02. November 2015 · Kommentare deaktiviert für „Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe“ · Kategorien: Balkanroute, Deutschland, Frankreich, Griechenland

Quelle: The Guardian

From Lesbos to Lapland, refugees are bracing for a winter chill that many will never have experienced before. Some will have to endure it outside

Words by Julian Borger and Andrew MacDowall in Brežice, Amelia Gentleman in Calais, Kate Connolly in Berlin, David Crouch in Gothenburg, Frances Perraudin in Lesbos, and Sofia Papadopoulou in Idomeni

Record numbers of migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in October – just in time for the advent of winter, which is already threatening to expose thousands to harsh conditions.

The latest UN figures, which showed 218,000 made the perilous Mediterranean crossing last month, confirm fears that the end of summer has not stemmed the flow of refugees as has been the pattern in previous years, partly because of the sheer desperation of those fleeing an escalating war in Syria and other conflicts.

The huge numbers of people arriving at the same time as winter is raising fears of a new humanitarian crisis within Europe’s borders. Cold weather is coming to Europe at greater speed than its leadership’s ability to make critical decisions. A summit of EU and Balkan states last week agreed some measures for extra policing and shelter for 100,000 people.

But an estimated 700,000 refugees and migrants, have arrived in Europe this year along unofficial and dangerous land and sea routes, from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, north Africa and beyond. Tens of thousands, including the very young and the very old, find themselves trapped in the open as the skies darken and the first night frosts take hold. Hypothermia, pneumonia and opportunistic diseases are the main threats now, along with the growing desperation of refugees trying to save the lives of their families.

Fights have broken out over blankets, and on occasion between different national groups. Now sex traffickers are following the columns of refugees, picking off young unaccompanied stragglers.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is distributing outdoor survival packages, including sleeping bags, blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes and shoes, but the number of people it can reach is limited by its funding, which has so far been severely inadequate. Volunteer agencies have tried to fill the gaping hole in humanitarian provisions in Europe.

Peter Bouckaert, the director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, said that all the way along the route into Europe through the Balkans “there is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes, and medical assistance.”

Europe has found itself ill-prepared to deal with its biggest influx of refugees since the second world war. It is hurriedly improvising new mechanisms so that it can respond collectively as a continent rather than individual nations, but it is a race against time and the elements – a race Europe is not guaranteed to win.

“There is a risk of collapse,” said Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief. “Because when you’re facing a challenge and you don’t have the instruments to do it, you risk failing. So it could be that if we don’t manage to create common instruments to deal with this on a European level, we fall back on the illusion that we can face it through national instruments, which we see very clearly doesn’t work.

Mogherini added: “Either we take this big step and adapt … or yes, we do have a major crisis. I would say even an identity crisis.”

Lesbos, Greece

Many presumed the influx of refugees to Lesbos would start to slow with the arrival of winter, but there’s no evidence that the numbers are falling.

The island, with its 85,000 inhabitants, saw the arrival of 111,000 migrants last month alone. People are no less willing to make the dangerous journey across the Aegean from Turkey to Greece, and there is anecdotal evidence that traffickers offer discounts to those prepared to cross when the seas are rough. But colder weather will not only make the crossing more dangerous, according to Kate O’Sullivan, of Save the Children, the threat to life will also come from the conditions inside the camps.

The weekend before last saw a storm hit the island and at the Moria camp, near the capital Mytilini, adults and children passed out with hypothermia, some with gangrene setting in on their limbs. Parents had resorted to wrapping their children in rubbish bags to try to keep them dry.

“That was after just three days of rain and there is no sign of these numbers [of refugees] letting up,” said O’Sullivan. “Those three days were really quite shocking because we got a glimpse of what was coming.”

Although it reached 17C on the island on Tuesday, as the light began to fade that evening the temperature plummeted. At the Kara Tepe camp, which houses up to 2,000 mainly Syrians, there was very little to protect refugees against colder weather.

Shivering families huddled around make-shift camp fires, while adults frantically searched for blankets or additional clothing for the children. Any available shelter in the tents and pre-fabs provided had been claimed earlier that day, leaving new arrivals to make up beds on the cold ground using bits of cardboard as insulation.

