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Humanitarian Crises

Humanitarian crises threaten the lives of millions of people worldwide in numerous countries, such as Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh, Venezuela, South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Triggered by events such as natural disasters, civil wars or epidemics, humanitarian crises are characterized by the fact that they endanger the health, well-being and safety of a large group of people. Malteser International is on the ground in various humanitarian crises and provides lifesaving aid.

At what point do we speak of a humanitarian crisis?

There is no single definition of a humanitarian crisis. A humanitarian crisis is usually referred to when one or more events deprive the population or parts of the population of a country of basic subsistence conditions such as access to water, food, shelter, medical care and education, and threaten the long-term health and security of the population. Events can be divided into three types, which are described in the following section.

Our emergency relief in Gaza

Due to the escalating Middle East conflict, the humanitarian situation for the civilian population in the Gaza Strip is life-threatening. The living conditions are catastrophic.

Together with the Order of Malta, Malteser International is working in cooperation with local partners to provide direct humanitarian aid to the population in need on the ground.

Find out more about the situation, our humanitarian work and help the people in need with your donation.

More information about the situation in Gaza & our help

The causes of humanitarian crises

The biggest causes of humanitarian crises are wars and violent conflicts, such as the civil war in Syria. But natural disasters like hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts as well as other extreme weather phenomena, such as "El Niño", can also lead to a humanitarian crisis. The following three types of humanitarian crisis can therefore be distinguished:

1. Man-made crises:

Examples of man-made crises include armed conflicts, nuclear disasters, train or plane crashes.

2. Disasters associated with natural hazards:

  • Geophysical (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions
  • Meteorological (e.g., storms, hurricanes, typhoons)
  • Hydrological (e.g., floods, inundations)
  • Climatic (e.g., droughts, forest fires)
  • Biological (e.g., epidemics, pest infestations)




3. Complex emergencies:

They often represent a combination of man-made and natural hazards and are often characterized by the spread of violence, consequent loss of life, profound damage to economies and societies, displacement of populations, and difficult conditions for humanitarian assistance.

Other factors may favor the emergence of humanitarian crises and, over time, may drastically intensify them, such as:

  • dilapidated economic and social systems,
  • persistent extreme poverty,
  • lack of access to food and water,
  • oppressive political systems,
  • educational poverty, and
  • urbanization.

The impact of humanitarian crises

The consequences of humanitarian crises are manifold and usually threaten the lives of the population in the affected areas.

In addition to the people who lose their lives as a direct result of a natural disaster or war, many people are still threatened by the medium and long-term effects of the crises long after the event, and are dependent on international aid and support for their survival. For 2020, the Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) reported a record 168 million people in need of humanitarian assistance worldwide.

Hunger is a consequence of humanitarian crises: For example, natural disasters such as droughts or plagues of locusts can destroy harvests – as has been the case in East-Africa – or the displacement of people due to violent conflicts can mean that fields can no longer be cultivated. In addition, there are many other causes of global hunger, which is also a humanitarian emergency in its own right.

The World Hunger Index (WHI) shows that the number of people suffering from hunger worldwide has increased from 785 million in 2015 to 822 million in 2018. Women and children are particularly affected by malnutrition. Improved access to health care has cut child deaths by nearly half since 2000. However, 6.2 million children under the age of 15 still died due to precarious living conditions in 2018, including 5.3 million children under the age of five.

Civil wars usually result in the destruction of the infrastructure of the affected countries, which in turn can lead to a collapse of the economic system, lack of access to food, drinking water, facilities such as hospitals and schools, or increasing poverty. The lack of education and prospects often leaves the political situation unstable and the country vulnerable to further crises.

Many humanitarian crises continue to be characterized by displacement. For example, following the violent persecution of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar in the summer of 2017, hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where some 860,000 people now live together in refugee camps near Cox's Bazar in dire conditions and cramped spaces. Lack of hygiene, poor access to clean water, food and medical care pose a constant threat to many people in camps and on the run. These desolate conditions are by no means limited to countries of the global south; currently, refugee camps in Greece, such as Moria on the island of Lesbos, are housing people under catastrophic conditions.

How we help people in a humanitarian crisis

Malteser International provides aid in humanitarian crises in countries in Africa, America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. In addition to immediate emergency aid in acute crisis situations, the development of sustainable solutions and disaster risk reduction also play a decisive role in helping people in the long term.

In acute crisis situations, the first priority is to ensure the survival of the population. Following a natural disaster, our emergency aid team is ready to be onsite as soon as possible after initially evaluating the overall situation and decision-making process on whether a team should be sent. In many cases, we are working closely with or through local partner organizations. Depending on the crisis and the need, medical (initial) care is then provided, food is distributed, or access to drinking water and shelter is ensured, in consultation with the United Nations, other aid organizations and the state.

