The plight of refugees in winter

As horrific as the circumstances are for thousands of displaced families, this is nothing new.
Sunday 08/12/2019
A woman carries her child as she crosses a wooden bridge in the refugee camp of Moria, on the island of Lesbos on November 26. (AFP)
A woman carries her child as she crosses a wooden bridge in the refugee camp of Moria, on the island of Lesbos on November 26. (AFP)

Rather than welcoming the thousands of refugees in need this winter, Europeans — during their most sacred holiday time of the year — are forcing them to suffer “hell on Earth” conditions in frigid, destitute camps that are “not a place for human beings,” rights activists say.

Sadly, as horrific as the circumstances are for thousands of displaced families, this is nothing new.

In 2015, as temperatures fell to deadly levels, more than 500,000 refugees, mostly from Syria and Iraq, attempted to enter Europe in a desperate struggle to flee war and bloodshed. Almost 3,000 died trying.

In the face of this humanitarian crisis, out-of-touch European leaders blamed bureaucratic red tape but often xenophobia in their domestic politics muddled their will to do the right thing.

One makeshift camp in north-western Bosnia, where hundreds are battling the elements, “should be closed as we speak,” said Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights. The poisonous site is on a former landfill and near a minefield from the 1992-95 war.

Moria Camp, along the Greek shoreline of Lesvos, has been overwhelmed with asylum seekers. Meant to care for a maximum of 3,000 refugees, its facilities were over capacity last summer and the camp now has more than 13,000 people.

An aid worker described conditions there as “hell on Earth.” It is part of a grim trend for the Greek islands, where the number of refugees soared to 47,000, up from 32,500 last year.

“People are going to die. It’s going to happen. You have 10,000 people in tents,” the aid worker said, referring to a facility where bed bugs, lice, scabies and other vermin thrive.

Under Greece’s agreement with Turkey, refugees are to be kept on the islands until their asylum claims are processed. Waiting times are up to two years in what has been described by one NGO as a “policy-made humanitarian crisis.”

In stark contrast, the United Nations vowed to give Syrian refugees in the Kurdistan region a “warm and safe” winter in camps with electricity, water, medical care and even psychological support. Such an attempt to save lives is a testament to how a crisis should be addressed.

If only others could follow the United Nations’ lead but, once again, authorities who could make a life-saving difference in Greece, along the Bosnia-Croatia border and elsewhere failed to put plans in place to minimise human suffering as if they were again caught unaware that winter was coming.

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