Refugees risk freezing to death in need of aid

As winter approaches, freezing temperatures continue to make survival much more difficult for more than 700,000 refugees who reached Europe this year

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Refugees wait in the rain as they wait to enter Slovenia, at the Croatian-Slovenian border in Trnovec on October 19 2015

Updated Nov 13, 2015

More than 700,000 refugees who fled conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan have reached Europe so far this year, on their way of seeking safer places. However, they are now facing a new challenge; harsh winter conditions.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced on Oct. 23, that it started winter relief operations for refugees, distributing raincoats, blankets and other relief items to tens of thousands of refugees hit by the first winter storm, along with freezing temperatures in many parts of Central and South Eastern Europe.

The packages will be distributed to the most vulnerable refugees until February 2016. The standard packages include sleeping bags, thermal blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes and footwear, but the contents may vary depending on needs and circumstances.

UNHCR is identifying people who may be more vulnerable to cold temperatures, mostly elderly people and children, both unaccompanied and traveling with their families. They will be directed where they can receive the care they need.

Winter relief operations also include setting up emergency shelters such as family tents, refugee housing units and emergency reception facilities and supporting efforts to improve reception and waiting areas and preparing or adapting refugees to harsh winter conditions.

Iraqi refugee speaks with a friend inside his tent in the New Jungle make-shift camp as unseasonably cool temperatures arrive in Calais, northern France on October 15 2015 (Reuters)

Women and children at a refugee camp outside of the French port city of Calais would be given heated tents to protect some of the 6,000 people at the camp from cold temperatures, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Oct. 22.

"In the meantime, heated tents will be set up... by the end of the week," he told, vowing that "no woman, no child will remain without a shelter in this city".

Some 15 million people have been displaced so far this year, across the Middle East - in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Syria where they face freezing temperatures and snow storms. UNHCR will also help those refugees, including vulnerable internally displaced people in Iraq and Syria.

The UNHCR aid programme, costing $236 million, in an attempt to help 2.5 million Syrians and 700,000 Iraqis - especially suffering from winter conditions - is already ongoing. It includes a mix of extra cash, high thermal blankets, plastic tarpaulins and other shelter insulation - such as tent liners, polystyrene foam boards and insulated floor mats.

World Vision International (through a partnership with UNICEF) is also aiding 25,000 families living in precarious conditions - in plastic tents and shelters made of recycled goods. The group will help alleviate their suffering over the next five months, providing stoves, fuel and blankets to help them survive winter.

Syrian refugees wait to receive tools donated by UNHCR to reinforce their tents, in preparation for winter conditions, in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon on October 23 2015 (Reuters)

However, the aid programme has yet been enough for refugees. Many aid agencies made cuts, due to a lack of funding. The World Food Programme scaled its food voucher program back by a third and the UNHCR only reached 41 percent of its funding requirements for its winter relief operations.

Some European and Nordic countries are considering to make sharp cuts in aid for refugees. The UN Secretary, General Ban Ki-moon, on Nov. 11, warned against proposed reductions in development aid by wealthy countries struggling to deal with the refugee crisis, saying that such cuts would be counter-productive.

"With the world facing the largest crisis of forced displacement since the Second World War, [Ban] calls on the international community to meet this immense challenge without lessening its commitment to vitally needed official development assistance," UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

Dujarric added that Ban "underscores the importance of fully funding both efforts to care for refugees and asylum seekers in host countries as well as longer-term development efforts."

"Resources for one area should not come at the expense of another," he said.

"Redirecting critical funding away from development aid at this pivotal time could perpetuate challenges that the global community has committed to address."

"Reducing development assistance to finance the cost of refugee flows is counter-productive," Dujarric said.

It would cause "a vicious circle detrimental to health, education and opportunities for a better life at home for millions of vulnerable people in every corner of the world."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the media about the world’s humanitarian crises at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on October 31, 2015

Some countries and aid agencies are having trouble finding accommodations for the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Europe.

“We were freezing,” said Fadi, 42, a former hair salon owner who arrived at the camp on Oct. 5, and who declined to give his last name to protect his family in Syria.

“We didn’t sleep. We did exercises all night long to keep warm.”

The first snow of the season fell in Germany three weeks ago and the weather began to harshen. A survey for the German newspaper Die Welt showed that more than 40,000 people were still living in tents in Germany.

A doctor at the camp of Celle, in northern Germany, told Reuters that two-thirds of the people at the camp caught a cold.

In the Balkans, the situation is not better. Over the last few weeks, the refugee camps which consist of unheated tents have been emptied by authorities to keep the refugees moving toward Western Europe.

As Hungary closed its border with Croatia, the situation reverted back to what it was like during summer. Thousands of refugees are sleeping outside without basic sanitation or access to food and water.

Fights break out between desperate refugees over blankets, foods and on occasions between different national groups.

Displaced people, who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi, arrive on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq on April 17, 2015

Despite all plans to help refugees for harsh winter conditions, they are losing hope as the conflict continues in Syria, said UNHCR spokesman Bathoul Ahmed.

“I am scared, everybody is scared,” said Ali Lolo, 35, a clothing store manager from Damascus, Syria, who waited with his family last week beneath a weather-rippled tarp at the encampment here, where only few tents are heated.

“We are worried they will close the border, but we are also worried about winter. We must get where we are going before the snows fall.”

Ahmed emphasised the plans to help them would never be enough saying that, "No matter how much we try to improve conditions in the camps, no matter how many blankets we give out, no matter how many sealing off kits we give out, living in a camp is not ideal. Nobody wants to live in a camp."

"It doesn’t matter if I give them ten blankets every year, this is not a life."

Jean Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said at a EU and Balkan leaders meeting in Brussels on Oct. 25, that a solution was urgently needed. Otherwise, thousands of refugees and families suffering harsh winter conditions on the hillsides or river-banks of Eastern Europe would freeze to death.

"Every day counts," Juncker said.

"Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably."

At the meeting, the leaders agreed upon external borders agency Frontex would be called in to the Croatia-Serbia border to slow down the influx of refugees. The measure was one of a 17-point plan agreed to help struggle the influx of refugees through the Balkan Peninsula.

TRTWorld and agencies