By Madeline O'Leary
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe plans to deploy some 10,000 humanitarian workers to help in disaster zones across the world, the European Commission said on Wednesday, creating a volunteer organization similar to the U.S. Peace Corps program.
Partly inspired by the overseas volunteer scheme established by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the European Union wants to set up its own European Voluntary Corps to send young Europeans abroad to do humanitarian work, starting in 2014.
The European Union is a major donor of aid and long-term reconstruction in the world's disaster areas, but has at times been criticized for not being seen doing enough on the ground - most notably after the Haiti earthquake of 2010, when images of U.S. emergency aid workers were beamed around the world.
"There is a need to train and deploy volunteers to reinforce existing humanitarian aid organizations," Kristalina Georgieva, the EU's top official for humanitarian aid, told a news conference.
"The presence of workers gives hope," said Georgieva, who is the commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, adding that the initiative will have a budget of 239 million euro ($312 million) between 2014 and 2020.
As many as 450 million people were affected by emergencies and disasters in 2011, but only about 270,000 humanitarian workers were available to help, the European Commission's research shows.
The European Union's Lisbon treaty - a kind of constitution for the 27-country bloc - calls for the creation of a humanitarian aid corps and the plan has the support of more than 80 percent of Europeans, according to a recent EU survey.
The idea has been pushed by Greece in particular.
With one in every two young Greeks out of work, Athens says the corps may provide an opportunity to keep young and active minds and hands busy between the end of formal education and long-term employment.
The U.S. Peace Corps has sent nearly 200,000 Americans around the world over the past 50 years, with largely positive results for the image of their home country abroad.
Violence in war zones and flashpoints raise questions about the safety of volunteers once they have been deployed. Last week's wave of protests across the Middle East and attacks on U.S. Embassies in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Sudan highlighted the dangers.
But Commissioner Georgieva said most volunteers would not be sent into conflict situations and would work under "a great deal of security".
"The majority of our humanitarian workers will be deployed in post-disaster situations and in areas that need help with preparedness and prevention," she said.
A smaller group of volunteers with a higher professional capacity could be sent to help in conflict areas.
"Yes, the (aid) workers are affected, but the civilians are affected more than anything else," she said.
Volunteers, who will need to be 18 or older and must be either EU nationals or long-term residents, will have to go through a training program before deployment and will work closely with other humanitarian organizations.
(Reporting by Madeline O'Leary; editing by Robin Emmott and Rex Merrifield)