Extreme winter conditions across Greece and the Balkans have laid bare the short-sighted policies of European leaders to close borders and implement the EU-Turkey deal agreed in March 2016, the International Rescue Committee said today.

Thousands of refugees on the Greek islands and thousands more on mainland Greece continue to live in substandard, inadequate and unsafe conditions, pummeled by snow and rain, in sites with insufficient heating and shelter. While the Greek government has implemented some emergency measures this week, including a ship to host up to 300 refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, these can be considered short-term fixes. They are not an adequate long-term response.

Meanwhile, across the Balkans where temperatures will remain substantially below freezing for the foreseeable future, refugees continue to risk their lives on treacherous, alternative routes. In the past week, four refugees have been found, frozen to death – three on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and one in northern Greece. With over 7,200 refugees stranded in Serbia, government-run shelters are at capacity. At least a thousand refugees, including several hundred children traveling alone, are living in an abandoned warehouse in Belgrade where there are no services and where they are at extraordinary risk of death by hypothermia.

The focus of European leaders on curbing arrivals and stopping people from moving, and the failure to adequately prepare the camps for winter, set in motion the conditions we are seeing right now. With an emphasis on borders not people, far too little has been done to resource the programs necessary to assist refugees with asylum claims in Greece and to provide alternate legal routes for those fleeing conflict.

In September, the IRC called on the EU to establish an asylum task force consisting of 1,250 experts to ensure an efficient and expedited asylum process for refugees both on the Greek islands and across the mainland. With just under 200 experts planned to be deployed for the response in 2017, clearly these numbers have not come close to being realised.

The IRC which has been working on the island of Lesbos since July 2015, has repeatedly stepped up to provide emergency stopgap measures to refugees at Moria, and continues to do so. What is needed now is a commitment from the Greek government that these short-term stopgap measures are replaced with more durable long-term solutions, alongside a robust staffing up of the asylum process.

The Balkans have been largely ignored, with host governments and local humanitarian organisations doing the best they can with limited funding. The EU needs to turn its attention to the Balkans, especially Bulgaria and Serbia, to support governments and response agencies in their efforts to expand housing and programming for refugees who are stranded there, with no-where to go and ensure funding reaches those that need it most. Critically, a robust effort is needed to provide outreach to vulnerable refugees who are living beyond the remit of government services.

EU member states must do more to support Greece and countries along the Balkan route, who cannot be expected to carry the responsibility for this crisis alone.

Elinor Raikes, the IRC’s regional representative for Europe said: Europe is not living up to its values. What is needed now is strong, compassionate, and effective leadership. The world’s most vulnerable people are being punished for seeking sanctuary. Surely they have been through enough already?

Panos Navrozidis, the IRC’s country director in Greece said:Close to 10 months since the EU-Turkey deal was implemented there is no excuse for the overcrowding we are seeing on the Greek islands. Vulnerable refugees and refugees with legitimate family reunification and asylum claims must be moved to appropriate sites on the mainland.

Gordana Ivkovic-Grujic, the IRC’s country director in the Balkans said: The EU must address the fact that desperate people fleeing conflict will continue to find a way to live safely. What is needed now more than ever is an expansion of safe and legal routes.

The IRC is responding in Greece, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria with a focus on environmental health, protection and information, and economic recovery and development. For more information please see here and here.

Photos of conditions in Serbia at this link. Please credit Miodrag Cakic/Info Park.