Refugees stranded in life-threatening cold weather across Europe

A man stands inside a disused railway warehouse used by refugees and migrants as shelter in Belgrade, Serbia, Jan. 5, 2017. (Credit: Marko Drobnjakovik/@MSF_Sea Twitter)

International medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is again calling on authorities to provide shelter for all refugees and migrants stranded outside in life-threatening weather conditions.

The current cold snap, which has so far left dozens of people dead across Europe, had been forecast well in advance, according to AP. MSF said it had called on the EU, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and local authorities to “winterize” and expand the capacity of its refugee shelters.

Still, MSF reported that more than 7,500 migrants are currently stranded in overcrowded camps or informal shelters in Europe.

Greek authorities were under fire in December for mishandling $95 million of a jointly managed fund set aside for improving winter conditions in its refugee camps. Aid groups were further aggravated after the minister for migration, Yiannis Mouzalas, told journalists at a news conference last Thursday that there were no refugees or migrants living in the cold, a statement which numerous organizations and media debunked. The Independent reported that around 4,500 people were still living in overcrowded conditions in thin summer tents on the island of Lesbos.

“Greek authorities must stop congratulating themselves on humanitarian achievements while thousands of people are left to suffer in harsh winter elements as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed,” Clement Perrin, MSF’s head of mission in Greece, said in a statement yesterday. “No person seeking protection, fleeing war, torture and extreme violence should be left out in the cold.”

The European Commission said in a statement on Monday that the Greek refugee situation is “first and foremost” the responsibility of the Greek authorities.

The UNHCR has responded by distributing thermal blankets, heating fuel, electric heaters and insulation. According to the Independent, more than 2,100 places have been found in apartments with host families to accommodate those most at risk from the weather. Humanitarian groups are calling on Greek authorities to reduce overcrowding by moving migrants from Greece’s islands to the mainland.

Aid groups are also targeting refugees on Serbia’s northern border, where Reuters reported dozens of migrants, some with children, are camping in flimsy tents in temperatures as low as -4 F as they wait to try to enter Hungary. Meanwhile, more than 100 miles south in the capital city Belgrade, the news agency reported that roughly 1,500 migrants and refugees were sheltering in abandoned warehouses, sometimes sleeping on concrete floors.

MSF, which runs mobile clinics in the Belgrade city center, said it has installed some emergency space heaters as a desperate measure to try to protect people from the cold. In an email to Humanosphere, the organization said it was not aware of any other measures taken to protect refugees in Serbia apart from blankets provided by volunteers.

Refugees and migrants are braving similar conditions across Europe. In southern Germany, a smuggler abandoned 19 refugees – including five children – at a motorway parking area in subzero temperatures over the weekend. In Paris, MSF reported recent acts of police aggression toward refugees and migrants stranded in the cold, from confiscating blankets to preventing people from sitting down when waiting in line to access indoor accommodations.

“We are witnessing the most cruel and inhumane consequences of European policies, used as a tool to deter and victimize those who are only seeking safety and protection in Europe,” Stefano Argenziano, MSF’s migration coordinator, said in a statement.

The freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall have also led to road closures and canceled trains across Europe. Meteorologists said the cold spell is expected to last until later this week.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com