Exclusive

Winter Is Coming for Syria’s Refugees, and the EU Isn’t Ready

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, the United Nations' refugee chief warned that the EU must put politics aside to prepare for winter weather conditions.

Syrian children stand in the snow in a refugee camp in the town of Arsal in the Lebanese Bekaa valley on December 13, 2013. Thousands of Syrian refugees living in makeshift camps in Lebanon were weathered a winter storm that brought snow, rain and freezing temperatures to the country. AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian children stand in the snow in a refugee camp in the town of Arsal in the Lebanese Bekaa valley on December 13, 2013. Thousands of Syrian refugees living in makeshift camps in Lebanon were weathered a winter storm that brought snow, rain and freezing temperatures to the country. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Conditions are already dire for the millions of refugees who have fled war-torn Syria and sought a new home in Europe and other countries in the Middle East. Now, though, another enemy looms on the horizon: winter.

The United Nations refugee agency will present an $81 million “winterization” plan to the European Union this week in an attempt to better conditions for the thousands of asylum-seekers who cross European borders each day.

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy in Washington Tuesday, António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said colder weather and rougher conditions at sea may temporarily slow down the movement of refugees from Syria to Europe this winter, but this will make more urgent the need to better coordinate humanitarian efforts as temperatures drop.

The UNHCR plan, which Guterres said he will present to the EU “in the next few days,” will address how to appropriately protect refugees already in Europe and better insulate welcome centers and other temporary holding areas to ensure they are warm enough for the refugees who will inevitably continue to arrive all winter long.

“Let’s not forget the crisis in Syria is going on, the fighting is being intensified, and the hopes of people are not being enhanced,” Guterres told FP. “We believe that the pressure will go on, eventually with a decrease in numbers because of the weather but not a decrease in the anxiety and desperation of the Syrian people.”

A separate winterization program is already underway for the millions of refugees living in the Middle East, but its funding continues to fall short. What resources are available are being used in part to help insulate abandoned buildings or tents, where many refugees live, and pay for warmer clothing and fuel to heat refugees’ homes. The $66 million program in Iraq, for example, is funded at only 52 percent, which the UNHCR warned will leave almost half-a-million people without fuel this winter.

More than 700,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea this year, and another 3,000 have died on the dangerous trek across the Mediterranean. The daily arrivals have completely overwhelmed the European Union, which has failed to come to any kind of comprehensive agreement on how to deal with the migrants and refugees, many of whom are fleeing civil war in Syria and hope to qualify for asylum. Greece and Italy have been particularly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who arrive on their shores each day.

Disagreement over proposed quota plans threatens to tear the bloc apart. Germany, for example, has acknowledged it will likely accept at least 800,000 refugees this year, while Hungary hastily built a fence to try to keep the refugees out. On Wednesday, Slovenia threatened to do the same if it does not receive immediate assistance from a new plan backed by some EU member states and leaders from the Balkans.

This summer, Berlin came under fire from right-wing EU leaders, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration announced refugees would be welcomed in Germany even if their passports had not been stamped in their country of arrival. Orban blamed the German announcement — which Budapest deemed illegal under EU law — for the tens of thousands of refugees who crammed Hungarian train stations and overwhelmed border crossings hoping to reach Germany in the weeks that followed.

But Guterres dismissed that notion. He told FP Tuesday that refugees have said their motivation for rushing to get into Germany was not political soundbites but rather the fear that all internal borders inside the EU would be closed.

“I’ve never seen any refugee saying they have moved because of any declaration of any German politician,” he said. “I think that some [border] closures have more impact in pushing people to move as quickly as possible than the welcoming attitude in a number of countries.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in September that the United States would expand its refugee cap to 100,000 by 2017, but Congress may be reluctant to pay for it. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, Hungary suggested that a worldwide quota system should be enacted in order to more evenly distribute refugees to countries in some way responsible for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, which have contributed refugees to the crisis.

But Guterres said he welcomed Washington’s announcement that it planned to increase the number of refugees it accepts and dismissed the blame game as an unnecessary politicization of a humanitarian crisis.

“If you try to politicize these humanitarian questions, you will only undermine the possibility to provide adequate protection assistance and solutions to the people who need it,” he said. “It is not by bashing each other that the members of the international community will solve the problem.”

But the onset of winter has the EU and Syria’s neighbors in the Middle East urgently looking for a way to better organize the migration patterns.

One suggestion floated by Turkish officials is to stop migration before it begins by implementing a safe zone inside Syria where potential refugees could huddle without having to flee to neighboring countries or the EU. But several world leaders, including Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama, fear that plan would put the displaced at risk of being massacred there, especially given the difficulty of establishing a no-fly zone inside Syria now that Russian aircraft are supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The international community is still scarred by the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in what was supposed to be a safe zone in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War, and many are unwilling to risk a similar scenario in Syria. On Tuesday, Guterres voiced the same concerns.

“No safe zone can undermine the right to seek and enjoy asylum,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is to have a false impression of safety in an area where so many actors of such different natures are operating.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

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