EU Crisis Response (Part 1 of 4)

A series on the results from the first year of emergency support within the European Union

Having fled from a war-torn country, access to basic medical services for many Syrian refugees was a priority. The International Federation of Red Cross and Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Arbeiter-Samariter Bund (ASB) and Médecins du Monde (MDM) are some of the EU’s humanitarian aid partners who deliver basic health care for refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. Photo: Medecins du Monde/Kristof Vadino.

Supporting Greece in the Refugee Crisis

Between January 2015 and February 2016, over 1.1 million refugees and migrants made their way to the European Union using the Western Balkan route, seeking to escape from poverty or conflict. The EU faced its biggest refugee movement since the end of World War II.

At its peak in summer 2015, 10 000 men, women and children arrived in Greece in one day. The closure of Member States’ borders and other European countries along the Western Balkans route left over 60 000 people stranded in Greece — including over 16 000 people on the islands — all facing pressing humanitarian needs.

The EU’s main existing funding instruments (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, and Internal Security Funds) as well as the Member States’ in-kind support provided through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, were not fully suited to address the wide-ranging humanitarian needs resulting from the refugee and migration crisis within the EU. The scale of the crisis demonstrated the need for a flexible financial tool with a quick response capacity and the ability to mobilise existing expertise.


In February 2016, prompted by the extraordinary circumstances, the EU took steps to allow delivery of humanitarian aid inside the EU to address the crisis. The ensuing Council Regulation (EU) 2016/369 from 15 March 2016 was designed not only to address the humanitarian challenges that had emerged from the ongoing migratory pressures on the Union but also to cater for any type of natural or man-made disaster with a wide-ranging humanitarian impact within the EU.

In 2015 and 2016, a total of €544 million of EU funds (exluding national AMIF and ISF programmes) were awarded to support Greece in managing the refugee and migration crisis. EU emergency support funding accounts for around 35% of this overall sum.

The regulation took immediate effect upon signature. As it relies on pre-existing human resources and administrative procedures, it was not necessary to set up new ways of working. Aid was therefore quickly implemented and results were soon visible.

Just five weeks after the adoption of the regulation, the Commission announced an initial allocation of €83 million to eight partner organisations. Shelter, water and sanitation, health services, protection and education were provided on the ground in Greece only days after the budgetary authority had provided initial funding.

Assistance is implemented by humanitarian partners — NGOs, international organisations and United Nation agencies — which have been certified by the Commission. In addition, these partners work with experienced Greek NGOs as implementing partners.

In spite of challenges and less than a year after its adoption, it is fair to say that EU emergency support funding genuinely made a difference and greatly improved the living conditions for refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. So far, the Commission has provided close to €192 million in humanitarian assistance for more than 45 000 beneficiaries spread across more than 30 sites on the Greek mainland and its surrounding islands.

When planning its activities, the Commission identified four priorities.

1. Creating dignified living conditions

2. Equipping refugees with the means for basic purchases

3. Ensuring a decent education for every refugee child

4. Giving enhanced support to the most vulnerable

Read the first chapter below which highlights the results for the first of these four priorities from April 2016 to January 2017.

Photo: UNHCR.

CHAPTER 1: CREATING DIGNIFIED LIVING CONDITIONS

Shelter is a basic human need. Providing safety, security and protection, it is important for human dignity and the sustenance of family and community life.

Thirty three-year-old Rokhshana and her family had spent three months walking through forests before arriving in Greece only a few days after the borders between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia closed. Speaking of their tortuous journey, she recalls, “We were walking for weeks through the frozen mountains, sleeping in the forests. I have no idea how we finally made it.

Over 60 000 people — people like Rokshana and her family — were left stranded in Greece once the borders of Member States and other European countries along the Western Balkans route were closed. The humanitarian response therefore shifted from one of providing safe passage to that of providing longer-term accommodation. Shelter became a priority, notably in the evacuation of Idomeni, an informal settlement that was located in northern Greece along the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

More than 15,000 refugees and migrants lived in a makeshift camp close to the village of Idomeni, which became synonymous with the human suffering at the peak of the refugee and migration crisis in early 2016. Photo: EU/Sakis Mitrolidis

The provision of shelter required tremendous and commendable efforts by the Greek authorities who bear the ultimate responsibility of providing adequate reception. To assist the Greek authorities in their efforts and respond to their overall strategy of providing a level of accommodation considered adequate for the longer term, roughly €80 million of EU emergency support funding have been allocated for shelter activities in Greece.

Shelter activities have taken place in 30 out of 49 mainland sites identified by the Greek Government. This was a joint effort by the Commission’s humanitarian partner organisations, and authorities under the coordination of Greece’s Ministry of Migration Policy. The objective was to improve the living conditions of the majority of sites on mainland Greece.

Initially, shelter activities involved the provision of tents for refugees and migrants, but this soon extended to site development works and upgrading existing infrastructure. All these improvements made a huge difference as a refugee woman* in Diavata explains, “There is a door and key, I can lock our space. When I came here, I didn’t have my husband with me; security was a big problem in a tent with 3 kids.

In addition, funding was made available for the rehabilitation, upgrading and construction of water and sanitation services, heating and electricity systems.


As winter set in, staying warm became the number one priority. With funding from the European Commission, UNHCR delivered up to 360 000 winter items to 38 000 asylum seekers across Greece between October 2016 and January 2017. Refugees received items such as thermal blankets and warm clothes in order to help cope with the harsh winter weather conditions. Video: UNHCR

The race to prepare for winter — a process known as ‘winterisation’ — was another priority which fell under the shelter sector. Winterisation on mainland Greece was budgeted at approximately €52 million out of the overall €80 million budget for shelter. The Commission’s humanitarian aid partners upgraded living conditions significantly and provided safer shelter during the winter months. They achieved this through improving insulation and the installation of heating devices. Families were moved from tents to containers.

We were walking for weeks through the frozen mountains, sleeping in the forests. I have no idea how we finally made it.

For people like Abbderahman, a Syrian refugee who has lived in Ritsona — a refugee camp north of Athens — with his wife and five children for the past nine months, the change from living in a tent to a container made all the difference in surviving the winter months, “I can’t imagine how we would have coped in the tents over winter,” he said.

As another direct winterisation measure, more than 3 000 people staying at inadequate and incomplete sites on the mainland exposed to winter weather were transferred to hotels or apartments and provided with much needed winter items.

In February 2016, the European Council urged the Commission to cooperate with organisations such as UNHCR to support countries facing large numbers of refugees and migrants. UNHCR has become the Commission’s closest humanitarian aid partner in Greece and was involved in carrying out improvements and maintenance at 15 official refugee sites. Photo: UN Refugee Agency

Watching her family carrying raincoats, tights, socks and beanies, Rokhshana says “These items are very valuable for us. We have lost all our belongings and we have no money left. On our own, I could never afford to buy clothes for the children to help them stay warm. We know very well what it means to be cold.

Shelter plays an essential role in reducing vulnerability and building communities’ resilience, this is not only true in Greece but also worldwide. It is one of the main areas supported by the Commission’s humanitarian aid department, with funding of up to €180 million per year worldwide for humanitarian shelter and settlement assistance.


Learn more about EU Humanitarian Aid in Greece.

*Name withheld for anonymity reasons.

Coming soon…

CHAPTER 2: EQUIPPING REFUGEES WITH THE MEANS FOR BASIC PURCHASES