Several major humanitarian agencies have announced plans to expand, launch and upscale operations in response to the European refugee crisis in the past month.
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 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 organizations 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.
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.
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.
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 organization 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.
The lack of coherent advocacy and strategy on refugee issues is also a notable gap.
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.
This article first appeared on IRIN, an independent, non-profit media organization whose core objective is to highlight neglected crises and analyse humanitarian action and has been republished here via Asian Pacific Post.