|The Courier No. 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid Country Reports Sao Tomé-Principe-Senegal (European Community, 1992)|
An interview with Grd Molinier
Not since the 1940s has Europe seen a humanitarian disaster to rival the situation in what used to be Yugoslavia. The civil war between ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims for possession of the territory of the recently recognised independent republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina has driven millions of people from their home towns and villages. Desperate groups of refugees and displaced persons, including women, children and the elderly, have been callously herded like animals through hostile terrain where they have no protection against snipers and lawless thugs. Those who remain in their homes are the target of indiscriminate bombing and shooting, directed even at civilians queuing for food or trying to bury their dead. The conditions in certain camps where men are being held on suspicion of being combatants flout all international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war and have provoked revulsion throughout the world. Even vehicles attempting to deliver relief supplies have been attacked and their occupants killed.
Faced with this unprecedented crisis in the continent of Europe, the European Community has this year continued putting large amounts of emergency aid into the country. The first stage of a planned three-stage operation to help refugees and displaced persons in 1992 involved sending ECU 36 million in aid up to the end of July, most of it form the budget of the PHARE programme for central and eastern Europe. The second stage expires on 30 September and involves aid of ECU 120 million, of which more than half comes from the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, Guarantee Section. The third stage, to begin in October, is expected to require at least another ECU 120 million in funding from the Community budget.
This is the context in which the international donor community has been trying to get help to the suffering in ex-Yugoslavia - one of the first jobs facing the new European Community Humanitarian Office, ECHO. The Courier talked to the senior official presently in charge of its Emergency Humanitarian Aid Unit.
· Mr Molinier, why was the European Community asked to operate in what used to be Yugoslavia?
- The European Community has emergency funds for disaster victims all over the world, whether for natural disasters or man-made ones, especially where there is fighting. ECHO funds are also available for disaster victims in European countries outside the Community.
· Did the authorities of the territory we are talking about invite the Community to go there?
- Yes, they did. The authorities in the countries concerned did indeed ask the Community to step in, and that was in addition to requests from organisations responsible for running the relief operations - the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, and the International Committee of the Red Cross and the NGOs.
· Does the European Community operate in parallel with the Member States?
- The European Community operates in coordination with the Member States. We in ECHO are responsible for coordinating Community action with Member State action, which means, first of all, that we have to try and mobilise resources from the Member States on top of the Community contribution. That is the first job of coordination. The second is operational coordination. We need reciprocal, detailed information if we are to avoid duplication and waste in our relief operations. Sometimes this type of coordination goes a little further, with combined operations with both Community and Member States contributing to a specific, joint objective. I can give you a good example of that. As you know, there is an air-bridge between Zagreb and Sarajevo. It is not working for the moment, unfortunately, but it did work and, at the end of August, using planes from the Member States and various third countries, it shifted 7500 t of Community products - 70% of all consignments.
· Just how much aid does the Community supply ?
- We were out there in the field from the moment the crisis occurred - that was in October 1991 and we were out there from then until July - running ECU 169 million-worth of schemes. That is a fair amount and we were able to do a lot with it. In particular we ran a relief operation by road, which began in May, with something like 4000 trucks, and we shifted 80 000 t of relief with it. These are indirect schemes run through partners such as the High Commissioner, the Red Cross and so on, but we have just recently set up something new, ECHO's first direct operation. We do this ourselves, without the kind of partners I mentioned as intermediaries, and we ourselves are delivering food to Zagreb where we have set up a logistical base. At the moment we have a Task Force of a dozen people out there, taking delivery of the goods our contractors send using EAGGF funds allocated to us. The Task Force takes delivery of these goods and the municipalities then come and collect them in their own trucks. Our people go with the convoys and help with the distribution of the food, which has to be handed out as soon as it reaches its destination. We started with a test project and built on that and now we have about 32 000 t of relief which is going to be sent in the same way to refugees and displaced persons now in Croatia.
To go back to your question ' of how much aid the Community provides, let me add that a decision is now being taken on a further instalment of ECU 120 million. It may be a very large sum to manage but it won't cover all the needs, which are considerable. International aid of $600 million is expected to be needed by the end of the year. This latest instalment of ECU 120 million, plus the aid committed previously but not yet released, is going to give us roughly $300 million of it. We have asked the USA and other members of G24 for an extra contribution, because we - not ECHO, it's a special unit in DG1 which is in charge of this - are also responsible for coordination with G24. We are going to call on everyone so we can ensure rapid coverage of this need, which is crucial, because winter is already upon us.
· Where do you get your goods ?
- In the Community. We have various sources of credit, including one important one, the EAGGF, which funds supplies by its usual procedures - i.e. tenders for the delivery of Community goods, some of which come through the intervention system while some will soon be bought on the Community market. The contracts state that the goods have to be delivered to particular towns in the former Yugoslavia.
· You have mentioned the financial needs. There must be huge humanitarian needs in the field too. What are the biggest difficulties your people come up against on the spot ?
- The biggest problem, as everybody knows, is getting things through to Bosnia-Herzegovina. That is where the biggest problem is, because the needs there are enormous. Those needs have been identified. We know what is wanted and we know how much is wanted and the money is there, but if there is no freedom of access, the financial resources are of no use.