Those lucky enough to have been given the heavy, grey blankets handed out by the UNHCR had been instructed not to let them out of their sight. Lesbos is likely to be the warmest place they experience as they make their journey through Europe to find a new home.

Idomeni, Greece

Idomeni is a small, remote village at the borders of Greece with Macedonia. A once quiet place has turned into one of the main migrant crisis spots.

Not long ago, after a decision by the Macedonian police to close the borders temporarily, this area was a chaotic scene of police pushback against thousands of refugees trying to cross the border making their way to Europe. Even in more quiet times, many migrants had to stay in squalid conditions here –outside in the bush or at the local train station, with little access to food or hygiene facilities and almost no shelter.

Today though this place looks completely different. UNHCR along with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other groups have set up tents for food and medical aid along with a dozen portable toilets and places with running water for bathing and drinking. Wi-fi is also available, because for some of the migrants flocking here this is the only means to get in touch with their families back home. There is even a tent solely intended for use by children who spend most of the time “drawing their dreams on a piece of paper that stays behind as a reminder of their passage”, as one volunteer says.

The structures serve as a facility for the thousands of refugees and migrants that pass through the area every day. Nevertheless, if the refugees aren’t able to move on from what is meant to be a short-stay transit station the current infrastructure will obviously not be enough.

With more European countries intending to close their borders, NGO’s working in Idomeni fear of a domino effect that might lead to an even larger-scale humanitarian crisis.

And with winter approaching, people will face even harsher conditions. That is the main reason behind the dramatic increase in the number of refugees crossing the border. Sometimes up to 6,000 people cross every day – and the numbers are increasing. “Last Thursday we had a record of over 10,000 people that crossed the borders,” said Luca Guanziroli, a UNHCR worker.

The Croatian-Slovenian border

As the sun began to set, and the temperature dropped, the atmosphere in the compound outside the Brežice police station grew tense. The thousand or so refugees barricaded in by the Slovenian authorities pressed against the fence, their children at the front.

“We are refugees, not criminals, why are you doing this?” shouted one, and scuffles broke out.

The refugees come to Brežice from Ključ Brdovečki in Croatia via a small concrete bridge over the fast-flowing Sotla river, across which some have waded to the supposed safety of Slovenia. Some arrive at the Croatian station warmly dressed in puffer jackets; others arrive in flip-flops. Many are swaddled in grey UNHCR blankets, which are discarded by the side of the road either because they are wet and heavy, or because the refugees are not aware that they will spend many more hours in the open air.

“How far is Slovenia? It’s cold, my children are so tired,” said a tall man giving his name as Joseph, from Kuwait – a member of the stateless Bedoon minority. His three children clustered around his legs. Nearby a coughing man wrapped in a blanket called for a doctor, while volunteers handed out fruit and milk. A young girl dragged her white teddy in the gravel, waiting to cross.

Recent days have been relatively warm and without rainfall, with the temperature not dropping below 5C, but the thick mist clinging to the low fields and wooded hills has added to the clammy chill. The weather is only likely to get colder, and transit countries are ill-prepared for the drop in temperatures at a time when the flow of refugees is increasing.

Berlin, Germany

Temperatures have dropped almost to freezing, and snow has already fallen in some parts. And still an estimated 42,000-50,000 refugees across Germany are being housed in the tent cities that were erected hurriedly over the summer and autumn. An urgent race is on to transfer them to warmer accommodation, at the same time as thousands continue to arrive every day.

Many of the canvas tents have been fitted out with wooden flooring, some have been encased in pine boxes, and a few are being pumped with warm air from diesel-powered heaters. But the measures are inadequate and potentiously hazardous.

A scramble is on to find suitable empty properties, from rooms in private homes, to sports halls and disused school buildings to derelict soldiers’ barracks, even inflatable circus tents. In Berlin space has been made in the disused Tempelhof airport, hitherto used for fashion shows and IT conferences, and the former conference centre, the ICC.

The sense of urgency has been reinforced by doctors around the country who report a surge in refugees suffering from colds, flu and pneumonia. Tens of thousands of extra doses of flu jabs have been bought. Depression is also on the rise, not helped by the lack of privacy, with reports of many spending their days huddled under blankets.

On the German-Austria border where many are waiting to be let in, a police spokesman said while the scenario during the summer had been a challenge enough, now it was far more critical.

