The plight of asylum-seekers in limbo on the Greek island of Lesbos has been making media headlines. The lucky few rescued by Pope Francis have escaped over-crowded, makeshift camps, without clean water, necessary medicines or access to legal advice.

Behind the scenes, to help the small island’s authorities cope with the influx of asylum seekers and migrants, two new accommodation centres are being built, with a 2 million euro loan from the Council of Europe Development Bank. The centres will provide 100 much-needed places, with 40 reserved for unaccompanied children. They are due to be finished by the autumn. 

This is just one of the projects supported by the Development Bank, which has spent the last 60 years investing in projects that foster social inclusion and help Europe’s most vulnerable people. It is Europe’s oldest multilateral development bank and the only one with an entirely social purpose. The Bank was created in 1956, at a time when WWII had displaced an estimated 30 million people, their numbers swelled by refugees from Eastern Europe fleeing to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Initially a European resettlement fund – founded by Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg and Turkey – it was set up to ‘help in solving the social problems’ faced by European countries in resettling refugees, migrants and displaced people or enabling them to return to their home countries. 

Its priorities have evolved in line with changing needs: from the construction of new homes in the 1950s and vocational training for migrants in the 1960s, to rural development and urban renewal in the 1970s and investment in the fledgling democracies of Portugal, Spain and Greece in the 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, support for central and eastern European countries and the resettlement of refugees took centre stage, following the conflicts in former Yugoslavia.

Today, the bank funds projects in four main areas: strengthening social integration, managing the environment, investing in public infrastructure with a social purpose and supporting micro, small and medium-sized businesses. In 2015, in response to the biggest influx of refugees into Europe since WWII, the Bank set up its emergency Migrant and Refugee Fund, principally to enable its member countries to build, improve and run reception and transit centres, to ensure refugees and migrants are safe, with adequate food, shelter and medical aid. It can also contribute to the integration of migrants and refugees. The bank has itself set aside 5 million euros for the Fund and a further 13.7 million euros have been pledged.  Overall in 2015, the bank approved projects totalling 2.3 billion euros, an 11% increase on 2014. More than 700 million euros were allocated to environmental projects, particularly to those dealing with the long-term prevention of emergencies and improving home energy efficiency. How does it work? Loans are made to local and regional authorities, financial institutions and governments of the Bank’s member states, with priority given to countries in greatest need. Projects are monitored; there are on-site visits and final reports. Member states make a financial contribution on joining, but the loans are funded through borrowing. And, with its AA+ rating, the bank can raise funds on very competitive terms.

Overall, the Bank’s work helps build strong, cohesive societies across our continent. It creates jobs in disadvantaged regions and provides affordable ‘micro’ loans for businesses. It enables poorer cities to provide affordable housing and modernise their schools and its support for the voluntary sector provides work for people with disabilities. Its involvement in the Regional Housing Programme in the Western Balkans is helping rehouse families displaced in the 1990s conflict. It invests in sustainable transport, the rehabilitation of historic and cultural sites and public infrastructure, from detention facilities to fire stations. The list goes on…

The need for the Development Bank remains as strong today as it was in 1956. We still need to build inclusive societies to ensure our democracies are strong and resilient. There will be challenges in the future, but I am confident that the Bank will continue to adapt and that it will still be helping its member countries build a better Europe in 2056.