As winter grips countries across Europe and temperatures plummet, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) calls for increased access to humanitarian assistance and safe accommodation for people fleeing war and persecution.

The numbers of people seeking safety in Europe are expected to increase due to the ongoing escalation of hostilities in Ukraine in the face of severe winter, while continuous violence in Afghanistan and hunger caused by drought in Africa means that people will continue to make treacherous journeys to safety. 

Reports suggest that Poland is preparing to receive around half a million more refugees from Ukraine, yet an IRC assessment found that 56% of refugees surveyed who are already in the country, feel ill-prepared for the coming winter months. Meanwhile, the number of people travelling along the Balkan route has doubled in just twelve months and living conditions for people on the move-  as winter sets in - are bound to worsen.

Additionally, the rising cost of living in Europe has increased tensions between host communities and refugees, with the latter often wrongly perceived as receiving preferential treatment from the aid organisations and local governments.Host communities have expressed grave concerns about their own livelihoods; countries such as Slovakia and Hungary have seen inflation rates skyrocket to 14.9% and 21.1% respectively.  Amid the ongoing energy crisis, there are concerns that volunteers could discontinue providing accommodation to refugees from Ukraine, while refugees who are self-reliant might soon be unable to afford to pay their rent or utility bills.

Meanwhile, temperatures in countries like Italy, Serbia and Poland go dangerously low. Collective housing schemes, such as refugee camps in Greece and seaside hotels turned into shelters in Bulgaria, may not be adequately equipped to keep people warm this winter - a lack of suitable accommodation and barriers to accessing the reception system make people even more exposed to winter threats.

Marijana Simic, Regional Director for Europe, said,

“While the world’s attention is trained on Ukraine, we cannot forget people on the move who are caught elsewhere in Europe, bracing themselves for the hardships of the upcoming winter.

“People traveling through forests in Serbia are forced to live for days in the cold in extreme conditions, while others are squatting in abandoned buildings and makeshift shelters. Many of them are afraid of the police, who might use violence to keep them from crossing the border. Our teams report that many people all along the Balkan route are deprived of medical assistance. They are often unable to treat wounds caused by violence or frostbite during their journey.

“In Italy, we see many refugees waiting for shelter who are forced to sleep for weeks in parks or in sheds, often without having adequate clothes, blankets or sleeping bags to escape the cold. IRC teams assisted over 4,200 people in September and October this year alone, 10% of whom were children traveling alone. Meanwhile, refugees living in camps in Lesvos, Greece, are experiencing electricity cuts and lack of hot water and heating. 

“No person can be allowed to suffer from the cold this winter. Our teams receive calls for help from refugees coming from Ukraine and other countries who struggle to find a warm place to stay. It is imperative that donors and governments commit to plans for a structured and inclusive winter response that addresses the needs of all people fleeing conflict and persecution, regardless of their country of origin or the journey they have gone through. Governments must renew investment into urgent reception needs and ensure sufficient and dignified accommodation is available to all those who need it. In addition, they must ensure that no one is denied safety in Europe and that people are not exposed to the violence of pushbacks that will put their lives at risk.”

Notes to editors:

The IRC has been responding to humanitarian crises in Europe since 2015, where we launched an emergency response to the peak in migration in Greece and relaunched operations in Serbia. Since then, our teams have provided water, health and sanitation, and psychosocial support to refugees and migrants across Europe, including in Italy from 2017 and Bosnia in 2020. In February 2022, the IRC launched an emergency response to the war in Ukraine, and our teams are now present in 14 countries in Europe, including Hungary, Moldova and Poland.