“We’re doing our best to get the people out of the cold as quickly as we can,” he said. “But it will not be long before a child freezes to death.”

Appeals have gone out for warm winter clothes and boots, blankets, sleeping bags, ground sheets and flasks.

Calais, France

The number of people camped in tents and huts in Calais has doubled in a few weeks from 3,000 to 6,000, according to France’s interior ministry, and conditions are rapidly worsening.

The medical charity Doctors of the World last week filed an official complaint against the local French authorities, for their mishandling of the crisis, which has left thousands of vulnerable people living in slum conditions in tents and shacks, without adequate access to water, food or toilets, surviving without heating or cooking facilities. The charity described conditions at the camp as a “violation of their human rights, dignity”.

In September, before the rapid growth in the camp’s size, the United Nations special representative on international migration, Peter Sutherland, said conditions there were “indictment on society” and said it would take him some take time to recover from the shock of what he had seen.

Since then the overcrowding has intensified and conditions have worsened, with about 100 people arriving every day, often after months travelling from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. There is space in a disused holiday centre for 200 women and children, but it is full and since the surge in arrivals, many women, children and families are visible in the camp.

The government has said it will provide another 200 beds in heated areas for women and children before the end of the year and has promised to build a new shelter for 1,500 people before winter begins. But aid workers point out that neither will be sufficient for the camp’s rapidly expanding population and question what will happen to the remaining residents. About 300 were moved “voluntarily” from the camp last Tuesday to shelters elsewhere in France.

MSF recently joined Doctors of the World in the camp, working to improve toilets and water supply, but there is dismay from volunteers that bigger international charities are absent. About 2,000 hot meals a day are provided by French authorities but this is no longer enough, and people are fed by groups of volunteers from the UK and France.

Residents at the Calais Jungle (given this name because of the wild chaos that reigns here) are horrified by the state of the camp. Ahmad Ibrahim, 32, a pharmacist, who fled Syria this year, has been here 52 days, living in a tent with five other Syrians. He hopes to get to England by jumping on a train or a truck, but he is exhausted by the nightly attempts to evade the police. His wife, and nine-year-old son, and two daughters, eight and five, are waiting in Syria for him to get to England, and start working. “I was surprised when I got here. The life is very hard. I was shocked by the situation. There is no life here. It is all difficult, there’s no water. If you want a clean WC you have to walk one kilometre.”


When 60 Syrian refugees arrived outside the tiny village of Limedsforsen near the Norwegian border, where temperatures are already near freezing and will plunge to -10C by Christmas, they occupied the bus and lit bonfires to keep warm.

“We have children and a pregnant woman, it is too cold, there are no shops and no doctor, so it is not suitable for us to stay here,” they told Swedish media. Elsewhere, refugees have protested that rooms have no electricity and kitchens have no gas.

In Fredriksberg, refugees threatened a hunger strike after they felt they had been dumped in the middle of nowhere. “We need somewhere to study and have a good life. We came to Sweden because it would be a land of freedom. We believe they have lied to us,” said one.Protests such as these have drawn loud criticism on social media from Swedes annoyed at “ungrateful” refugees. But with Sweden expecting as many as 190,000 refugees to arrive this year alone – by far the highest number in Europe relative to the country’s population – there is a desperate scramble to find accommodation for around 10,000 new arrivals every week.

Vacant buildings are being pressed into service, and the usual high standards set by the immigration service are being waived. “The current situation with many new asylum seekers each day means the period of residence in an evacuation site may be extended into the future,” said the Migration Board.

Last week an inventory of the nation’s properties revealed 60,000 potential beds. In an attempt to prevent high concentrations of people in the cities, the government is dispersing refugees all over the country. Eritrean refugees sent to Sweden under the EU’s resettlement plan arrived in the northern town of Luleå, just south of the Arctic circle, this month.

In Revinge, southern Sweden, a campsite of 350 tents adjacent to a military firing range is awaiting its first occupants. The tents are electrically heated and insulated, and have internet access.

After the shock of arriving in unfamiliar places begins to wear off, refugees tend to make the best of it. Mohammed Khalaf, a refugee in Fredriksberg, said that after a month he had started to love the place. But the big unknown is the approaching winter. “We might live to regret it later,” he said.

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