Families Stranded in Freezing Temperatures in Greece and the Balkans

FAIRFIELD, Conn (January 10, 2017) – Dozens of migrants and refugees are at risk of freezing to death in Europe if immediate action is not taken, Save the Children is warning after recent heavy snows and bitterly cold temperatures hit Greece and the Balkans.

So far, more than 40 people[1] – including several refugees and migrants - have reportedly died in the region as a result of the Arctic weather. Children and babies are among the thousands trapped without proper access to heat and shelter in the region and are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia. Many are living in poorly equipped migrant camps, in abandoned buildings, or on snow-filled streets.

In Belgrade, hundreds of unaccompanied children, some as young as 10 and 11 years old are among the 1,200[2] refugees and migrants sleeping in abandoned buildings and warehouses, and the numbers continue to rise.

Temperatures have dropped to below 15 degrees, and the buildings have no windows, beds, water, or toilets. People are sleeping on the floor and facing further dangers by building fires to keep warm.

Many have no gloves or proper shoes and cases of frostbite have been reported.[3] Hygiene is also shockingly poor, with improvised toilets and spots for waste disposal located near where refugees and migrants eat, sleep and spend their time.

In northern Greece, an Afghan refugee froze to death in temperatures plummeting to 5 degrees. In Bulgaria, the Ministry of Interior said that the body of a Somali woman was found frozen along the country’s southern border. Media also reported that two Iraqi men were found frozen to death on Friday in a forest in southeast Bulgaria.

"The EU’s failure to respond is leaving thousands of refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied children, literally out in the cold. The lack of political will to offer asylum seekers safe and legal alternatives to reach other countries in Europe, including the reunification of separated children and families, means that refugees and migrants who have survived years of war, violence, and deadly journeys to safety are now freezing to death on Europe’s doorstep," said Andreas Ring, Save the Children’s Balkans representative. "Immediate access to appropriate shelter is needed for all refugees and migrants, regardless of their status, to prevent unnecessary loss of life, particularly for children."

The EU’s agreement with Turkey has left people in desperate conditions. In mainland Greece, thousands are stuck in industrial warehouses that are unfit for living, let alone in sub-zero temperatures. On the Greek islands, more than 16,000 refugees are living in crowded camps - most out in the open and bitterly exposed with tents already collapsing under the snow. Conditions in Moria detention center on the island of Lesvos are particularly dire, with at least 4,000 people crammed behind the barbed wire fences in a facility designed for only 2,000. A long term solution will require an acceleration in the asylum process in Greece and the claims for relocation to other EU countries.

"It is clear the EU’s policy has failed and there is a total inability to plan ahead," Ring said. "Last winter, refugees’ tents were sinking into the mud at the informal campsite of Idomeni at the Greek border with FYROM. Now tents are sinking in snow in the camps to which they were transferred. For asylum seekers, that’s about the only change they’ve seen in the past 12 months, despite endless promises. Yet, in a tell-tale sign of conditions back home people continue to arrive in the Balkans, in spite of the EU’s attempts to deter, deport and detain them."

In Serbia, Save the Children estimates that 80-100 people enter the country daily, on top of the 7,200 refugees and migrants currently stranded there. In Greece, an average of 54[4] people continued to arrive daily in December, causing a massive build-up on the islands, where 63,000[5] asylum seekers are already stranded.

Ring added: "The EU can change the situation of these people, but is unwilling to do so. By ensuring safe and regular ways to reach EU member states, speeding up access to asylum procedures and investing in dignified reception conditions, especially for the most vulnerable, many more deaths can be prevented."

Save the Children works directly and through partner organizations in Greece, FYROM, Serbia and Croatia to provide children with psychosocial support to help them deal with the trauma they experienced. Save the Children also works with pregnant women and new mothers to provide nutrition and breastfeeding support, and its shelters for unaccompanied minors house children waiting to be relocated or reunified with their families elsewhere in Europe.

[1] https://www.france24.com/en/ (AFP)
[2] http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNHCRSerbiaUpdate02-08Jan17%5B1%5D.pdf
[3] http://www.itv.com/news/2017-01-10/thousands-of-refugees-at-risk-of-hypothermia-and-frostbite-living-in-20c-in-serbia
[4] http://reliefweb.int/report/greece/greece-data-snapshot-31-december-2016
[5] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean

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