Refugees in winter – ICY RECEPTION , The journey through Europe is miserable for migrants

After the recent Paris attacks, whole Europe seems to have adopted a somehow hostile approach towards the migration crisis. This winter, thus it is possible that migrant issue in Europe may get worse.

MOST teenagers only have to worry about acne, homework and heartache. Kasra, a 17-year-old boy from Afghanistan, faces more weighty problems. During the journey from his homeland to Europe, cutting through the mountains of Iran, Kasra says he “saw death many times” and at least one rape. Even in a transit camp in Croatia, he does not feel safe: he is unsure how other refugees or asylum-seekers would treat him if they knew that he was gay. “You are so lucky to live in Europe,” he says. He wants to go to Germany and become a make-up artist.

During the onset of winter the number of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean normally drops. This year has been different. In October 2014, 23,000 people made the crossing; this October it was over 220,000—higher than the total for all of last year. Although numbers fell at the start of November, they are still around ten times higher than in 2014 (see chart). Yet as temperatures drop and migrants continue to stream in, Europe’s response has been hopelessly inadequate. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th, it may get even worse.

 

 

Much of the increase in numbers is the result of the escalation of the crisis in Syria, thinks Itayi Viriri of the International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental body. Some 60% of those who have crossed the Mediterranean this year are Syrian. But increasingly others are coming from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia or Pakistan. Most make the trip via Turkey, either directly en route from their own countries or after being based there for a year or so. They then go across to Greece and up through the western Balkans.

This journey is becoming more difficult. Several countries in the Balkans have started to “push back” people; mostly because of the sheer numbers coming through, but also seemingly because of increasing anxiety over refugees since the Paris attacks. On November 19th Serbia announced that it would allow only those who were Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani to make the crossing. Macedonia and Croatia quickly followed suit. This has led to chaotic scenes at border crossings. Last week at Idomeni, in Greece, a thousand migrants from Iran, Bangladesh and Pakistan were stuck for four days. One group went on hunger strike; a dozen sewed up their mouths in protest. Around 150 have been sent back to Greece.

Provisions along the route are patchy. In places such as Lesbos in Greece, asylum-seekers still depend largely on enthusiastic but inexperienced volunteers for food and clothing. Despite the fact that migrants have been arriving for months, facilities for shelter and medical care are still not adequate, says Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, a think-tank. At Moria, a transit camp on Lesbos, some improvements have been made. But showers there are currently exposed to the elements. When beds run out, the refugees overflow into a disorganised tent village outside the fence, where some burn refuse to keep warm. Fights break out frequently; the sort of crowd-management security one expects at facilities dealing with refugees is inexplicably rare, says Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, an NGO.

More worryingly, many countries are only belatedly preparing for migrants who will keep coming during the winter. At Slavonski Brod, a transit camp in Croatia, rows of large heated tents are full of bunk-beds for migrants to sit on for a few hours before being moved on. On a recent visit, the facilities were impressive, but the administration appeared disorganised. Migrants did not know where they were or how long they would be there for; the process of distributing warm winter clothes seemed to happen at random, if at all. Some wore flip-flops or summer shoes.

This means that as people move through Europe they are getting steadily sicker. “Their health clearly deteriorates,” says Daniel Huescar of Médecins Sans Frontières, an aid group. Outbreaks of noroviruses and scabies are common, while aid workers in Serbia talk of mothers unable to look after their children after two weeks on the road in appalling conditions. Unless the EU responds quickly, it will face an even greater humanitarian crisis.

Lately, the EU has been more concerned with reducing the number of migrants arriving than with providing safe passage for those already there. On November 29th an EU-Turkey summit will be held in Brussels. In exchange for €3 billion ($3.2 billion) in financial assistance and a package of political goodies, including restarting its stalled EU accession application and speeding up visa-free travel for its citizens, Turkey is expected to encourage the refugees to stay on its territory. It may also grant work permits to Syrians, and provide better access to health care and schooling.

But no one working with refugees in Turkey thinks that the country will be able quickly to reduce the flow of migrants. People like Kasra will continue to come. Political pressures in Europe may make caring for refugees an increasingly unpopular cause. But allowing refugees to suffer and letting chaos persist along the migration route is not a solution.

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