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Humanitarian aid by the European Union


Nowadays is possible to find out that crisis like natural disasters and conflicts are increasingly both around the world and at the same moment; these jeopardize human lives through injuries, beatings, forced displacement and loss of human life.

As shown in this article the European Union (EU), because of the fundamental principles on which it is based, plays an important role in supporting people in danger; this activity takes places in every part of the world and within a short time, thanks to a strong organization.

First of all, we will examine what is humanitarian aid; secondly, we will analyze the different European institutions involved in this framework; thereafter, a case study will explain in detail how humanitarian action is actually carried out by the European Union; lastly, we will see the limits of these operations.

1. Humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid is a fundamental expression of the universal value of solidarity between peoples and a moral imperative; the EU, thanks to a budget that is over €1 billion, is the world’s leading humanitarian aid donor; it performs this activity through financing, provision of goods or services or technical assistance, aimed at urgently deal with crises that could seriously affect populations around the world[1].

This activity is realized in the framework of both the Article 21 of the “Treaty on European Union”, that sets out the principles for all EU external action, covering humanitarian action and the Article 214 of the “Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union”, that constitute the legal basis for humanitarian aid[2].

Furthermore, this task is provided in the framework of the “European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid outlines”, a document signed by the Council, European Parliament and European Commission in 2007; this policy sets out why, how and when the EU acts, in order to improve coherence, effectiveness, and quality of the EU’s humanitarian response. In this document, EU reaffirms its commitment to the fundamental principles of humanitarian aid[3]:

Humanity: means that human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable people, respecting at the same time the dignity of all victims.

Neutrality: means that humanitarian aid must not favor any side in a conflict or in a disaster.

Impartiality: means that humanitarian aid must be provided solely on the basis of need, without discrimination.

Independence means the autonomy of humanitarian objectives from political, economic, military or other objectives.

EU humanitarian action also express the principle of solidarity, as declared in the Lisbon Treaty, which indicates that the EU furnish assistance, relief and protection for victims of natural and man-made disasters, strengthening at the same time cooperation between Member States to this purpose.

2. The role of the EU institutions


It defines the position of the EU towards foreign regions and countries, encouraging the parties involved in resolving the conflicts and in urging respect for international humanitarian law; it should be noted that it doesn’t determine on operational matters such the funds management[4];

The Council has played an important role in the humanitarian aid framework adopting in 1996 the regulation establishing the” EU Humanitarian Aid Instrument”, which sets out the modalities for the implementation of humanitarian operations by the European Commission on behalf of the EU; precisely, the working party on “Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid[5]” (COHAFA) is the competent body for dealing with matters relating to humanitarian assistance, such as:

– monitoring of humanitarian needs worldwide and the collective response of the EU (Member States plus European Commission)

– the efficiency of the global humanitarian system

– the preparation of EU statements before relevant international forum and organizations

– the promotion of the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, humanitarian principles and respect for international humanitarian law[6]

In relation to the latter point, it is worth recalling that the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid outlines the policy framework for the EU when acting in response to humanitarian crises; specifically, the Consensus sets out why, how and when the EU acts.

It was signed by the Council, European Parliament and European Commission in 2007 in order to improve the coherence, the effectiveness, and the quality of the EU’s humanitarian response.

Preserve life, prevent and alleviate suffering as well as help to maintain human dignity in the face of natural and man-made disasters are the overriding objectives of humanitarian action.

Moreover, it formulates the common positions of the EU and its Member States at international events, such as the “First World Humanitarian Summit[7]” in 2016.

This summit took place in Istanbul on 23-24 May 2016; It reunite 9,000 participants speaking for 180 States, including 55 Heads of State and Government, hundreds of civil society and non-governmental organizations, and partners both from the private sector and academia.

It had several goals:

– To reinforce a commitment to humanity and to the universality of humanitarian principles.

– To set up a set of precise actions and commitments aimed at allowing countries and communities to better prepare for and respond to crises, enhancing their resilience at the same

– To share best practices for alleviating suffering and save lives around the world.

This event generated over 3,000 commitments to action and over 2,500 alignments with the core commitments to deliver the Agenda for Humanity. Furthermore, more than 20 initiatives were either launched or reinforced, aimed at improving the lives of people affected by humanitarian crises.

European Commission

The Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) is the directorate-general of the European Commission which deals with safeguard lives, prevent and alleviate human suffering affected by natural disasters and man-made crises[8].

