Response, or opportunism?

Several major humanitarian agencies have announced plans to expand, launch and upscale operations in response to the European refugee crisis in the past week.

Faced with European governments apparently unable to cope with the influx, aid agencies say their services are needed.

Among those to launch new appeals are Islamic Relief, the ACT Alliance and World Vision.

Some agencies are launching work in countries in which they never previously had a presence. World Vision is seeking funding for its first response in Serbia, for example. Last week it began distributing family kits as part of operations supporting informal camps in Subotica and Kanjiza in northern Serbia near the Hungarian border.

The ACT Alliance, meanwhile, plans to scale up work through partners in Greece, Hungary and Serbia. Its proposals include plans to provide food, sanitation, non-food items and shelter to at least 300,000 people – almost as many as have arrived in Greece so far this year.

Islamic Relief has been offering translation services and cash grants on the over-run Greek island of Lesvos, but is seeking funding for a major ramping up of its operations. Action Aid has also sent a humanitarian team to Greece to assess what it could do to help there.

These responses are in addition to ongoing work by Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Rescue Committee, the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies of Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Italy and Serbia, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and others.

World Vision International for one argues that its help is much needed. “We felt this was the best time for us to engage with European agencies by launching the appeal and putting out messages about how it is their obligation to accept these refugees,” said spokesman Henry Makiwa.

But the prospect of aid organisations launching largescale humanitarian operations on the world’s richest and most technically competent continent is raising eyebrows.

“From a global perspective, these reactions are completely out of proportion – the numbers [arriving in Europe] are nothing. If you take them country by country compared to Turkey or Lebanon or even Iraq, they are very small,” said Sara Pantuliano, director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London.

The existing capacity and financial strength of the EU is a key reason why the UK’s Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC) has for the moment decided not to launch an appeal. “Compared to other countries that receive refugees, European states are solvent and stable,” said spokesman Brendan Paddy. “We’ve looked at it really hard because there’s a lot of people affected and a lot of public concern, but when we looked at the levels of unmet need and the scale and the response within Europe it’s smaller than you might expect.”

The prospect of aid organisations launching large scale humanitarian operations on the world’s richest and most technically competent continent is raising eyebrows.

Others say the EU has the capacity and the financial ability to step up. “It is appalling that many of these poor people tip up on the sand where they land, and wait for a local charity to help them,” former UK Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told an event in London last Thursday. “One thing the EU can certainly do is provide the money so the countries where they land can actually look after them straight away.”

Others on the ground argue that a greater response is needed, especially given the apparent inability of some governments to cope. “Goverments did not have a plan of action to cope with a population on the move,” said Manu Moncada, MSF operations manager. “Now it is not a question of Italy or Greece but now it goes to Austria, to Belgium, to other countries where everyone thought there was a response mechanism in place and there was none.”

Although it sounds logical to bring in humanitarian agencies to cope with a refugee crisis, those on the ground say a key problem is that standard approaches to displacement are not appropriate. “Most actors have a model that is designed for a stable situation like a refugee camp. But here we have a population on the move,” said Moncada. “People stay sometimes just for a few minutes, sometimes for a few days. So you provide services for this period of time, which is distribution of NFIs [non-food items], food, water and information.”

In Lesvos, where organisations such as Shelterbox have been providing tents, refugees rarely stay more than a few days. “Our tents are designed to last for six months. Usually in a response we give people a tent and they keep it,” one volunteer told IRIN. “Here, they leave it behind. So, instead, it’s about keeping it clean and making it ready for the next arrivals. It’s completely changing our model.”

See: Here today, gone tomorrow

This is further complicated by a situation that is changing day by day and by a lack of data on who is arriving and what they need – carrying out needs assessments among a highly mobile population has proved extremely difficult. The closure of the Hungary's border with Serbia, for example, is now creating a rapidly growing backlog of refugees who are overwhelming existing facilities.

Agency responses often also bypass local civilian efforts that have provided much of the assistance to date. Ignoring the public response to this crisis is, said Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, a mistake. “We have to channel the public’s desire to help, to be a part of this. A lot of the offers people are making are quite confused. We have to help people do this properly. The response has to be designed around the needs of the refugees themselves.”

UNHCR has now established a regional refugee coordinator for Europe, but the modalities of handling a multi-country coordination service are far from clear. The prospect of humanitarian agencies working on European soil is not necessarily comfortable for governments. Internal sources within the UN say the organisation is facing opposition from some European authorities unwilling to accept assistance from the UN for fear it is tantamount to admitting their own failure to handle the situation. “Governments need to be more honest about their need for help,” said Moncada.

The lack of coherent advocacy and strategy on refugee issues is also a notable gap. “UNHCR have been very vocal, but many NGOs have come to this very late, incredibly so,” said Pantuliano. “Organisations that normally have been strong in forms of advocacy and campaigning have been very quiet for a long time. No one has key messages – it’s really time we have clear messages that people can use and rally behind.”

Amid the disparate responses from humanitarian agencies, it is clear there is an overwhelming need for a coherent, strategic response – from the countries of the European Union, but also from aid agencies. As MSF pointed out, the situation is extremely fluid and new challenges present themselves daily. The European refugee crisis may be smallscale compared to what is going on in other refugee hosting countries, but it seems to have caught everyone by surprise, and conventional humanitarian response may not be the answer. At present, said Moncada, “there is a lack of leadership across the board and you feel it.”

iw/ag