22nd Nov 2019


EU milk aid to Syria: a 'Kafkaesque' story

  • The World Food Programme said EU-funded milk has reached over 600,000 Syrian children in the past two years (Photo: WFP)

An EU-funded programme providing Syrian children with milk bought from European farmers has ended as planned before the summer break, but it was a challenging project which faced delays and red tape, according to internal documents made public at the request of EUobserver.

One internal email, sent by an EU civil servant from the Damascus office, spoke of "Kafkaesque administrative hurdles" put up by the Syrian government in the war-torn country.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 year's of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

  • The milk which the Syrian children received was produced in Portugal and Ireland (Photo: WFP)

"The purchase and import of milk from European Union origin into Syria was a complex and lengthy process given the lead-time of the milk shipment's arrival to the port, coupled with the government of Syria's rules and regulations for food and import of food into the country," said a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP), which took care of the distribution.

Both the European Commission and the WFP saw the two-year programme, which reached more children than initially announced, as a success.

However, as of this September, Syrian school children will have to get used to not receiving cartons of milk anymore: The WFP has not had any new financial contributions that would allow it to continue the programme in the new academic year.

It is also unclear if the measure made any meaningful impact on European farmers, one of the two goals of the project.

Agriculture policy + humanitarian aid

The plan was conceived in the summer of 2015 in Brussels when two policy challenges emerged at EU level in parallel.

There was the large influx of refugees entering the European Union, and there were protesting farmers who were feeling the effects of the end of the EU's milk quotas.

As part of a broader €500m aid package to farmers, the commission announced that €30m would be used to buy milk from European farmers, and distribute them among migrants.

"In identifying appropriate measures for the benefit of farmers, we cannot ignore the impact of this unprecedented humanitarian challenge, and we must see how our actions to stabilise the market can contribute to our solidarity efforts," said EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan in September 2015.

It took some time before the idea, which the commission itself acknowledged was an unprecedented attempt at creating synergy between EU policies, took its final shape.

"It was a one-off and difficult humanitarian operation, so it took some time to develop," said a commission spokesman.

At the end of March 2016, the commission announced that the milk-buying scheme would benefit Syrian school children, rather than migrants.

Two months later, the World Food Programme submitted a proposal to implement the plan - the commission normally outsources the actual aid work to organisations in the field such as the WFP.

The WFP already had a programme through which it distributed date bars to school children, who have suffered from lack of nutrition caused by the war. With the EU contribution, the WFP added cartons of milk to that aid effort.

Red tape

The WFP spokeswoman told EUobserver that the operation would not have been possible without the help of the Syrian government.

However, internal reports and emails from the WFP to the EU showed that the aid workers quickly ran into problems with Syrian red tape.

A WFP email from 19 September 2016 - all names have been redacted as is custom with EU access to documents regulations - said that the WFP had planned for the first batch of milk to arrive at Syria's Lattakia port in mid-August.

"However, due to challenges faced with Syrian customs regulations, the first shipment is currently held up at the port of origin (Portugal) and is expected to arrive in Syria by early October," the WFP email said.

The milk also had to be tested by Syrian authorities - which could take up to 21 days - risking that this process was finished only when schools had closed for the winter.

The WFP decided that part of the milk should be distributed through its general food distribution programme. It still went to children, but not necessarily to school children.

The EU accepted the WFP's solution.

"Basically the alternative would have been the destruction of the milk, which … could have had disastrous consequences for the partner and Echo," said a 2 February 2017 email from the commission's Damascus office.

Echo is the abbreviation of the commission's directorate-general for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

The fix remained an exception. Eventually less than 10 percent of the milk was distributed to the WFP's general programme.

Six ministries

Frustration with Syrian red tape persisted.

Syrian law normally did not allow the import of liquid milk from non-Arab countries, but the WFP had received an exemption.

Getting the milk imported required WFP officials to deal with no less than six Syrian ministries, however.

In May 2017, Syria changed the official specifications for milk and its packages.

"The procurement of milk for the 2017-18 academic year was initiated in June 2017," said an WFP update sent in October 2017.

"However, it suffered significant delays following a revision of the official Syrian specifications for milk, which forced WFP to temporarily put on hold the tendering process to review the revised specifications and ensure its ability to comply," the update said.

It was also sometimes not possible to cover all intended regions, because of the civil war.

Distribution to the north-eastern governorate Al Hasakeh, for example, ceased because fighting in Raqqa made distribution only possible via airlifts.

It is unclear which schools benefited from the scheme, because a list accompanying the documents had been completely redacted at WFP's request, possibly because of security concerns.

However, according to the last of a series of monthly reports to the commission, the WFP reached some 610,833 children in 12 of Syria's 14 governorates.

