‘European social safety net eroded’: IFRC shocked by accumulated poverty data

The European Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are seeing a worrying poverty trend across the continent, in some areas reaching WWII proportions, Anitta Underlin, European director of the Red Cross told RT.

RT:Poverty has struck the European Union – about 43 million people suffer from material poverty. Why is the crisis so severe now?

Anitta Underlin: What we have seen since we did our first survey in 2009 and until 2013 is that the crisis is really taking root at the community level, at individual level and at household level to a different degree.

Because people today have used all of their savings, there is nothing left. Government budgets have been cut because government power is also under threat from the crisis. And that means that the whole security net to help the people is really getting eroded.

RT: What is the Red Cross doing to ease the situation?

AU: The Red Cross national societies across Europe – and we are present in 52 countries in the whole West Europe and East Europe – are responding with different measures. One of the very classical Red Cross/Red Crescent response mechanisms is the distribution of food, which has been increased by 75 percent since 2009.

And the reasons why food has been distributed in so many countries, including the EU countries, is that people often, even with small incomes will use all of their available funding to pay for their housing, electricity bill, heating bill and then when it comes to buying food for themselves and their children there is simply nothing left. And many of these families are surviving upon the assistance from the Red Cross/Red Crescent.

AFP Photo / Stephane de Sakutin

RT:Brussels is promising to reduce the number of people living in poverty to 20 million in Europe by 2020. Do you think it's possible given that the number is 6 times that figure now?

AU: Of course as we always say, it is very difficult to predict the future but what we know is that we are seeing a rapid decrease in what we call the middle class people. Basically in countries like Romania, like in Serbia where the middle class over the last period has been 20 percent. Today, when we measure it, is 10 percent. And that gives us an impression of how many people, who had fought their way to become the middle class in today’s society, now are falling back. And that is of course a worrying tendency that we see: the middle class that we know is the survival of society is getting reduced rapidly.

RT:The UK Red Cross has started asking for food donations for the first time since World War Two. Your general director compared the current situation with those days. Isn't it an exaggeration?

AU: I would say, for example, the British Red Cross, what they are doing right now and what they lost more than a month ago, is the biggest food distribution campaign since World War II. It is serious even for the ones of us working in this business on a daily basis. We were shocked when we saw the accumulated data across Europe. What we are trying to do with our report, which is called “Think Differently” is first and foremost to make the stakeholders aware at all levels how serious this situation actually is. Because that is the whole foundation to make real actions that can help to turn this development into a better direction.

RT:In the UK the number of people using food banks has tripled to 350,000 in the past year. And Britain is not the worst case. What about countries such as Greece and Romania?

AU: Yes it is completely correct. The countries that are hitting the media headlines - its Italy, its Greece, its Spain. And Spanish Red Cross is supporting 1.2 million people with food which is by all standards impressive.

Volunteers of the French charity Les Restos du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart) distribute on November 25, 2013 hot meals to homeless people in the streets of the eastern French city of Strasbourg. (AFP Photo / Frederic Florin)

However what we have to realize is that according to Eurostat these countries are not in the highest risk. It’s countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia where people are at a high risk of extreme poverty. So the crisis is widespread.

You can also go to countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan where traditionally a big part of their population are working abroad and sending home money to their families. Many of these people are the first ones to lose their jobs, once the crisis strikes. And that means that they return to their country, and often without any security net, not only themselves but also their families are hard hit by the crisis.

So what we can see is that crisis peaks in different parts of Europe, in different forms. But very few countries can tell that they are not in one way or another affected by this crisis.

RT:Europe's politicians say that "austerity" is the only way to get the finances back on track. Do you agree?

AU: We in the Red Cross/Red Crescent, we are not politicians but what we know and what research has shown is that in times of crisis, it is extremely important for example to keep the social and the health budgets and allocations at the same level. We know that demands for health services both physical and psychological are increasing in the time of crisis. We also know from research that countries that maintain the same level of these government budgets will recover quicker after the crisis. And the most extreme factor to prove this is that we see countries with suicide rates peeking at the same rate as the crisis.

So for us and one of our recommendations to government are to keep up the same level of health budgets and social care budgets in order to make the recovery pass for the society even more rapidly and easier.