The ongoing refugee crisis within the European Union has become the “burning issue” of the year. Displayed on every front-page, this critical situation and the ill-fated fallout – with its latest reminder being the tragic story of the little Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the beach of Bodrum – seems to have finally mobilised public opinion across the continent and obliged governments to seize the initiative on the matter. Whilst some leaders are taking a hardline position, such as the British PM David Cameron claiming “I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees” or exemplified by the statement from Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán: “Quotas is an invitation for those who want to come. The moral human thing is to make clear, please don’t come”; other leaders are in favour of scaling up Europe’s response to this Humanitarian crisis, with the French President François Hollande and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for “binding refugee quotas for EU Members States” and the Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi saying “Europe cannot just get emotional, it has to move”. Indeed, Europe is slowly moving towards taking more concrete actions: the European Commission’s Vice-President Mogherini confirmed it, a new “package on the refugee crisis and migration crisis” should be unveiled in the coming days.

Let’s not forget the bigger picture

In this maelstrom, getting overwhelmed with on the spot reactions is easy, instead, we need to take a step back to look at the bigger picture. As shocking as the refugee crisis is, it also sharply highlights failures in the design of our policies. In this respect, beyond the punctual measures currently prepared by the European Commission, it is not the migration policy alone that should be reformed but the systemic humanitarian landscape that should also be re-evaluated. Amidst the recent events and the developments in the refugee crisis, it is nevertheless exactly what the Commission has demonstrated it was doing when releasing (Thursday 3 September) its latest Communication called “Towards the World Humanitarian Summit: A global partnership for principled and effective humanitarian action”. As such, this communication will serve as the EU’s official position paper during the World Humanitarian Summit 2016 (WHS), an event that will be especially aimed at improving the world’s humanitarian response.

World Humanitarian Day 2016: general principles

Convened by the Secretary General of the United Nations in 2013, the World Humanitarian Summit, organised on 23-24 May 2016 in Istanbul, will be the first of its kind. Its overarching aim is to improve the system-wide humanitarian response to crisis’ by formulating recommendations accompanied with a road-map or an action plan for a post-2016 implementation of a new modus operandi. Broadly gathering the stakeholders (i.e. not only the usual suspects – a.k.a. the governments, donors and implementing organisations, but the private sector and the affected populations as well), the WHS architecture draws heavily on consultations of different kinds: regional and global, thematic, technical, and interactive web-based. The whole consultation process should culminate in a report by the Secretary-General ahead of the conference.

(Calendar: regional consultations: June 2014-June 2015; thematic consultations: September 2015; publication draft synthesis report and global consultation: October 2015 ; Secretary-General’s report: January 2016; Conference: May 2016)

As exposed in its WHS Concept Note, the Summit will focus on four thematic areas: humanitarian effectiveness, reducing vulnerability and managing risk, transformation through innovation, and serving the needs of people in conflict.

  • Humanitarian effectiveness: Aside working out a joint understanding of the concept itself and of its elements and key indicators, this area will deal with themes regarding humanitarian actions such as transparency, accountability, performance monitoring, or standardisation.
  • Reducing vulnerability and managing risk: Centred around the idea of “building more resilient communities”, this area will search for a new cooperation model that would bring together the humanitarian and development dimensions in order to reduce and manage risk in a more systematic way, including by discussing items such as preparedness, capacity building, information sharing and analysis or planning.
  • Transformation through innovation: Working on the issue of turning a reactive response into a proactive one, this area will answer two questions: “how [can we] create systems that are self-critical and open to risk and experimentation, and how [can we] ensure that new products, processes, and positions are identified and integrated to address operational challenges?”
  • Serving the needs of people in conflict: Focussing on all the people affected by conflicts, and especially on those in zones of active combat, this area will reflect on the ways to offer these people assistance and protection by: First, finding more effective strategies and methods to assist them across lines of combat or hostility; Second, developing more durable solutions to the issue of displacement; And finally, establishing new strategies and mechanisms allowing for a better coordination of the “work across the system on these issues post 2016”.

In the case these discussions are successful, the Summit should bring about a change of paradigm in the practice of humanitarian action, making it more fit for purpose and creating a real political momentum for the international community to renew its commitment to the principle of solidarity with people across the globe suffering from crisis’ and disasters that call for humanitarian interventions.

The European Union’s contribution to WHS 2016

After the round of regional consultations but before the publication of the draft report ahead of the Summit, the European Commission announced its contribution to the discussions by adopting a Communication stating its official position on WHS.

Disregarding the principle of structuring the discussions in four areas as proposed by the WHS, the Communication still covers the points raised and presents seven priorities translated in recommendations that the Commission wants to put on the table and which can be summarised as follows:

The European Commission

  1. Suggests to use the Summit as an occasion for reaffirming the global collective commitment to the basic humanitarian values (a.o. dignity, integrity, solidarity, or the distinction between humanitarian work and political motives).
  2. Urges the stakeholders (government, humanitarian players, local communities, parties to the conflict) to do their own bit in order to ensure access to assistance, protection and security for people affected by crisis or disasters.
  3. Insists on the need to put protection at the heart of response, by calling the international humanitarian community to do so in a systematic way.
  4. Proposes to work out a consensus on basics of Humanitarian effectiveness. In this respect, the Commission: puts the burden on donors to request more transparency and accountability from the organisations they donate to, including via the use of indicators and data; commends the ongoing reviewing process of the actors for improving their own efficiency; and suggests the creation of a “comprehensive on-stop IT platform which should work as a repository of shared data on needs, capacities, risks, financial allocations, vulnerabilities, shared quality markers, common results indicators, evaluations and research”.
  5. Addresses every actor, according to the subsidiarity and solidarity principles and refer them to their own task of generating data on humanitarian actions by conducting risk assessment/fragility analyses, followed by preparedness and response capacities inventories and plans, scenarios or guidelines that would help building resilience at every level.
  6. Advocates for efficient and sufficient funding by reinforcing the coordination of appeals from implementing organisations as well as the coordination between donors, among others by incorporating non-traditional donors into their community (such as regional organisations or the private sector). This increased efficiency could be achieved by evaluating these cooperative processes more systematically and more deeply.
  7. Builds on its own experience to suggest that donors should be more flexible and more predictable by taking into account factors that act as “crisis modifiers” when designing their development programs, and by using multiannual financing programmes allowing for the reallocation of resources over years. More broadly, partnership with the development community should be established and “include joint multi-hazard risk analysis and, where relevant, multiannual programming and financing, and exit strategies for humanitarian players”.

There will be plenty of opportunities to comment and criticise these priorities over the upcoming months ahead of the WHS, especially during the discussions on this Communication taking place in the European Parliament and with the Member States.


In conclusion, although the most recent events remain tragic, one should not forget to look at the bigger picture to catch the underlying trend of reform running in the field. This ongoing process demonstrates that there is still some hope left that the response to a humanitarian crisis as the one we are currently experiencing will be improved thanks to the momentum provided by the World Humanitarian Summit 2016. It will thus be of utmost importance to maintain the pressure on deciders in 2016 in order to obtain an ambitious and forward-looking commitment to uphold the solidarity with people impacted by crisis and disasters. In this sense, the failures we are experiencing in relation with the current refugees crisis should help us to remind ourselves of what is at stake when discussing humanitarian aid reforms.


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