Hav­ing es­caped war, mi­grants now face un­for­giv­ing win­ter

Harsh con­di­tions in Greece’s refugee camps high­light Europe’s chal­lenge to ad­dress the cri­sis

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNABELL VAN DEN BERGHE for­eign@wash­post.com Michael Birn­baum con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

brus­sels — With a cold snap bring­ing snow and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures to Greece’s over­crowded refugee camps, a new type of mi­grant cri­sis is over­whelm­ing tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who fled war and poverty in the hopes of a bet­ter life in Europe.

The chilly weather this month has al­ready cost the lives of sev­eral asy­lum seek­ers in the Balkans, as tents and other light­weight shel­ter that are ad­e­quate to the Greek is­lands’ balmy sum­mers have proved in­ad­e­quate for win­ter gusts.

Heavy snow­fall on the is­lands has piled up on tents, and freez­ing tem­per­a­tures have been recorded even on is­lands that usu­ally have tem­per­ate win­ter weather.

The poor con­di­tions in Greece have high­lighted Europe’s on­go­ing chal­lenge to ad­dress the mi­gra­tion cri­sis, even dur­ing win­ter months in which fresh ar­rivals have slowed to a trickle be­cause of a for­bid­ding sea cross­ing.

Although the camps have drawn con­dem­na­tion from the United Na­tions and se­nior E.U. lead­ers, the European Union has left the cash-strapped Greek govern­ment to han­dle the chal­lenge mostly on its own.

“With so many chil­dren and vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple re­main­ing in filthy camp­ing tents, the need is great for Europe to show sol­i­dar­ity and take re­spon­si­bil­ity,” said Roland Schön­bauer, an Athens­based spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. He added that refugees have been wan­der­ing through over­crowded camps to keep warm.

At the Pikpa refugee camp on the Greek is­land of Les­bos, tem­per­a­tures in re­cent days have dropped to the low 20s.

“The camp is bet­ter than any­thing we’ve seen be­fore,” said Na­jwa Has­san, who es­caped the Is­lamic State takeover of Mo­sul and has been liv­ing in the camp since July. “But it’s dif­fi­cult to keep them warm; they can’t move,” she said, re­fer­ring to her chil­dren.

Has­san said two of her three chil­dren lost their abil­ity to walk af­ter Is­lamic State mem­bers threw them off a roof in Mo­sul. Her hus­band was be­headed in front of their chil­dren; Is­lamic State mil­i­tants sub­se­quently beat her up.

Her 15-year-old son, Ahmed, sleeps from dawn to dusk, covered un­der too few blan­kets to keep him warm. The scarce mo­ments he’s awake are filled with scream­ing, Has­san said.

“I don’t know if he’s in pain, or if he’s afraid or maybe only cold,” she said. She said they have not had ac­cess to a doc­tor. At least 15 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in the refugee camps faces a dis­abil­ity or trauma, ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate from Hu­man Rights Watch, an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion.

With all the camps heav­ily over­crowded, of­ten reach­ing three times their ca­pac­ity, aid work­ers find them­selves try­ing to help with steeply cur­tailed re­sources.

Some refugees have been forced to take mat­ters into their own hands, burn­ing any­thing they can find to heat their tents, ac­cord­ing to Loic Jaeger, the head of the Greek mis­sion of Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, which works in the refugee camps.

“We’ve been do­nat­ing win­ter clothes, socks and blan­kets, but what we re­ally need is ap­pro­pri­ate shel­ter, which is some­thing only the au­thor­i­ties can de­cide on,” Jaeger said.

In re­cent days, Greek au­thor­i­ties have of­fered a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion by con­vert­ing a tank land­ing ship into a dorm for some male asy­lum seek­ers.

European of­fi­cials have also con­demned the con­di­tions and im­plored other E.U. na­tions to step up their aid ef­forts.

“We all — Greeks, Euro­peans — have a hu­man­i­tar­ian im­per­a­tive to al­le­vi­ate the sit­u­a­tion here on the is­lands,” said Dim­itris Avramopou­los, the European com­mis­sioner charged with mi­gra­tion is­sues, dur­ing a re­cent visit to Les­bos.

But Greece has been told to cope us­ing its own re­sources, and a sys­tem that would send some asy­lum seek­ers back to Tur­key to ease pres­sure on the camps has largely stalled. About 50,000 refugees and mi­grants are in Greece, ac­cord­ing to U.N. refugee agency fig­ures.

The paral­y­sis has frus­trated refugee ad­vo­cates.

“The sit­u­a­tion to­day is the re­sult of eight months not do­ing enough,” said Jaeger, of Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders. “We all knew that win­ter would come.”

PHO­TOS BY MUHAMMED MUHEISEN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: Pe­tram Me­hdi, a 2-year-old mi­grant from Tehran, stands by the win­dow of his fam­ily’s shel­ter at the Rit­sona refugee camp in Greece. BE­LOW: Syr­ian refugee Suzan Ah­mad, who is 15 and five months preg­nant, stands out­side her shel­ter at the Rit­sona camp.

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