Winter hitting Europe hard, many refugees are in dire situations: the weather in Greece, Serbia and South-eastern Europe exposes migrants and refugees to life-threatening conditions. The crisis shows Europe continues to be unprepared for the humanitarian demands of the numbers of people seeking shelter on its shores, despite its prolonged nature and signs that it is here to stay.
Winter in Europe
Winter hit Europe unusually hard with arctic temperatures and heavy snowfall across much of the region. Greece, Serbia and the wider region suffered temperatures of negative 20 degrees Celsius/ negative 4 Fahrenheit last week. This week, snow turned to cold rain. With lack of adequate shelter, this has caused severe humanitarian consequences for migrants. The International Organization for Migration noted the first deaths by freezing last week.
The current conditions showcase a failure of the respective host governments, such as Greece and Serbia, and the European Union to adequately prepare for the season and winterize shelter. Doctors without Borders (MSF) referred to a cynical neglect of European States’ policies. The humanitarian community, MSF notes, has warned the governments for months that winter-safe conditions will be needed.
The fact is that winter should not have been a surprise: it may be unseasonably cold, but the seasons come with predictable routine. In fact, weather forecasters predicted the weather with adequate notice. Many of the refugees and migrants in the affected areas, such as Greece and Italy as well as Serbia, have been waiting for months to have their fate decided by the governments. In the European Union, with all of their resources, such desperation ought not to be present. And yet…
Currently, there are more than 60,000 refugees and migrants in Greece, most without adequate facilities: they either are in overcrowded camps, abandoned warehouses and factories, some sleeping outside. Most importantly, a vast number of refugees and migrants are facing this dire winter without insulation. The islands, where many refugees are waiting for the assessment of their asylum claims, are especially strained: In Samos, most of the 1400 refugees are in tents without heating or insulation; in Lesbos, 5,000 asylum seekers are in similar conditions. UNHCR has ramped up efforts to move people into heated tents, especially families with children. The Greek government responded with some short term fixes like boats, which can temporarily host up to 300 migrants. Despite the dire conditions, news outlets report that it will still be days before the Greek government will have enough winter shelter for all migrants. The European Commission referred to the situation for migrants in Greece as untenable.
In a parliamentary debate, Greek’s migration policy minister Yannis Mouzalas, conceded that the conditions for migrants and refugees were appalling. Giorgos Chondros, a politician from the ruling Syriza party spoke to German media and accepted that Greece failed to respond adequately. Yet, Chondros also points to the failure of the wider European community to respond. He notes that the failed EU-Turkey deal caused massive backlogs in Greece, as promises of redistribution through quotas to Europe never materialized due to the Eastern bloc's resistance. Additionally, the deal requires Greece to keep asylum seekers on the Islands, aggravating their humanitarian situation. Finally, Chondros notes that European Union did not follow through enough on promises of bureaucratic assistance in the form of administrative labor. The European Union’s assistance to Greece has indeed been focused on the non-governmental sector: UNHCR, The Red Cross, and other international NGOs. Chondros thus argues that the failure may be firstly one of Greece, but it is also a failure of the European Union to design an adequate response to the migration situation. “The problem,” he says, “is a European one, an international one, and no single country alone, much less a country in economic and social crisis, can solve this problem on their own.” Still, as The Red Cross noted, it has been ten months since the EU-Turkey deal, in which the Greece government failed to address the over-crowding and lack of adequate shelter. The finger pointing and soul-searching indicates a lack of a concerted forward-looking response on behalf of both Greece and the European Union.
Simultaneously, Greece may be the most dramatic case, but not the only one: More than 7,500 refugees and migrants are stranded in Serbia, including the border zone with Hungary, which I visited this summer. In Serbia, the camps are overcrowded. Still, the government responded to the dire weather, and around 80 percent of migrants are now in heated shelter. Yet, too many people continue to sleep out in the open. Despite rapid UNHCR efforts, just in the capital, around 1200 migrants, including 300 unaccompanied children, are still without adequate shelter. Many of those stranded migrants are those, who refused registration by the Serbian government out of fear that it may either limit their claims in Europe, or allow the Serbian government to deport them back to Macedonia. For refugees, the myriad of European government responses to asylum claims are confusing, making them distrustful of any potential detention and registration, which would limit their ability to journey to more welcoming countries.
Hungary reaffirmed that it will not open the border, even as the backlog at the border exposes migrants to dangerous weather conditions. Instead, the Hungarian government is re-introducing mandatory detention for all migrants, regardless of valid asylum claims. Hungary thus is openly defying orders from the European Court of Human Rights, and pressure from the EU and the UN.
Notwithstanding these temperatures, Libyan based human traffickers continue to send boats across the Mediterranean: the Italian coast guard this week rescued a several boats this week. As of writing, 1,202 migrants arrived to Europe in the first weeks of 2017, not counting the 13, who died en route. Most of them, 1,159 to be exact, traveled the sea route to Italy. "So far this winter we have had no rest. We have not gone a full week without a rescue," Mathilde Auvillain, a spokeswoman for SOS Mediterranean told ABC news. The European Commission expect that three million migrants will arrive in Europe in this coming year.
So, we are starting 2017 with a 'new' migration crisis in Europe, which exposes the continent's continued inability to plan ahead and seek political resolutions- a negligence that comes at a cost to those caught up in the journey.