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Press Release

IRC: Europe is failing refugees in Greece and the Balkans this winter; immediate action needed.

Freezing temperatures are putting the lives and wellbeing of thousands of refugee men, women and children stranded in Greece and the Balkans at risk, the International Rescue Committee said today. Children, the elderly and other vulnerable people may die on European soil this winter unless urgent action is taken.

Eight months since borders closed across the Balkans, leaving tens of thousands stranded in Greece, refugees have no choice but to live in conditions that are not ready for winter: unheated tents, warehouses and substandard structures, some of which have been deemed unsafe and inappropriate for accommodation by the Greek Center for Disease Control (KEELPNO), the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

It does not have to be this way. According to the Greek Government, 23,514 refugees are currently scattered across 42 government sites on the mainland which have the cumulative capacity to accommodate 44,127 people. Sub-standard sites should be closed immediately and, in the short-term, refugees currently residing there must be moved to sites which are better prepared for winter. Immediate steps must also be taken to start the transition of all refugees from camps to appropriate long-term accommodation in urban settings.

Refugees currently stalled on the Greek islands as a result of the EU-Turkey deal are also facing adverse living conditions. According to the Greek Government, over 16,000 people are sleeping in overcrowded facilities on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos, which have the cumulative capacity to accommodate just 7,450.

The crisis stretches across the Western Balkans route, with over 14,000 people - nearly half of whom are women and children - now on the move or stranded, some also in dire conditions and without the resources and support necessary to withstand the harsh winter to come. In Serbia, over 6,000 people are hosted in overcrowded government facilities or sleeping rough in parks and other public areas with limited access to basic support and uncertain of their future.

No-one should have to endure the harsh cold of winter in an unheated camp or an overcrowded facility anywhere in Europe. The failure to provide appropriate accommodation and basic assistance for this relatively small caseload is a sad example for the rest of the world. EU leaders must take action to ensure that no refugees remain in substandard conditions this winter

-Elinor Raikes, the IRC’s Regional Representative, Europe refugee crisis

With temperatures dropping, we’ve already seen the risks people are taking to remain warm and survive winter, in the absence of a proper response. Earlier this month, a nine year old boy was rushed to intensive care from the Oreocastro warehouse in northern Greece after a cooking stove being used as a heating device in his family’s tent caught fire. Unless conditions improve, it is only a matter of time before another needless tragedy strikes

-Panos Navrozidis, IRC’s Country Director in Greece

In a disused warehouse near Belgrade’s central bus station, Afghan boys sleep huddled together for warmth. Few have jackets and many are without proper winter shoes. Scabies and lice are endemic and the only washing facility is a cold tap outdoors

-Gordana Ivkovic-Grujic, IRC’s Country Director in Serbia

Current EU policies appear to be designed for the sole purpose of deterring spontaneous arrivals, with little consideration for Europe's responsibilities or humanitarian consequences. The result is the continued loss of lives in the Mediterranean, thousands stranded on Greek islands in inhumane conditions, and the vast majority denied effective access to safe and legal routes to protection in Europe. Border closures to Greece’s north, the EU-Turkey deal, narrow definitions of family under the Dublin Regulation, and an opaque, discriminatory, and slow relocation scheme have created a situation where people are losing hope in the legal options made available to them.

Now refugees face a winter, in Europe, living in unacceptable and potentially life-threatening conditions.

The IRC recommends:

European Union and international donors:

  • Promote urban housing and programming, and discourage continued investment in refugee camps in the allocation of 2017 funding for Greece. Funding must be allocated based on humanitarian needs and in line with global best practices.
  • Significantly increase funding to support a Balkans response, particularly for Serbia and Bulgaria, commensurate with the increased need. The Balkans now host at least 14,000 people or 22% of the population stranded in Greece, which the Greek government puts at 62,517.
  • Redouble efforts to relocate and reunify those in need of international protection in Greece and the Balkans, through existing EU mechanisms, regardless of nationality.
  • Maintain the expanded definition of family in the Commission proposal for the revision of the Dublin Regulation.

The Greek Government:

  • Release a national response plan to guide response efforts.
  • Authorise NGOs to provide the critically needed heat and other winter support necessary for those stranded across Greece.
  • Immediately close mainland sites that are not safe to accommodate people in winter, including but not limited to the warehouses and tented sites. It is possible to move those in these sites to other existing sites with capacity and better conditions.
  • On the islands, transfer all those who have the necessary paperwork and wish to move to the mainland, in order to decongest the overcrowded facilities.
  • Transfer the most vulnerable into appropriate urban housing (e.g., apartments), while maintaining, to the extent possible, family and community structures that were formed in the existing sites.

The Serbian Government:

  • Ensure provision of additional appropriate accommodation with heat and hot water, as well as other winterisation support for all those in existing asylum and reception centres.
  • Accelerate the opening of new centres that meet humanitarian standards, so those in tents and informal sites can be moved to accommodation facilities that meet their needs for winter.
  • As more people are moved from informal sites to asylum centres due to cold weather, increased overcrowding exacerbates gender-based violence (GBV) risks. Reinforce and ensure implementation of rules and procedures which prevent GBV in the centres, especially gender segregation of toilets and sleeping quarters, and cooperate with NGOs who can ensure gender sensitive distribution of winter items.
  • Expand current collaboration with humanitarian actors who are organising much-needed occupational activities that are paramount for psychological wellbeing of the refugees.

For images from the derelict warehouse in central Belgrade, which is home to several hundred refugees, click here. Please credit Info Park / Miodrag Cakic.

IRC spokespeople are available in Greece, Serbia and London. 

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.