The Cable

In Asylum Limbo, Europe’s Forgotten Refugees Are Dying of Cold

And aid groups accuse EU of inaction.


Refugees and migrants in Europe are dying this winter and governments must do more to help, the U.N. warned on Friday.

“Children are particularly prone to respiratory illnesses at a time like this. It’s about saving lives, not about red tape and keeping to bureaucratic arrangements,” Sarah Crowe, a spokesperson for UNICEF said. “The dire situation right now is Greece.”

Roughly 1,000 people are in unheated tents and dormitories on the Greek island of Samos. Cecile Poutilly, a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency UNCHR, said five had died so far in a unusual cold front settling in on southeastern Europe. More, including children, have been treated for frostbite and exposure.

The EU spent 198 million euro in 2016 on emergency support for Greece to help tens of thousands of refugees and migrants, according to the EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Department. But many organizations charge the European Union isn’t doing enough. “Actions at the EU level have so far been scattered and insufficient,” UNICEF said in a press release in November.

Rights groups excoriated European governments for the asylum-seekers’ poor living conditions. “What we see in Serbia and Greece has almost nothing to do with winter,” aid organization Medicins Sans Frontieres said on Twitter, “It’s rather about EU giving a cold shoulder to people in need.”

Men, women and children are surviving in snow-covered tents and sub-zero temperatures,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “They are literally being left out in the cold on the doorstep of Europe.”

In Serbia, along one of the main migration routes to the European Union, some 80 percent of the countries’ 7,300 migrants and refugees live in heated government buildings. But about 1,200 people face risks of frostbite and hypothermia living in unheated and undeveloped shelter.

Aid organizations, including MSF, documented the plight of those Greece and the Balkans — from refugees and migrants burning wood scraps to stay warm in in freezing temperatures to bathing outside of shantytown migrant camps for lack of alternatives.

MSF even called out the EU’s humanitarian aid department on Twitter:

In November 2016, 78 child rights agencies including UNICEF signed a statement urging the European Union and its member states to do more to protect asylum-seeking children amid the onset of winter.

The EU’s top migrant and refugee recipients, including Germany, have recorded a significant drop in the number of asylum-seekers in the last year. But that doesn’t mean the crisis is over. Many migrants and refugees risk a dangerous Mediterranean crossing to reach European shores. The U.N. said last year was the deadliest year on record for those taking to the Mediterranean as over 4,100 died or disappeared in the Mediterranean.

The number of refugees flowing to Europe has abated but the routes they take remains deadly, according to the International Organization for Migration. On Friday, IOM announced 27 migrants have died at sea so far in 2017.

Photo credit: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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