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Onset of winter increases refugee rush to Europe

30 October 2015


Freezing nights: refugees hoping to cross from Greece into Macedonia on Tuesday, huddle round a fire near the Greek village of Idomeni. The UN says that more than half a million migrants have arrived in Greece this year

Freezing nights: refugees hoping to cross from Greece into Macedonia on Tuesday, huddle round a fire near the Greek village of Idomeni. The UN says th...

AS TEMPERATURES plummet, aid agencies are stepping up their efforts to help refugees crossing through Europe.

“Every day counts,” the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned on Sunday. “Otherwise we will soon see families in cold rivers in the Balkans perish miserably.”

Amid warnings that the crisis threatens to tear Europe apart, an agreement to achieve “gradual, controlled, and orderly movement” was signed on Monday, in Brussels. The agreement, a 17-point “Western Balkans Migration Route”, includes a commitment to improving co-ordination among countries, and to increase the provision of “temporary shelter, rest, food, health, water, and sanitation to all in need”.

In the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, more than 670,000 people have crossed into Europe this year. The number entering Serbia each day has doubled in the past week to 10,000. A Christian Aid partner, Philanthropy, which is the charitable foundation of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is now reaching three times as many people as it did before (News, 11 September), with food and hygiene supplies.

Philanthropy’s programme manager, Marija Vranesevic, said: “We are seeing people arrive in the thinnest of basic clothing, some with shoes, some barefoot. . . They arrive exhausted, and hungry; some have been beaten or robbed along the way, and almost all are traumatised.”

Thousands have been trapped in Croatia, which is sporadically closing its border with Serbia in order to control numbers. “They are forced to camp in muddy fields,” Ms Vranesevic said. “Wet and freezing, they wait with thousands of others, for hours, or even all night, for the border to open.”

Impending winter appears to be driving more refugees to attempt the journey to Europe. More crossed the sea from Turkey to the Greek islands last week than ever before: 56,000 in six days, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Some of them do not survive the journey. On Sunday, the senior Anglican chaplain in Athens, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, said there were fatalities “as overcrowded dinghies arrived on the rocky coastline of Lesvos” in disturbed seas.

There were “NGOs galore” in Greece, he said, and plenty of help in the form of food and clothes, but “very little co-ordination”. Co-operation among local churches was good, however. The Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Evangelical, and Anglican Churches, and the Salvation Army, were pooling responses, and acting under the umbrella of the UNHCR.

About £49,000 has been deposited in the Anglican chaplaincy’s account in London. “The prevailing wisdom is to hold on to our resources for a while,” Canon Bradshaw said on Sunday.

“The issue of the refugees is still going to be there when present acts of compassion fade. That may be the time when our resources can best be used. However, the Balkan winter is very close, and it can be bitter. We will soon be in the business of establishing survival kits.”

He reported concern for those refugees who are not accepted in Europe: “Is Greece going to be a great holding camp for stranded refugees or economic migrants? The traffickers reign in this game.” Refugees, he said, do not want to stay in Greece: they want fast transit before all the borders close, and winter arrives.

On Thursday, the UNHCR reported that nearly a million people have applied for asylum in Europe and other Western countries this year. Applications in Europe have doubled in the last year to 629,000.

Elsewhere in Europe, churches have been devising ways in which to respond to the crisis. This month, the Episcopal News Service reported that an Episcopalian couple, Lora Bernabei and Arthur Reynold, had responded to the closing of Hungary’s border by sending help to refugees beyond the border in Austria, driving the two hours from their farm to deliver food and other aid.

In Belgium, the Rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Waterloo, the Revd Sunny Hallanan, and her parishioners are volunteering at a camp in Brussels. Last week, The Daily Telegraph reported that Offa House, a 27-bedroom Georgian mansion near Leamington Spa, owned by the Church of England, had been earmarked by the diocese of Coventry as a possible reception centre for refugees.

A planning application submitted to Warwick District Council last week requested authorisation to use it for the next five years as “short-term residential accommodation for refugees”.

Priests are also lending their voice to a grass-roots campaign, coordinated by Citizens UK, to urge their councils to agree to resettle refugees. Last week, Kensington and Chelsea Council passed a motion welcoming 50 refugees, proposed on behalf of the Labour group by the chaplain of the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, the Revd Robert Thompson, who is a councillor.

The Anglican mission agency Us. has published a Lent study course for 2016 which focuses on the global issue of migration, and the plight of refugees. Free printed copies of this can be ordered from www.weareus.org.uk/resources/migration/.

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