Balkan cold bites but migrants on border defy conditions
Aid groups warn of rising health risks as Syrians flee latest surge in fighting
Migrants are escorted through fields by Slovenian police and the army as they walk from the village of Rigonce to Brezice refugee camp on Saturday. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
“Wood,” the elderly Syrian said through the fence, “can you give me some wood?”
He pointed to blocks of cut wood piled up where workers were erecting a shelter for migrants at Rigonce, just inside Slovenia’s border with Croatia.
One of 20 or so riot police, who with soldiers watched over some 1,000 migrants, shook his head: what you give to one you must give to all, he said, and everyone was getting cold as dusk fell on the fields and forested hills of eastern Slovenia.
As the golden light of a warm autumn day fled the valley, migrants scraped together little mounds of leaves and twigs and set them alight, so that soon, here and there in the makeshift camp, orange flames licked at the gathering gloom.
He had left home in Aleppo 10 days ago, and spent almost every night since sleeping outside at a different stop on his journey through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia, amid falling temperatures and frequent rainstorms.
“I try to sleep when we are on buses and trains,” he said. “But we are so hungry now – we haven’t eaten since we arrived here.”
Local Red Cross workers handed out bread and bottled water, but some migrants said they hadn’t received anything, and volunteers complained about being prevented from offering homemade soup to the cold and hungry travellers.
“My parents and brothers are still in Aleppo – I am the oldest one, so I am going to Germany now and I will bring them later,” explained Hayani.
“I’m 16 years old, and I left Syria alone. Now I am travelling with friends that I made along the way.”
Since Hungary closed its southern border with Croatia last Saturday, turning Slovenia into a key transit country for migrants heading for western Europe, some 60,000 people have entered the Alpine state, which has just two million residents.
Slovenia has deployed more than 600 troops to help police handle the influx, and is building shelters to provide better temporary accommodation as autumn turns to winter, and an expected sharp decrease in the flow of migrants fails to materialise.
More migrants arrived in Greece last week than at any other time this year, with 48,000 crossing from Turkey between October 17th and October 21st “despite deteriorating weather conditions”, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
“We all had the expectation that there would not be conditions to sail from October to March,” said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency.
“But we must keep in mind what is driving these people – desperation. If anything, the numbers of people arriving are going up.”
For the people of Rigonce and nearby villages, the last week has been bewildering, as their quiet rural lanes and skies have been taken over by thousands of migrants, military and police trucks and helicopters, and TV satellite vehicles.
“We cannot receive so many refugees in such a small period of time . . . It’s just unbearable,” Slovenia’s prime minister, Miro Cerar, said on a brief visit to the Rigonce camp on Friday.
Cerar said he would seek co-ordinated international action and emergency funds at talks yesterday between leaders of several EU states and Balkan countries.
Baloch, visiting another camp 8km from Rigonce, said rising numbers and winter’s approach made the humanitarian situation “desperate and urgent”.
“We expect the European Union to put in place a reception, registration and screening process, and apply measures to enact relocation of 160,000 refugees, which has already been agreed – there is no other way to stabilise the situation.”
After a week in which thousands of migrants spent nights outside in temperatures close to freezing, including many who were left soaking wet in muddy fields on the Serbia-Croatia border, Baloch said the cost of inaction could be deadly.
“There are already indications of many sick children arriving, and the elderly also simply cannot cope with the cold conditions,” he said.
“We need proper reception and shelter arrangements, and people shouldn’t be left at border points unattended – otherwise, we could see tragedies.”
Syrians who have arrived most recently in Slovenia say Europe should not expect the exodus from their homeland to abate anytime soon.
“The Russians are there now, I saw their planes,” said Hayani.
“We’ve had war for four years in Aleppo, but this is the worst time. It’s too dangerous to live there now, so everyone wants to leave – everyone.”