination mechanism along the routes taken by asylum seekers through Europe. IoM should scale up its presence and clarify its role in Greece in particular. All agencies should consider women’s and girls’ specific needs and protection concerns. Ultimately, all agencies should participate in a process that shares “who is doing what where”, which is a tried and tested basic way of ensuring we are covering the needs of refugees wherever they may be, and identifying new needs as they arise. UNICEF and the IoM should now step up their response. 

4. Clarity is needed over who is co-ordinating the response

Europe urgently needs to back a co-ordination structure that can support an effective humanitarian response. The response should be capable of meeting refugees’ basic needs and preventing deaths as winter approaches and temperatures plummet. UNHCR is tasked with taking the lead role in co-ordinating the humanitarian response in situations involving refugees: this means co-ordinating national and international actors such as NGOs to provide basic services like food, water, sanitation and shelter. But in the case of the European refugee crisis, this system is not yet working effectively.

The current situation in Greece is an example; several months on from the start of the crisis, we are only now starting to see weekly co-ordination meetings of humanitarian organisations chaired by UNHCR. There is a need for a more effective co-ordination mechanism alongside more funding in frontline areas, like Lesbos. This mechanism should bring together everyone responding - including local municipalities, volunteers and the relevant interior ministries. It should create information channels between responding agencies and the national government, the EU and UN headquarters. Beyond this, UNHCR needs more capacity to manage groups of NGOs working specifically on different areas of service provision, such as on protection for women and girls, and children generally; health; food and non-food distributions; and water and sanitation. 

UNHCR should create a new office for European refugee co-ordination to act as a strategic focal point, solely focussed on the Europe-wide challenge of providing for the 792,000 people spread over multiple countries. This office at UNHCR would be responsible for ensuring that there are co-ordination cells for each geographic area of the response in Europe, in a way that is easy for humanitarian organisations new to the crisis to ‘plug in’ to with assistance and aid that provides for unmet needs. The office would help ensure that basic needs are met across Europe, and that co-ordination cells are properly networked and aware of what other cells are doing. The UNHCR office would also help show donors where, how and by whom their funding will be spent. This office should be accountable to the EU and European governments.

In the absence of this kind of co-ordination structure, agencies will continue their best effort in isolation and risk being less than the sum of their parts. The needs are only going to get more acute with a record 210,000 people arriving in Greece in October alone. 

5. There is not enough funding available to meet needs

Money isn’t getting to where it’s needed. So far, the EU has provided €120 million  in funding to support member states with their emergency response – but this is not all for aid. There is little sign of this funding appearing to support humanitarian operations on the ground in countries like Greece. Few European governments have provided aid directly to the NGOs responding on the ground, which means that NGOs are running out of money. Significant donors like ECHO are needed to step in. Based on the scale of the crisis, the IRC estimates that around €500 million  per year is needed simply to adequately fund the unprecedented humanitarian response that is required across Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and potentially other countries including Hungary and Bosnia.

But instead of funding a humanitarian response, the EU and member states have focused a huge amount of their resources on trying to keep refugees out. Recently, the EU made a deal with Turkey to provide €1 billion in financial aid in return for Turkey tightening its borders, with the possibility of an additional €2 billion to follow. But even the strictest border control efforts won’t stop refugees coming - it will just make journeys even more dangerous. Refugees will take greater risks to evade border guards, like crossing the seas at night. This is a potentially deadly proposition in the rough seas and freezing temperatures of winter months. European donors urgently need to provide funding for frontline responders like local authorities, NGOs and UN bodies. The focus of Europe’s response should be saving lives, not putting up fences. Europe must get a grip on the humanitarian response now.