120 million Europeans are at risk of poverty and one third of them are not getting enough to eat, says the Red Cross. A new report shows the negative effects of Europe's response to the financial crisis.
"Europe is facing its worst humanitarian crisis in six decades," according to the general secretary of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFCR), Bekele Geleta. The 68-page survey, published on Thursday (10.10.13) by the humanitarian organization, declares that while other continents successfully reduce poverty, in Europe it seems to be on the rise.
Five years after the onset of the financial crisis, millions of people are still falling into poverty, living on a hand-to-mouth basis with no savings to cover any unplanned expenses. According to the Red Cross this could lead to huge livelihood insecurity. The study included 52 states and is based on figures from Eurostat, the statistical institution of the European Union.
New category of poor people
"We see the poorer getting poorer," Annita Underlin, who heads the European chapter of the Red Cross, told DW. She sees huge difficulties for this group to be integrated into society and to once again become active citizens. She also sees the emergence of a new group of poor people, who have never before in their lives had to apply for social benefits.
The new poor come from the middle-class, which in turn is declining. "Serbia, for example, was able to build up a middle-income class. Today that class is reducing," she explains. This trend has washed through all of the surveyed countries, forcing 3.5 million Europeans to turn to the Red Cross for food in 2012 - an increase of 75 percent compared to 2009.
"We are worried about the long-term consequences," says Underlin, referring to health and social sectors. "In times of crisis the need of medical assistance in physical and mental ways increases. But these sectors suffered under the reduced budgets resulting from the austerity policies - leaving behind a dramatic trend.
"World Health Organization research has shown that parallel to the peaking of the crisis, the rate of suicide has gone up," Underlin says. For example, the suicide rate amongst women in Greece has nearly doubled since the beginning of the crisis.
Another major problem is the increase in mass unemployment in Europe. The younger generation in particular seems to be affected by this negative trend, resulting in increased illegal immigration, rising xenophobia and a growing risk of social turmoil and political instability. These factors are estimated to be two or three times higher than in most other parts of the world, says the study. And even if people have jobs they very often only just reach the standard of the working poor - leaving gloomy perspectives for tens of millions of people.
The director of the Brussels based think-tank Bruegel, Guntram Wolff, has proposed a two-step programme to fight growing unemployment. "First of all we need to allow small and medium enterprises to get credit, to grow and employ people." As a second key step he stresses the necessity of a youth unemployment fund, which would promote and subsidize mobility and education of young people.
Problems seeping through
The humanitarian impacts shown in the report were not only observed in the countries typically associated with the crisis, but also in Germany and France - countries that are seen as the economic powerhouses of the EU. According to the French Red Cross, one third of the aid receivers would not be able to afford the rent for their apartment if they didn't get the free food backup.
And even though Germany's unemployment rate is not as high as in other countries the conditions for many employees are precarious. A quarter of the country's employed are classified as low-wage earners. Almost half of new job contracts since 2008 have been low-paid with little security and usually no social benefits, as a result some 600,000 German employees do not have enough to live on.
The problems shown in the report raise questions about the EU and its austerity policies. "We encourage all stakeholders to think in new, different and creative ways to deal with the crisis," says Underlin. "We need to face reality and take action so that a humanitarian crisis does not turn into a social and moral crisis for Europe."