Most of them were government-controlled.

"You need storage capacity and logistics in a war-torn country where there are air strikes. It was a challenging project, but in the end it was really well implemented," said the commission spokesman.

In April 2017, the WFP was forced to destroy one pallet of milk, containing 0.668 metric tonnes, because the shelf life had expired by the time authorities had given authorisation.

In January this year, the WFP sent the commission a report about new delays it faced.

"The delays are mainly linked to the legalisation process of the milk shipments, requested by the Syrian authorities. This process requires the receipt of original shipping documents, which have to be signed by several countries and consulates," said the WFP report.

The programme ended in spring 2018, at the end of the academic year.

The number of children is almost double what the commission announced in March 2016.

Irish and Portuguese milk

The volume of distributed milk has also been more than expected, due to fluctuating milk prices. Instead of the planned 17,500 metric tonnes, the WFP was able to buy 19,237 metric tonnes.

The milk was procured from companies in Ireland and Portugal, which had both had financial problems and required EU bailouts, but the commission did not want to comment on the record on whether farmers from those countries needed additional income the most.

"The measure also provided a useful outlet for EU dairy producers at a difficult time in the dairy market," a commission spokesman said in an email.

Since the milk was acquired through a public tender, it was rather the companies with the best offer that became the successful bidders.

Meanwhile, the volumes were too small to make an impact on the milk price, said two dairy farmers' associations.

Pat McCormack, president of Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, said that it of course supported programmes to help feed victims of the Syrian conflict.

"But in terms of impact on volumes and therefore price, the amount involved in this arrangement was very marginal and wouldn't have mattered even before quota abolition - much less after," said McCormack.

He noted that Irish milk production for 2015 climbed from 6,395m litres to 6,653.8m litres in 2016.

"Set against those kinds of increases on already significant volumes, 17,500 tonnes-odd of UHT milk is in no way material", said McCormack, referring to the sterilisation process at Ultra-high temperature (UHT).

"We believe that the aid package was an important support for the Syrian children, but we don't see any mayor impact for farmers", said Regina Reiterer, agricultural policy adviser at the European Milk Board, a Brussels-based lobby group for dairy farmers.

The EU's biggest agricultural lobby group, Copa-Cogeca, said it believed dairy farmers had benefited directly from the milk purchases, which occurred through cooperatives.

"The aim was not to give cash handouts directly to farmers, but to ensure a resilient market situation, where the dairy sector could continue to thrive," said a Copa-Cogeca spokesman.

No one to fill the gap

What's next? For the EU, the programme was always supposed to be temporary.

The commission said that its lasting contribution had been that EU money allowed the creation of a logistical chain from EU farmers to Syrian children.

"This logistical chain has been delivered. It will be easier for other operators to take over," said a commission spokesman.

But for now, no organisation has stepped in to fill the gap.

"Currently no contributions have been made that would enable WFP to provide milk in the upcoming academic year beginning September," said the WFP spokeswoman.

EU still not delivering on milk-for-migrants

The European Commission floated the idea in September of buying dairy products from struggling European farmers to distribute to refugees, but the scheme is not yet up and running.


Aid, migration and the next EU budget

Th next EU budget is the most pivotal opportunity to advance a vision for Europe rooted in human rights and that builds a Union that works for all its members.


Next EU aid budget - less private finance tools, please

EU foreign ministers meets on Monday to discuss the most contentious part - private finance tools - of aid in the 2021-2027 budget. We believe private companies have a role - but with strict conditions.

News in Brief

  1. EU parliament votes on new commission next week
  2. Berlusconi wants Europe to be a military global power
  3. Orban ordered to apologise over 'misleading' Soros survey
  4. EPP to decide on expelling Fidesz by end of January
  5. Rowdy anti-corruption protest in Malta
  6. Ambassador: Trump ordered Ukraine election meddling
  7. EU links Libyan government to human trafficking
  8. Greek PM on migration: 'Greece has reached its limits'


How Apple lobbied EU to delay common smartphone charger

iPhones and Android products don't use the same charger. This is annoying for consumers and harmful for the environment. Old chargers produce more than 51,000 tons of electronic waste per year.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  3. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  5. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  6. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  7. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  9. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021

Latest News

  1. EPP congress pledges 'moderate' climate solution
  2. EPP wants to re-open accession talks with Balkans
  3. New EU financial instruments needed
  4. Binding measures to expand gender balance
  5. Watershed moment for rule of law in Hong Kong
  6. EU Africa envoy: Europe needs to look beyond migration
  7. New calls for Muscat to resign over journalist's murder
  8. Tusk pledges 'fight' for EU values as new EPP president

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us