It’s constituted by a main office in Brussels and by different field offices, whom provide up-to-date analysis of existing and forecasted needs in a given region or country, contributing to the development of policy development and provide technical support to DG ECHO funded operations, ensuring so an adequate monitoring of these interventions.

In case of humanitarian interventions, DG ECHO do not implement assistance programs itself but it operates funding different partners, like NGOsUN agencies, and international organizations; lastly, it’s also in charge of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, who fosters cooperation among national civil protection authorities across Europe.

Courtesy of the European Commission

Emergency Response Coordination Centre

This center is part of the EU Civil protection mechanism and coordinates the assistance to countries hit by disasters providing relief items, civil protection teams, specialized equipment and expertise; it coordinates all EU Member States, the affected country and civil protection and humanitarian experts; it operates 24/7, helping any country inside or outside the EU upon request from an United Nations body or from the national authorities[9].


For cases of last resort (when Member States’ capacities are already fully used) it was developed RescEu, an instrument that act both in strengthening European response in terms of additional reserve of capacities, co-financing and improving disaster prevention and preparedness both at national and European level[10].

EU aid volunteer

In this framework EU resorts also to volunteer, through the “EU aid volunteers” program, which offers opportunities for European citizens in humanitarian projects worldwide, educating these to operate in regions affected by disasters; it promotes also capacity building for local staff and provide technical assistance for organizations based in Europe[11].

3. A case study of EU humanitarian intervention: Bangladesh

Courtesy of the United Kingdom Government

A brief introduction of the country

For a long time, Bangladesh has offered a safe place for Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar; however; nonetheless, following widespread military repression in Myanmar in August 2017, a massive arrival of Rohingya refugees in search of protection and assistance has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in this country.

Indeed, this influx of more than 745,000 Rohingya refugees has put a tremendous pressure on previous existing humanitarian services in the district of Cox’s Bazar; the vast majority has not been recognized a refugee status, thus they are referred as “undocumented Myanmar nationals” by the government of Bangladesh.

Because of the lack of a legal status, they are unable to attend education or any form of legal employment and remain vulnerable to exploitation and serious protection risks. More than an estimated 910,000 unregistered Rohingya currently live in Bangladesh, depending fully on aid.

Furthermore, the country is also one of the most susceptible to disaster in the world; indeed, being localized in the confluence of two large rivers (the Ganges and the Brahmaputra) the country is exposed to many different natural hazards including cyclones, floods and earthquakes; moreover, is one of the most susceptible countries to the effects of climate change.

EU Intervention

Considering 2019, the European Union has given €24.8 million in humanitarian aid, divided in:

– €19 million for humanitarian food relief, clean water and sanitation infrastructures, access to healthcare services and increased security for the most defenseless groups.

– €5 million will scale up preparedness measures for natural hazards especially during the rainy season, which could trigger floods, landslides, cyclones and tidal surges in what is currently the most densely populated refugee camp in the world. Furthermore, the funding will also strengthen the preparedness for future earthquakes in urban areas in the congested capital of Dhaka and early action in flood prone areas of Bangladesh. In response to the devastating flooding caused by a series of monsoon rains that have hit Bangladesh since early July,

– €800,000 has been allocated to provide essential support to the most affected families[12].


As we have seen the European Unions is possibly one of the major players in humanitarian aid worldwide; nonetheless it happens sometimes that no rescue is provided, mainly because of a lack of agreement between the various member states, as evidenced by the Libyan case of which it is worthwhile to give a brief overview: after the riots that led to the death of Mu’ammar Gheddafi in 2011 the EU approach remains basically the same since 2014 and it consists of a constatation of the security crisis, in which the European Council stated that ““there is no solution to the Libyan crisis through the use of force”, revitalizing support to the institutions built by Libyan Political Agreement (i.e., Presidency Council and Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj).

It was later observed that EU focused more on short-term objectives over a general strategic goal, in order to achieve quick-fix solutions and give prompt answers to the anxieties of the European citizens, who purportedly perceive increasing migrant flows from Libya as a huge threat[13].

Analyzing the Libyan situation is easy to find out that these actions have led to a vague and inconclusive intervention, which has failed either to stabilize Libya or to prevent the numerous deaths of migrants and refugees at sea in the Mediterranean Sea.

Nicola Bianco

For further information:





[5] It was set up in 2008 following the signing of the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid:









Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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