Refugees and migrants at risk of dying in the severe cold weather sweeping across Europe are being moved back over borders and subjected to violence and confiscations, the UN’s refugee agency has said, as it calls on governments to do more to help.
The UNHCR said at least five refugees had died from the cold weather since the start of the year, as temperatures dropped as low as -14C in parts of Greece, and several countries saw some of the heaviest snowfall in years.
The fatalities include two Iraqi men, whose bodies were found in south-eastern Bulgaria after they had crossed from Turkey, and a young Somali woman whose body was found in the same region. A 20-year-old Afghan man died of complications resulting from exposure to the cold after crossing the Evros river at the border between Greece and Turkey at night, when temperatures fell below -10C.
“Saving lives must be a priority and we urge state authorities across Europe to do more to assist and protect refugees and migrants,” a UNHCR spokeswoman, Cecile Pouilly, told a press briefing in Geneva.
The UNHCR has transferred hundreds of people on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Chio to warmer accommodation, but there are still more than 2,500 people living in Lesbos’s Moira camp.
Diane Sampson, an American paediatrician, told Reuters she had treated desperate patients in Moira suffering from frostbite, shivering with cold and drenched by snow and rain that had washed through the flimsy tents they were staying in. “In a situation like that our main responsibility is to look at these human beings and treat them like human beings. This place lacks basic human dignity,” she said.
The UNHCR is also deeply concerned about 1,000 people, including families with young children, living in unheated tents and dormitories on the island of Samos.
During a fiery exchange in the Greek parliament, the migration policy minister, Yannis Mouzalas, conceded that people trapped in the country were living in appalling conditions exacerbated by the weather. “The situation in the hot spots is very bad,” Mouzalas said. “Conditions on the island are awful.”
In Serbia, more than 82% of the 7,300 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants were living in heated government shelters, but the UNHCR expressed concern about the situation of 1,200 males, including up to 300 unaccompanied or separated boys, who were sleeping rough in inadequate informal sites in Belgrade city centre.
“Given the harsh winter conditions, we are extremely concerned by reports that authorities in all countries across the western Balkans route continue to push back refugees and migrants from inside their territory to neighbouring countries,” Pouilly said.
Some people had alleged violent treatment by police, she added, and some said they had had items of clothing and phones confiscated, preventing them from calling for help once stranded.
Staff from the UN children’s agency who were working across central and eastern Europe, and parts of southern Europe, reported “grave humanitarian consequences” of freezing temperatures.
Lily Caprani, Unicef UK’s deputy executive director, said that the weather had 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,” Caprani said in a statement “Refugee and migrant children and women in asylum-seeker centres and other hosting accommodations are particularly vulnerable when facilities lack adequate heating.”
Jennifer Scott, the refugee crisis programme manager for the British Red Cross, said many in Greece had been living in poor conditions for months and the cold weather was making their situation even more desperate.
“In the mainland, thousands are living in industrial warehouses that are unfit for living under normal circumstances, let alone in sub-zero temperatures. On the islands, more than 16,000 people are living in crowded camps, most of which are out in the open and bitterly exposed,” Scott said.
Unicef released data showing that 25,800 unaccompanied and separated children arrived in Italy by sea in 2016, more than double the number who arrived the previous year, leading the charity to call on the British Home Office to take urgent action.