So, that is problem number one, currently, and it is being dealt with in other quarters, as you know.
· Can't your teams get to the 'hot spots'?
- So far, the organisations which we deal with, the UNHCR mainly that is to say, and the Red Cross, are finding it very difficult out there. I mean, the freedom of passage they sometimes manage to get is the result of a great deal of negotiating with all the different parties on the ground. In some cases the outcome of the negotiations is positive, but there is no guarantee of the secure ongoing supply that Bosnia-Herzegovina should have. We can only hope that the moves now being made to protect convoys will mean the problem can be settled.
· Have you any way of ensuring that the aid actually gets to the people who need it or is there a danger of it being diverted ?
- The operation has been under proper control so far, I think, and, when it comes to Community aid, that is because the humanitarian organisations I mentioned look after distribution right down to the last stage and they also have to put in reports and supporting documents, including receipts from the end distribution point. We can check on the spot as well as by examining the documents, because the Task Force in Zagreb not only runs the direct operation I mentioned, but supervises Community schemes financed through intermediaries too. We also have a coordinator in Belgrade who deals with this type of thing. So I think we are fairly well placed locally when it comes to monitoring the operations. I have already explained how we control the direct operation we are running in Croatia.
· There are hundreds of thousands of refugees in Croatia and Slovenia. What sort of state are they in ?
- The situation in Slovenia is under control, let us say. That country has done a good fob of looking after refugees and their standard of living is fairly high. Things in Croatia are satisfactory too, but the families housing the refugees and the public reception structures have run out of resources. In Croatia, you realise, and in the other republics too, a large percentage of the refugees are housed in families which find having these people in their homes a considerable psychological and financial burden. We have helped these families with parcels of food and other items in the past, and now, I think, the idea will be to do more in this direction, because by helping these families and helping this existing reception capacity, you can avoid creating problems else where. If one day these refugees decide to leave the families or the families say they can no longer stay there, what will happen is that the refugees will go and swell the ranks of those seeking shelter in the big centres and there will be all the problems that go with it - the opening of new centres, with problems and delays and extra financing. That has to be avoided at all costs. The other thing, in a country like Croatia, is that a lot of refugees have been put in hotels. But hotels are not charitable institutions and the Government has to pay and the Government structures responsible for paying have no money left either. The whole thing could collapse at any moment. So we have to hang onto this housing and give Government action more support than we have done so far. The most appalling situation, of course, the most difficult of all, is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we don't just have refugees and displaced persons, but victims of fighting and populations under siege as well. That is the very worst. There is no doubt about that.
· When relief is distributed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, do you make a distinction between those who may be aggressors and those who may be victims ?
- One of the big principles of Community aid, and of the aid which the humanitarian organisations hand out, is that no distinctions are made. All victims, whoever they are, regardless of ethnic origin, are eligible for Community assistance without discrimination. We get to refugees in all the republics, whichever they are.
· You mentioned the problem of all the refugees in neighbouring countries. Is the international community going to have to envisage rehousing them in countries other than their own one day ?
- The Community's position here is that everything must be done to keep the refugees as near to their place of origin as possible - which is of course why Europe is making this extraordinary effort to help them where they are, on the spot. As we know, though, some of them have still moved into neighbouring countries. Germany, for example, has made a big effort and is housing a lot of refugees. These issues haven't been solved. They crop up regularly and no common attitude to them has emerged so far.
· Winter is coming in the Balkans and people may not realise that it can be very hard in those countries. What is going to happen if no extra effort is made to help the refugees over there?
- There is a risk of more suffering and a further exodus if things cannot be put right - and that means food and treatment and housing. When I say that, I am thinking primarily of the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is why we must pull all the stops out to help house all these people decently, particularly with the next instalment of aid now being allocated, so they can get through the winter without too many adverse effects. I mentioned $600 million when talking about needs just now and a large percentage of it is indeed to cover this requirement for housing. Not only do we have to support the host families and the Government structures I have already referred to. We also have to renovate the centres. They are there, but they are not fit for winter. There is heating to install and prefabs have to be build in some places, and in some cases winter tents and blankets have to be supplied because it is clear that buildings cannot be put up in time.
· What do you think about troops being sent out to protect the humanitarian relief systems ? Has it created problems for you?
- It does create problems for our partner organisations. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees do not usually have soldiers to protect them when transporting and distributing relief. That is a very delicate issue and one which can also be linked to the right of intervention. But as I said, I hope that the moves being made at the moment will very soon show some positive results.
· For someone like you with many years ' experience of humanitarian relief, is the situation in what used to be Yugoslavia an unprecedented one or have you seen things like it at other times and in other places ?
- I don't want to dig up distant memories. I just have to think of the last major crisis, with the Kurds, where there was also a very difficult situation which has some things in common, many things in fact, with what is going on here. There was a conflict there too. There were armed forces, it was difficult to get to parts of the territory and the Kurd operation in fact taught us a lot. We have been able to draw from our experience there to help us in running our operations in Yugoslavia.
Interview by Robert ROWE