Refugees and migrants are dying at gates of Europe as heavy snow hits the Balkans and Greece, UN warns
14 January, 2017
Refugees and migrants are dying of exposure as a result of the bitterly cold weather that has hit Greece and the Balkans, the United Nations warned on Friday.
Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures have hit the region, bringing misery to refugees stuck in camps on the Aegean islands, migrants living rough in Serbia and others tramping through mountains and forests near the Turkish border.
More than 60,000 refugees and migrants have been stuck in Greece since Balkan countries closed their borders last spring. Of those, 15,000 are stranded on five islands in the Aegean.
The UN’s refugee agency said there had been five deaths so far from the cold. Two Iraqi men, a Pakistani man and a young Somali woman died close to the Turkish border with Bulgaria, while a 20-year-old Afghan man died after crossing the Evros River on the Turkish border with Greece.
"Children are particularly prone to respiratory illnesses at a time like this. It's about saving lives, not about red tape and keeping to bureaucratic arrangements," Sarah Crowe, from the UNHCR, said in Geneva. "The dire situation right now is Greece."
Heavy snow has fallen on tents and containers accommodating refugees and migrants on Aegean islands such as Lesbos, Chios and Samos, where asylum seekers have been stuck for nearly a year after a deal struck between the EU and Ankara last March. On Samos, about 1,000 people, including children, are living in unheated dormitories and tents.
The Greek navy dispatched a warship to Lesbos this week to provide emergency accommodation for refugees. In Serbia, more than 1,000 migrants, including children, are sleeping rough in an abandoned warehouse in the capital, Belgrade.
Some refugees and migrants have reported being beaten up by police in the Balkans, while others had items of clothing taken – leaving them even less equipped to deal with the biting cold. "These practices are simply unacceptable and must be stopped,” said Cecile Pouilly of UNHCR.
The unusually cold weather in the Mediterranean and south-eastern Europe is being caused by a movement of cold air from Siberia which has reduced temperatures to five to 10 degrees Celsius lower than normal.
The United Nations Children's Fund, which provides humanitarian assistance, said that the bad weather has “increased the risks of outbreaks of influenza and acute respiratory infections, especially among children under five.
“Thousands of migrants and refugees are trapped in freezing conditions in shelters that are ill-adapted for winter in Greece and the Balkans.”
The European Commission has criticised conditions in which asylum-seekers are living on the Greek islands as "untenable."
Rania Askar, 31, a Syrian refugee, gave birth in a camp in Greece but her baby died just hours later. "I didn't know that there was something wrong with my pregnancy until the day I woke up bleeding. I am so sad, my heart is broken," she told Associated Press, standing in an alleyway with her four-year-old daughter Maya. "This wouldn't happen if I had a regular check-ups and was surrounded by my sisters in Germany," Mrs Askar said. "We are left alone here. We only have God."
The Greek authorities had failed to provide adequate winter accommodation for asylum seekers, said the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organisation. “While the Greek government has implemented some emergency measures this week, including a ship to host up to 300 refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, these can be considered short-term fixes. They are not an adequate long-term response,” the IRC said.
Government-run shelters in Serbia are full to capacity and the people living in the abandoned warehouse in Belgrade were in dire straits. “There are no services and they are at extraordinary risk of death by hypothermia,” the IRC said.
Panos Navrozidis, its country director in Greece, said: “Close to 10 months since the EU-Turkey deal was implemented, there is no excuse for the overcrowding we are seeing on the Greek islands. Vulnerable refugees and refugees with legitimate family reunification and asylum claims must be moved to appropriate sites on the mainland.”
Meanwhile, despite rough seas and freezing winter weather, migrants continue to try to cross the central Mediterranean from the coast of Libya in the hope of being rescued and brought to Italy. On Thursday around 800 migrants were rescued from six rubber dinghies by the Italian coast guard and two ships run by humanitarian groups.
A record 181,000 migrants, most of them Africans, reached Italy last year. EU leaders have warned that even more may arrive this year.
Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, who will host an EU summit on migration on Feb 3, predicted a dramatic increase in crossings once better weather arrives. "Come next spring, we will have a crisis," he said, forecasting "unprecedented" numbers. He has called for the EU to try to forge a deal with Libya to stop the exodus, but Libya is split between two rival governments and lawlessness has enabled smuggling gangs to operate with impunity.