LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Five years ago it would have been unimaginable to see Europeans queuing for food in soup kitchens, receiving food parcels at home or shopping at specially-designated grocery stores stocked with low-cost food.
Yet that is the reality for millions of people living in one of the wealthiest regions in the world, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a report launched on Thursday.
The global financial crisis of 2008 has left Europe facing a humanitarian emergency on a scale not seen since the 1950s and its impact may be felt for decades to come, warned the IFRC.
"Europe is facing its worst humanitarian crisis in six decades," IFRC Secretary General Bekele Geleta said in a statement. "Millions of people's lives have been thrown into turmoil over the past five years and there seems to be a gradual degradation, with many existing on a day-to-day basis, having no savings and no buffer to withstand unforeseen expenses."
The crisis has increased the number of people living in poverty, widened the gap between rich and poor and spurred more people to ask for food aid and other kinds of assistance such as job training and help to fill in forms for benefits.
The international humanitarian network said the number of people depending on Red Cross food distributions in 22 European countries had soared by 75 percent between 2009 and 2012 to 3.5 million.
It said the 'working poor' – working people whose incomes are not enough to make ends meet – were regularly seeking help from the Red Cross at the end of the month, unable to buy food or pay their gas or electricity bill.
"Many National Societies have increased their domestic assistance to help people in their own countries. These include countries in western Europe that have traditionally focused more on international assistance," Geleta added.
In Latvia, food aid has more than trebled. In France, more than 350,000 people have fallen into poverty.
In Italy, the number of homeless people is rising and in Milan, its commercial hub, 50,000 people are receiving rice, pasta, cheese, biscuits, milk and grain through the Red Cross.
The report singled out the Spanish Red Cross, which it said had expanded and changed its services like no other national Red Cross or Red Crescent society in Europe.
Last year, the Spanish Red Cross launched its first ever national appeal for funds called 'Ahora más que Nunca' (Now more than ever), and in the past four years, the number of people it has helped has risen to 2.4 million from 900,000.
To cope with the crisis, the IFRC recommended that social safety nets be guaranteed, drastic or indiscriminate cuts to healthcare and social service budgets be avoided and the provision of mental healthcare services be increased – among other things.
"As an organisation, we are committed to assisting people in both the short and longer term," said Anitta Underlin, IFRC Director for Europe in the report. "At the same time, we see a danger in turning millions into passive recipients of help," she added.