Bosnia and Herzegovina + 1 more

Why relief must not be a cover-up

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by John Sparrow in Warsaw
Floods are eating away at Central Europe's social fabric, exacerbating poverty and hampering human development in countries burdened with social and economic transition. Billions of euros are poured into relief but far too little is done to prevent disasters and the crippling social, economic and personal losses they bring.

The imbalance weighed heavily on the minds of many as Red Cross National Societies gathered in Warsaw, Poland, this weekend for an annual Central Europe Partnership Meeting with a litany of ills to consider. Among them, Europe's largest population of refugees and internally displaced people still seek durable solutions in Yugoslavia. Poverty and faltering state social welfare bring increasing need to Red Cross doors across the region. Support and protection for migrants and asylum seekers are critical as abuse and xenophobia grow in Europe, and intravenous drug use threatens a rapid spread of HIV.

A reminder that floods are occurring with ever greater frequency and severity was not needed. The inundation of the region this summer left dozens of people dead, damage estimated at 20 billion euros, and an incalculable loss of livelihood. But there was more to consider in the Polish capital. The Albanian Red Cross warned that a desperate winter awaited thousands of rural people caught up in late September floods, the worst the country has seen in decades.

Support from partner societies is coming in for an Albanian Red Cross operation to help 20,000 people safely through the winter. But the aggravated social deprivation the flooding has brought to one of Europe's poorest countries will remain. Even conservative estimates concede that a quarter of Albania's 3.1 million people live below the poverty line, unemployment is chronic and poverty is feeding appalling undernourishment. For many of the country's most needy the floods have washed away the fragile hope that remained.

In Warsaw, the Red Cross debated how to strengthen its own performance in the face of increasing disaster, how to assess needs better and faster, how to beef up community disaster preparedness, and how to bring pressure to bear on those who should prevent catastrophe.

In the wake of the August floods, the European Commission announced that a billion-euro fund would be set up to tackle future disasters. Michaele Schreyer, the European Union Commissioner for budgetary affairs, said the floods had clearly shown that people expect the EU to be on hand with financial help following calamitous events. Such moves are rightly applauded but relief must not cover up the failure of states to avert human suffering in the first place.

Behind Red Cross discussion in Warsaw was the knowledge that the floods are far from natural disasters. The hand of man is visible in more than the climate change that helps trigger such catastrophe. Environmental degradation, deforestation and the disrepair of infrastructure have all been contributing factors. River banks and defences have been neglected for years in some states. Elsewhere the diversion of rivers from natural courses, and the bypassing of meandering stretches have all had consequences. Defences preventing rivers from flowing into natural floodplains - often to allow the building of homes and industry - have caused dangerous downstream pressures. Albania's disaster was bigger for the fact that uncontrolled migration of the poor to low-lying areas produced new flood-prone settlements.

Sune Follin, the International Federation's regional disaster prevention and preparedness delegate, summed up the Warsaw feeling. "The amount from disaster budgets spent on reducing risk is so low it is scandalous," he said. "We need inter-governmental cooperation in Central Europe to ease the flood threat. States share river systems and drainage areas so the solutions must be regional. Until we get some proper prevention strategy the flood toll will go on rising."

Rising, too, are the numbers of migrants passing through the region, many of them being smuggled. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Yugoslavia are among the countries with the greatest challenges, finding themselves once more on a migrant crossroads. As normality returns to the region, a traditional Balkan route is re-emerging. Post-conflict countries in transition, coupled with liberal visa regimes, porous borders and under-developed migration management, provide convenient passage to European countries with developed asylum systems.

Up to 50,000 migrants a year pass through Bosnia and Herzegovina, heading for Western Europe, and last year Croatia said the numbers crossing its borders illegally were double those recorded in 2000. At the same time the introduction of new asylum legislation and procedures conforming to international standards is likely to bring increased numbers of asylum applications. Besides working for the successful repatriation of refugees and the internally displaced, the Red Cross National Societies in these countries agreed last year to defend the rights of asylum seekers and contribute to the development of a just asylum process.

The Warsaw meeting brought one more migration topic on to the agenda: human trafficking. Last year worldwide, four million people - most of them women and children - were trafficked, and several Central European routes are prominent. One leads through the Balkans, where victims are sold to brothels and on markets, and continues via Slovenia and Hungary to European Union countries. Another route from Moscow and Belarus passes through Poland, and traffickers of Far Eastern victims commonly use the Czech Republic and Slovakia or Hungary to reach Western Europe's flesh markets.

Trafficking, the Warsaw meeting agreed, is a law enforcement issue but also a humanitarian problem. Red Cross strategy has yet to be developed but action has begun. Red Cross safe houses for women who escape forced prostitution already exist in Central Europe.

If the issues in Warsaw reflected one thing it was a Red Cross grappling with a changing humanitarian environment to stay by the side of the most vulnerable, be they flood victims, migrants, sex workers or drug addicts. Today in Central Europe, intravenous drug use presents the greatest risk of a rapid spread of HIV, and harm reduction also made the agenda. Red Cross harm reduction programmes, such as the exchange of needles and syringes, are increasing in the region. Protecting drug users from blood-related disease, a working group agreed, also protects the community. Warsaw reflected, too, a Red Cross unafraid of controversy.