PLUMMETING temperatures and snowstorms are exacerbating dire conditions for Syrian refugees: they are burning plastic bags to stay warm in Lebanon, and arriving in Serbia with just the clothes they stand up in.
Temperatures are forecast to drop as low as -20°C on the border between Macedonia and Serbia in the coming days. Aid workers have told Save the Children that children are arriving “with blue lips, shaking from the cold and clearly distressed”. On Lesbos, they are disembarking soaking wet, and wearing just T- shirts.
On Tuesday, a UNICEF spokesman warned that there was a “very, very high” risk that children who were trekking across Europe might freeze to death. Three Syrian refugees, including a five-year-old, were reported to have frozen to death in Lebanon this month, after the country was hit by a severe winter storm.
“We are finding lots of health issues related to the kind of things they are burning in order to stay warm,” the executive director of a Tearfund partner, Heart for Lebanon, Dr Camille Melki, said last week. Lives were also at risk from tents, pitched in close proximity, that caught fire, he warned.
The charity is distributing blankets and mattresses to protect refugees from sleeping on thin slabs of frozen concrete. It is currently supporting 2870 families — double the number last year. The UN reports that refugees now make up a quarter of the population of Lebanon, and 70 per cent live in extreme poverty, up from 49 per cent in 2014.
The situation was exacerbated by political paralysis, Dr Melki said. The country had been without a president for 18 months. The poorest refugees had settled in the most deprived parts of Lebanon, “putting on much larger pressure, as they feel the little they have is being divided as well”.
Other neighbouring countries are struggling to cope. There are already 17,000 people stranded at the Syria-Jordan border. The UN’s regional-response plan is just 58 per cent funded.
Desperate conditions in these countries were a “push factor” driving refugees to Europe, a senior humanitarian policy adviser at World Vision, Johan Eldebo, said on Tuesday.
Although, as the temperature dropped, fewer people were coming, there were still about 2000-3000 refugees a day crossing into Serbia. They knew what to expect, Mr Eldebo said, but were fleeing desperate conditions, deciding that “if Europe is cold, then Europe is cold. They will still come if they think that will save their lives.”
World Vision has so far reached 100,000 refugees in Serbia. “When they arrive, they have nothing but what they are wearing,” Mr Eldebo said. He has been in the country, and is returning shortly.
“It’s minus ten degrees, and what these people do not have is winter shoes, warm coats, hats. Many of them are already sick with respiratory problems, colds, and pneumonia. They can’t carry food with them; so they are dependent on people providing for them throughout the journey.”
Europe needed a plan “that works both for people who are fleeing and those receiving these refugees here”, he said. “As a continent, we have not planned for this; and you are going to see more tensions. We know if you do not do that in a sustainable way, then you breed tensions as a result, which is entirely avoidable.”
Although young single men make up a high proportion of the refugees crossing Europe, World Vision says that many children are on their own, separated from their parents. It is calling on the Government to accept 3000 of them.