Refugees on Greek islands struggle in freezing temperatures

For many on Lesbos and other islands, flimsy tents are only shield against snow and rain

Heavy snowfall blankets the Moria migrant camp in Lesbos, Greece, where many of those sheltered there are living in tents lacking any insulation. Video: Reuters

Thousands of men, women and children are battling to keep warm in overcrowded refugee camps after sub-zero temperatures descended on the Greek islands over the weekend, bringing snow and freezing rain to southern Europe.

With temperatures dropping to minus 30 degrees in parts of Europe, refugees and migrants living in flimsy tents in Greece have become the victims of the failure to roll out a planned winterisation programme across the nation's more than 40 refugee camps before the cold weather set in.

Only last week, ahead of the weekend's heavy snowfall, the UN Refugee Agency made a call to accelerate the moving of asylum seekers from the Aegean islands to the Greek mainland. Last Wednesday, Greek authorities vowed to improve its island camps after violent protests from migrants angry over the slow processing of asylum requests and living conditions.

The UNHCR is currently evacuating the most vulnerable from the islands – particularly those living in the overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos – in an attempt to house as many people as possible before the cold weather deteriorates further.

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"You cannot stockpile human beings. You have to give them proper space and proper showers and toilet facilities to have dignified living condition," UNHCR spokesman Roland Schoenbaurer told The Irish Times. He added that delays in registration had led to serious overcrowding in camps on the islands.

“The registration on the islands was far too slow and EU support was not coming to the extent that the Greek authorities had hoped,” he said. “All efforts need to go into speedier registration and identification of vulnerable people who should move to the mainland.

“Europe must keep its word and redouble efforts to relocate more asylum seekers from Greece. It would ease the situation significantly.”

Fires in tents

Declan Barry, medical co-ordinator with Médecins Sans Frontières, has warned that many people will light fires inside their tents in a desperate attempt to keep their families warm.

“This is a huge safety risk,” Dr Barry said. “In November, a grandmother and child were killed after a cooking fire exploded in the Moria camp. This is happening here in Europe and we have standards of safety and security.”

Dr Barry runs programmes for refugees with chronic diseases and mental health issues, and which provide support in sexual and reproductive health. He warns that the poor living conditions are further exacerbating the already fragile mental health of people who have lived through war and survived a traumatising journey to make it to Greece.

"It's horrifically cold out there," he said. "It's harsh with a biting wind. In Ireland we have cold weather but we have fireplaces and insulation. This is a plastic jungle on top of a concrete jungle. This is what is being forced upon these people."

According to the UNHCR, less than 12 per cent of the EU’s commitment to relocate 66,4000 people across Europe has been released. By January 4th, only 7,800 people had left Greece or were scheduled to leave for another European country.

In Ireland, 760 refugees have arrived under the Government's programme for people fleeing conflict in Syria and other war-torn countries in the Middle East and north Africa. Of these, 240 were relocated from Greece.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast