Christos Stylianides: Stronger global response needed to refugee crisis

Humanitarian aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides on the situation on the ground in Jordan and Lebanon and why, despite the challenges, Europe has something to be proud of.

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

19 Apr 2016

The refugee crisis is one of the most intensely debated challenges facing Europe. A great deal has been said about the pressures it has brought upon EU member states and the stability of the Schengen free movement agreement.

But from the comfort of our western homes, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that refugees are families just like our own, but fleeing war, poverty and persecution.

While several European countries in the frontline of the migration crisis are under strain, countries outside the continent, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, are having to cope with millions of arrivals.


For the EU, all this falls under the umbrella of European humanitarian aid and crisis management Commissioner Christos Stylianides, who is responsible for coordinating the EU's emergency response and humanitarian financial aid inside and outside the Union. 

The Cypriot national took up office nearly 18 months ago, following a brief time as an MEP. A dental surgeon, he studied international development at Harvard university and served as an MP and government spokesperson in Cyprus. 

Stylianides is a passionate European, actively campaigning for his country's EU accession and participating in civil society and political initiatives to help resolve the long-standing tensions between the Greek and Turkish communities on the island. Shortly before joining team Juncker, he was named as EU Ebola crisis coordinator.

To date, the Cypriot is proud of the work he leads; "I can clearly say that the EU, as the world's leading humanitarian donor, is highly active right now in channelling support to refugees in need across the world. To the most vulnerable, whether in the Middle East, Africa, Ukraine or elsewhere. Wherever it is needed most."

"Our support continues around the world, including in Africa, where I recently visited regions tragically hit by El Niño in Ethiopia and the world's largest refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya."

Yet the current priority, says Stylianides, is Syria, besieged by violence since 2011 and now partially controlled by Isis. This year, the European Commission will provide €445m in humanitarian aid alone to those affected. 

Although crisis management is, by definition, reactive, Stylianides points to additional, proactive efforts from the EU. "Our support is proactive because it also invests in education for refugee children, the next generation. We have to give them both hope and the tools to build a better future."

He continues: "This year, the EU has significantly stepped up its funding for education in emergencies, from €11m in 2015 to over €52m this year."

"By the end of 2016, EU humanitarian aid will have enabled access to education for over 3.8 million girls and boys living in emergency situations in 46 countries around the world."

However, Stylianides is aware that his work will become more challenging in future, because, "crises are becoming longer-lasting and more complex."

For this reason, he says, Europe allocated its "highest humanitarian budget to date - nearly €1.1bn - as we expect humanitarian needs to rise around the world."

The globetrotting Cypriot - he tells this magazine he spends on average 10 days a month in Brussels, jokes that “the plane is my home". 

He travels all over the world to assess situations personally. "I visited Jordan and Lebanon twice last year," he says. "I went to the Zaatari camp, close to the Syrian border and home to tens of thousands of refugees."

"We are providing services such as health, food and basic needs assistance. We are also providing winterisation, shelter, education, water and sanitation, psychological support and protection programmes to refugees in camps and urban settings."

To this end, "the European Commission has allocated over €637m to refugees and vulnerable communities in Jordan, covering both humanitarian and longer-term assistance."

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Stylianides visited, "formal and informal education activities in the Bekaa Valley. I saw with my own eyes the living conditions and constraints for refugees. In Lebanon there are no refugee camps, but rather informal settlements."

The EU is the country's largest donor of aid when it comes to the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis, providing around €270m between 2012 and 2015: "The EU is currently providing assistance to nearly 665,000 Syrian refugees through lifesaving assistance, protection, health, shelter, hygiene and sanitation."

"This assistance is providing much welcomed alleviation for the Lebanese authorities, where public services are massively overstretched. I certainly commend both Jordan and Lebanon for their strong efforts in hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees."

So how does the EU ensure its financial aid reaches those who need it most? Stylianides explains that, "To make sure our aid is effective, we fund trusted partners such as the international committee of the Red Cross, UN agencies and international NGOs."

The logistics of reaching people still trapped in a war zone are immense: "Tragically, the conflict means that many people find themselves in besieged or hard-to-reach areas. So we use all possible channels, such as cross-border and operations from Damascus, to deliver assistance across the country where it most needed."

"The Commission funds a system of first line emergency response, which enables partners to quickly mobilise pre-positioned stocks.

"This allows us to be flexible and redirect activities to deliver aid in newly accessible areas, or respond to sudden onsets of displacement."

The strategy seems to be working. "Inside Syria, thanks to lifesaving aid provided by the European Commission, some two million people now have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene items; 850,000 people have received food, one million people have received non-food items and shelter and 350,000 children have been covered by child protection programmes."

Stylianides believes that the European Union is making a strong humanitarian contribution: "Something we can all be proud of. At the same time, I call on other donors to step up their commitments. From the refugee crisis to the impact of natural disasters, a stronger global response is needed."

"Importantly, following the Council's approval of a new emergency support instrument and the Parliament's backing of an amending budget, we will also be able to provide emergency humanitarian funding inside the EU for the first time."

"I would like to particularly thank the European Parliament for its crucial support in making this new instrument rapidly operational. This will allow us to provide a faster, more targeted response to major crises, including helping member states to cope with large numbers of refugees."

One such member state is Greece. This is the main point of entry for many refugees, placing a huge burden on the country that it can ill-afford. Stylianides praises, "the generosity of the Greek people to the refugees - it is an example to us all."

He met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras last month, reassuring him that, "Greece is not alone in these difficult times. We all share the same goal: to effectively tackle the increasing needs of refugees hosted in Greece and to alleviate their suffering."

He stresses that most of the funds provided by the new tool for humanitarian aid within the EU, "will be geared towards Greece, whose financial and administrative capacities have been overstretched by the refugee crisis. We will work in close consultation and coordination with the Greek government."

According to Stylianides, this year, "€300m are required to complement action already taken by other actors, with a further €200m each in 2017 and 2018."

This funding, as in other regions, "is expected to be channelled to organisations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross and other NGOs."

That's not all, he says. "My department coordinates mutual assistance of civil protection offices across Europe. I am pleased that no less than 17 different European Union member states have offered their help to Greece in a very concrete way via the European civil protection mechanism."

"Over 87,000 items such as tents, beds, blankets, power generators and hygiene products have been made available to Greece through this mechanism. It's complementary to other areas of EU support. Therefore, we are fully utilising our existing mechanisms and developing new ones to provide much needed help in Greece, rapidly and effectively."


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