How humanitarian standards make a difference in the refugee crisis

13 October 2015 | Sphere Project

A Syrian refugee family. Photo © Mohamed Azakir / World BankFrom Gaziantep in Turkey to Calais in France to several German cities, humanitarian standards are taking centre stage in the response to an unprecedented crisis... with no end in sight.

The arrival of more than 600,000 people - most of them refugees - in the European Union during 2015 has spotlighted the crucial contribution humanitarian standards make to upholding the right to life with dignity of people fleeing conflict and violence.

Early in October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande implicitly acknowledged that linkage in their joint address to the European Parliament: "We must see [refugees and migrants] as people, whether they have the prospect of remaining or not. Humanitarian standards of accommodation and claim processing must be upheld."

The two top political leaders were echoing earlier calls made by humanitarian agencies.

In late August, Trócaire Executive Director Éamonn Meehan called on European authorities to apply "humanitarian standards to save lives, protect those most vulnerable and reduce suffering" and to make the necessary resources available to meet their needs.

"All European countries have the responsibility to treat refugees according to international standards, and national political challenges are no excuse," said Benedicte Giæver, Emergency Deployment Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in mid-September.

As the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) summarised it: refugees and migrants "are entitled to be received with dignity and respect for their rights, regardless of their immigration status".

Among other equally essential requirements to achieving this goal, ICVA stressed the urgent need of "reception facilities with trained staff [...] to receive, assist, register, screen and relocate arrivals with respect for their human dignity".

Sphere and the Syrian context: professionalising the response

Training staff to adequately apply Sphere humanitarian standards is one of the concerns of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Turkey, a country that hosts some two million Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugees submitting applications at a UN registration centre in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo © Mohamed Azakir / World BankAccording to Tamara Hallaq, Humanitarian Affairs Officer at OCHA Turkey, a majority of Syrian humanitarian workers have less than five years of experience. "While relief activities started in a spontaneous and voluntary manner, there is a clear shift towards the professionalisation of Syrian civil society organisations and the integration of international standards and coordination mechanisms."

To support this shift, OCHA Turkey recognises the need to train humanitarian staff to work with the Sphere Handbook. Thus the agency - in collaboration with CARE, Save the Children and the Sphere office - organised an experts workshop to customise the Sphere training package to the Syrian context.

The workshop took place in Gaziantep, some 40 km north of the Syrian border in late July. Integrating field examples from Syria, it demonstrated the applicability of Sphere standards and indicators to the Syrian humanitarian response while highlighting potential challenges linked to the specifics of the crisis.

The workshop outlined an action plan for the dissemination of Sphere standards through customised Sphere training activities in Arabic. These activities will target staff of international and national NGOs working in the Syrian response, be it inside Syria or across the border in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

A three-day training activity took place already in July; two more, as well as a training of trainers course, are planned for the end of 2015. A Sphere reference group in Turkey is being set up and will work closely with the Sphere country focal points.

In the "Calais jungle": bringing cohesion to chaos

A hotspot of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe is the so-called "Calais jungle," where more than 3,000 men, women and children live in informal camps.

A view of the The camps have sprawled as refugees and migrants hoping to enter the United Kingdom are prevented from doing so and get stuck in the French port town where the tunnel that links the British islands to the European continent begins.

According to a study recently carried out by the University of Birmingham, conditions in the Calais camps "do not meet standards recommended by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the Sphere Project."

The academic researchers have identified "shortcomings in shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security." According to French medical professionals, the health care conditions are unacceptable.

Unsurprisingly, the situation in the "Calais jungle" has spurred thousands of well-meaning people into action. Unfortunately, in many cases, the goods donated do not match the needs and those willing to help are unaware of the logistical requirements of their mission.

"A humanitarian crisis can take place anywhere. It just so happens that this time there is one at our doorstep," says Martin McCann, a Sphere Board member and the CEO of RedR UK. A British NGO specialised in humanitarian capacity-building, RedR UK is currently training volunteers working in Calais.

The training activities focus on the essentials of humanitarian principles and practice, covering needs assessment, coordination, Sphere standards and accountability. So far, three one-day workshops benefited 56 volunteers from a number of grassroots organisations.

Workshop participants highlighted the emphasis on the dignity of beneficiaries and the improvement in terms of effectiveness of their work. "The Sphere standards are amazing! They basically bring cohesion to chaos," said Dan Teuma, one of the founders of CalAid.

And in the heart of Europe: putting people first

Geographically located in the centre of Europe, Germany is also at the heart of the response to the crisis, as a destination of choice for a large number of refugees and migrants entering the European Union.

Refugees arriving to Vienna, Austria. Photo © Josh ZakaryAxel Schmidt, from the German NGO Workers' Samaritan Federation (Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund or ASB), was one of the trainers in the first Calais workshop organised by RedR UK; he is now getting ready to train volunteers and staff in his own organisation.

"We have already ordered Sphere Handbooks in German and are reaching out to the local branches of ASB, which is organised in a decentralised fashion," says Schmidt. The plan is to offer half-day in-situ workshops. "ASB is really busy right now, so time is scarce."

ASB works in civil protection, rescue and social welfare services. It currently runs some 70 or 80 reception centres for refugees and migrants across the country. "It's difficult to give an exact figure, as three to four new centres open every week," says Schmidt.

ASB has a few thousand staff and volunteers, who are mostly accustomed to rescue and paramedic approaches in which they deal with "victims," Schmidt explains. However, working with refugees is completely different. "Refugees are resourceful people and you need to work with them," he says.

"In these circumstances, the Sphere people-centred approach will provide essential guidance."


  1. A Syrian refugee family. Photo © Mohamed Azakir / World Bank
  2. Syrian refugees submitting applications at a UN registration centre in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo © Mohamed Azakir / World Bank
  3. A view of the "Calais jungle". Photo © Thom Davies
  4. Refugees arriving in Vienna, Austria. Photo © Josh Zakary

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