With the onset of winter, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) warns that refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe through the Balkan route are facing critical humanitarian conditions, while plummeting temperatures expose them to additional threats.

The IRC’s evidence in Trieste, a major entry point for those traversing the Balkan route to Italy, shows that the humanitarian situation of hundreds of people on the move remains severe due to the shortage of official reception facilities in the city. Following the increase in the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in autumn, approximately 400 people who have applied for protection are struggling to find a safe and warm place to stay as the cold season advances.

Along the entire Balkan route, in places like Serbia, countless people are currently residing in squats and forests, without access to adequate means to survive the upcoming winter. The IRC’s partners in Bulgaria have reported refugees are reaching out for support to obtain winter clothing and warm blankets.

Alessandro Papes, IRC’s Area Manager in Trieste, Italy, said:

“The abandoned space known as the silos, adjacent to the Central Station in Trieste, is currently home to approximately 250 people living in inhumane and degrading conditions, lacking water and electricity. Even those who are sick and have medical reports cannot find a bed in institutional reception facilities or the city’s emergency dormitories.

“Every night, a distressing number of people, including unaccompanied children, families and single women, are forced to sleep outdoors, exposed to cold temperatures and unsanitary conditions. Rats and insects have spread everywhere, and when it rains, people's tents and belongings get flooded. Urgent action is needed to address the looming winter crisis, as people cannot wait for months to access a safe place to sleep and begin enjoying the rights to which they are entitled."

With 16,864 reported in December, the Greek islands are currently hosting a record number of people on the move, as adverse weather conditions do not deter them from seeking safety, as tragically evidenced by the recent shipwreck off the coast of Libya. 42,676 people have arrived in Greece within a year, doubling the population of asylum-seekers in the country, while  some reception centres have exceeded their reception capacity.

The IRC teams in Lesvos, Greece, report that the residents of Mavrovouni camp are grappling with limited access to heating and electricity. They lack winter clothes, blankets, and access to hot water. If the situation persists, there's a likelihood that people will resort to setting fires for warmth, posing a significant threat to their safety.

A 25-year-old asylum seeker from Sierra Leone living in the camp told the IRC:

"During the winter season, it is really difficult to walk around in the camp because of the wind and the rain. We live in an iso box, and when there is heavy rain, water comes in, and we have to wrap our clothes in plastic bags to avoid getting wet. We do not have a heating device. Also, we do not have warm water in the bathroom. To shower, we heat the tap water and then put the warm water in a plastic container to carry it to the bathroom."

The IRC urges European governments to guarantee adequate and dignified accommodation for all people in need. Leaders must ensure the protection of fundamental rights for those seeking safety in Europe, upholding their right to asylum with the utmost respect.