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Europe

Getting Aid Across Not Easy

The European Humanitarian Aid Office is active in some 30 conflict zones and more than 85 countries world-wide. But frustratingly getting access to people in need remains a big problem, says Commissioner Poul Nielson.

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This, say aid organisations is just not that simple anymore

The numbers are impressive.

The European Humanitarian Aid Office, also called ECHO came up with half a billion euro for humanitarian help last year. Some 15-20 million people around the world profited from the ECHO programme in 2001.

The European Union’s mandate to ECHO is to provide emergency assistance and relief to the victims of natural disasters or armed conflict outside the European Union. The aid is intended to go directly to those in distress.

If one adds up the bilateral help from the EU nations to the figure of half a billion euro, then the European Union is the biggest financial donor for emergencies and crises around the world.

But the facts behind the overwhelming figures are sobering: EU Commissioner Poul Nielson, responsible for Development and Humanitarian Aid concludes in the yearly report 2001 of his office that most of the catastrophes in the world are not wreaked by nature, but are man-made.

And thus entirely avoidable.

No respect for human rights

"The situation worsened towards the year end In the conflict regions of Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories", he says.

Nielson believes that in addition there’s an increasing trend in recent times to violate the right of people to humanitarian help.

The European Commissioner remembers his appeal to the Israeli authority along with the EU Commission President Romano Prodi a week ago about the situation in the autonomous Palestinian territories.

"I am deeply disturbed about how basic principles of human rights are being blatantly flouted, especially with regard to access to civilian victims of the violence. President Prodi and I have appealed to the Israeli authorities to remove all obstacles that are blocking the work of the UN, the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations. I repeat that appeal."

But it’s not just the Middle East where aid organisations face problems getting to the needy.

Cumbersome bureacracy in Chechnya

Nielson says that aid helpers in Chechnya for instance face similar difficulties.

Humanitarian helpers wanting to go to Chechnya often come up against massive bureaucratic obstacles. Even getting a work permit for an aid helper is not easy.

"When people suffer, the international community must be able to have access to them, to stand by them in times of need. Our request is so simple. We should be there even as witnesses to the events."

The EU commissioner says that it’s doubly important for outsiders to be there because conflicts have changed over the years and now increasingly suck in the civilian population.

Attacks on civilians or even the recruiting of child soldiers has now become a part of today’s violent conflicts, he feels.

The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Chechnya have led to ECHO spending about 50 million euro more than in the previous year.

Ray of hope

But the news is not all bad.

Nielson is positive about certain regions.

For instance Brussels sees hope for a peaceful resolution of conflicts in Angola and Sri Lanka. Similarly the situation has stabilised and taken a turn for the better in the Balkans and in East Timor.

Apart from Chechnya and the autonomous Palestinian territories, the annual ECHO report sees further violence and instability in Columbia, Sudan, Congo and Burundi.

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