In case of a disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) can send so-called Emergency Medical Teams (EMT), consisting of medical staff, logisticians, coordinators as well as experts for water and hygiene to the affected area. In 2018, Malteser International's Emergency Medical Team was certified by the WHO. It can be onsite within 72 hours to provide emergency medical assistance and basic health care.

In transitional aid, the aim is to find a way out of the acute crisis step by step and develop long-term measures that will sustainably improve people's living conditions. Important projects are, for example, rebuilding infrastructure, fighting diseases and their causes via better access to food and medical care, or improving water and sanitation.

In order to strengthen resilience and capacity, it is essential to adequately prepare the local population for future disasters. Many countries are under constant threat of a new crisis situation due to extreme weather phenomena or resurgent conflicts. Disaster risk reduction aims at developing emergency plans as well as protection and evacuation measures and training operations to be able to react quickly and effectively in the event of a crisis.

Emergency relief in the event of a crisis

After natural disasters, armed conflicts, and crisis situations, the lives of many people are threatened – especially in poorer regions. Many people have fled their homes, lost livelihoods, and live in extreme poverty. Local infrastructures are inadequate and food and basic medical care area lacking. Many people have no future prospects or opportunities.

In acute crisis situations, we provide fast and effective emergency relief based on local needs. To this end, we provide initial medical care, distribute food and other essential relief supplies. We also work to sustainably consolidate people's livelihoods and strengthen local resilience.

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The greatest humanitarian crises of recent years

South Sudan

In 2011, South Sudan celebrated its long-fought independence, but peace did not last long. Years of ethnic and political conflict have scarred the country. A dilapidated infrastructure and a lack of basic health, water and sanitation services have left the population in a state of perpetual destitution. To date, the civil war has claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 people. Around 6 million people – including more than 1 million children – suffer from hunger and malnutrition (as of 2/2020).


In March 2011, violence escalated in Syria, which has since been a war theater between the Assad government and many different armed groups. The number of dead since the beginning of the civil war is estimated at around 500,000, and more than 12 million people have fled or been displaced from their homes. Millions of people in and around Syria live in inhumane conditions and are in urgent need of aid. Although actors such as the Islamic State (IS) were largely pushed back in 2019, an end to the crisis is hardly in sight.

DR Congo

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, nearly 13 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid – after years of violent conflict, refugee movements, and the Ebola virus – including over 1.3 million children under the age of five. Food and drinking water are scarce, and countless people are malnourished and live in poverty.


On February 24, 2022, the unthinkable happens: Russia attacks Ukraine. There is war in Europe. The humanitarian consequences are immense: in April 2022, more than 5 million people have already fled Ukraine. More than 7 million people are on the run within the country. The need for humanitarian assistance is enormous. We are there for the suffering people from Ukraine and provide aid: with relief transports, hot meals, drinking water, blankets, psychosocial and medical care, and shelter.


Yemen is facing a severe humanitarian crisis. It has always been the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, but since the escalation of the civil war in 2014, the situation there has deteriorated dramatically. Aktion Deutschland Hilft (ADH) points to 24 million people in need of protection and humanitarian aid, including almost 16 million people at risk of starvation.

Other topics

World Humanitarian Summit: 5 years later

Five years ago, on May 23rd and 24th 2016, more than 9,000 representatives of states, humanitarian organizations, civil society and the private sector met in Istanbul at the initiative of the United Nations. Their goal: to strengthen and further develop international humanitarian aid. A key outcome of the World Humanitarian Summit is the final declaration, the Grand Bargain. In it, major donors and humanitarian organizations committed themselves to comprehensive measures to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian aid. We look back and ask: Where are we today?

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Forgotten crises

In the first period after the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis, the media usually report extensively from crisis regions. Afterwards, many disasters gradually disappear from the public spotlight. The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) compiled a list of forgotten crises for 2016, including countries such as Algeria, Egypt, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. Malteser International is working to bring these and other countries, such as Ukraine and Haiti, back into the public eye so that they can receive the humanitarian aid they need.

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Natural disasters

Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and droughts are among the biggest causes of humanitarian crises, and have increased significantly in recent years. Malteser International supports people in risk areas with preparedness and protection measures for future disasters.

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Refugees and displacement

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 70.8 million people worldwide are fleeing civil wars, the effects of climate change, poverty, or political, ethnic or religious persecution. With 12 million refugees and displaced persons, Syria represents one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Around 84 percent of these people are finding refuge in countries that are themselves struggling with poverty and resource scarcity, and are in urgent need of help there.

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Hunger in Africa

In Africa, more than 257 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition – especially affecting children. Malteser International is engaged in countries such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and Cameroon to create better living conditions for the people through sustainable food security projects, food aid, and ensuring access to drinking water and medical care.

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