For the umpteenth time, UNHCR has raised the alarm about the conditions of migrants confined to the Aegean Islands, where the situation has become deadly after a cold snap struck Greece and the Balkans. “It’s clear that people would be better off on the mainland and should be moved there more quickly and in larger numbers,” a UNHCR spokesperson said, though there’s been no response so far.
Refugees are coping with the drop in temperatures living in tent cities or in bungalows for summer tourists, or they’re crammed into reception centers overcrowded with thousands of men, women and children. They’re forced to stay put because the roads are icy and surrounded by mud and snow, and they rely on the help of the many NGOs that have been distributing blankets and clothes.
A European Commission spokesman called the situation “untenable,” careful, however, to make clear that it would not interfere with Greek affairs. “It is up to Athens to ensure the proper welcome,” he said.
There are about 62,000 refugees in Greece, almost all of them Syrians, according to official estimates. Fifteen thousand of those are in the Aegean Islands. The harshest living conditions have been recorded in Lesvos, where in recent days some migrants housed in a camp were transferred to hotels in the area.
The government has also sent a warship equipped with beds, blankets and stoves for 500 people. The operation, however, is lagging behind because refugees are afraid to board for fear of being transferred to other islands or even sent to Turkey, the country from which many departed. Furthermore, having fled conflict, some were anxious to see a warship. “Why didn’t they use a ferry?” asked one aid worker interviewed by the Greek press.
Although there are difficult situations in the camps in the north of the country, they are still relatively more dignified and safe. But the Greek government does not seem inclined toward the most obvious solution: namely, to move refugees from the islands into structures on the mainland. That decision seems determined by Brussels and the E.U. member states, which prefer to know the refugees are locked on islands rather than a step closer to Northern Europe. They also have in mind their agreement with Turkey, which allows for deportations only of those migrants who’ve landed on the Aegean Islands and haven’t left.
As usual, those paying the highest price for Europe’s inertia are the poor, women and children — the latter especially. Save the Children has drawn attention to the dire conditions under which they are forced to live, not only in Greece but throughout the Balkans.
“The lack of political will to offer asylum or reunify separated children and families, means these human beings, who have survived years of war, violence and deadly journeys to safety, are now freezing to death on Europe’s doorstep,” a Save the Children campaign director told The Telegraph.
Beyond Greece, this emergency concerns Serbia in particular, where, according to Doctors Without Borders, there are at least 8,500 migrants. The organization has counted 6,000 places available in the reception centers set up by the government. But of these, they warn, only 3,140 are equipped for the winter.
In the capital, Belgrade, where in one week the temperature can fluctuate 15-20 degrees in the dead of night, more than 2,000 migrants are living in abandoned warehouses. Many are suffering from respiratory infections and skin diseases from the harsh temperatures, and there have been seven cases of hypothermia that Doctors Without Borders treated along with Medicins du Monde.
Last week in Athens and on the islands, refugees witnessed a few hours of lukewarm sun. But the forecasts for this week call for plummeting temperatures and precipitation. “There will be a further decrease in temperatures and we are very worried about what could happen,” UNHCR said.
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