PERSPECTIVE

‘A tragedy at any moment:’ Refugees forced to cope with winter cold

A migrant is half-covered with a thermal blanket while sleeping on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast. (Reuters)

As soon as you reach the Greek border village of Eidomeni, it’s obvious that the number of migrants moving through overwhelmingly outnumbers the locals.

This is a tiny town that just 150 rural Greeks call home, but visit the town now and you’ll witness a never-ending flow of migrants on the move. Most carry only one bag of belongings strapped to their backs. Their entire lives have been reduced down to a single piece of luggage, though it’s clear they bring with them heavy emotional baggage from witnessing war.

Surprisingly, smiles begin to emerge from their faces as the border crossing becomes in sight. The entrance into Macedonia means they are one step farther from their battle-scarred homes and one step closer to what they hope will be a prosperous new life. However, aid workers here are finding it harder and harder to smile back at the suddenly joyous refugees who’ve just reached the border. That’s because as each day passes, the aid workers are becoming more and more worried over what winter could bring.

A Syrian refugee splashes in the water as he approaches the shores of Lesbos island after jumping from a inflatable dinghy that carried him with others from Turkey to Greece on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP)

Everyday roughly 6,000 asylum seekers briefly stop in Eidomeni before moving into Macedonia and continuing the journey to Western Europe. And the aid workers running what they call a “transition center” here say despite the days becoming dreary and damp, the number of refugees passing through continues to climb.

Luca Guanziroli, a protection officer with the U.N.’s refugee agency, makes sure the thousands of migrants—all anxious and eager to make it into Macedonia—stay lined up in their groups of 50 to ensure an orderly crossing across the border. Guanziroli says in the past few days, he’s witnessed the number of migrants passing into Macedonia jump to seven to eight thousand a day.

“Maybe people are rushing seeing that some European countries have been more restrictive,” said Guanziroli.

“Or maybe it’s due to the fact the seas are becoming more dangerous.”

Guanziroli is in a prime spot to gauge whether the number of migrants on the move is up or down. U.N. data shows that of the nearly 600,000 migrants who’ve reached Europe by sea so far this year, 445,000 of them landed in Greece.

Last month alone, a record setting 153,000 asylum seekers sailed to Greek soil.

‘Easier than hearing bullets and rockets’

While there are multiple Greek islands refugees arrive on, nearly all travel through Eidomeni because here refugees are allowed relatively quick passing and NGOs have set up camp at the crossing to pass out food and clothing. And as these refugees so worn out from war huddle around the food and clothing tents, it’s obviously they’re desperate for new beginnings. They’ll grab clothes two sizes too big and devour whatever dishes the non-profits serve up. The start of life for them in Europe is far from glamorous and nearly completely strips them of any pride they brought with them, but it still beats the alternative of trying to literally survive at home.

Whatever the reason for this recent surge of asylum seekers, Guanziroli doesn’t foresee the tidal wave of those escaping Syria and Afghanistan to drastically slow down to a trickle as the brunt of winter approaches.

“Maybe we’ll come down to 2,000-3,000 [migrants a day] like we had a month ago,” says Guanziroli as he begins to prepare the transition center in Eidomeni for an inevitable frigid season.

 

Syrian refugees wait near the border railway station of Idomeni, Northern Greece, in order to be allowed by the Macedonian police to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, early Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. (AP)

Even though Greece is sandwiched between the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, temperatures in the north of the country can hover around the freezing mark in December and January. That’s why in a few days Guanziroli hopes to have electricity in his massive tents where refugees typically will rest for a few hours before their group of 50 is allowed to step foot into Macedonia. Guanziroli needs the power to run heaters. He also plans on trucking in benches so refugees won’t have to sit on what will become frozen ground. The last thing he wants to see is lives lost to the cold as migrants continue the journey north.

As for the refugees, many say they are so determined to find new homes in countries like Germany and Sweden that worsening weather isn’t even a factor for when they decide to take what can be a dangerous and deadly trek. Most of those passing through Eidomeni have spent months in Turkey working odd jobs and getting paid under the table so they could fork over $1,000 to be smuggled into the Greek Isles. These refugees then have to pay for all the ferry, bus, train and taxi trips to reach their final destination of choice. It’s a very expensive trip for people who’ve left everything behind and now have next to nothing.

23-year-old Mohammed Daniel fled the fighting in Aleppo, Syria seven months ago. If he didn’t leave, he would of faced mandatory military service. Not willing to fight his fellow Syrians, Daniel grabbed the little he could and took off for Turkey.

Just a few days ago he finally earned enough money to leave Istanbul. Daniel doesn’t know where in Europe he wants to settle, but decided to move out of Turkey as fast as he could.

“The rain is good,” says Daniel as he heads into Macedonia on a chilly, damp day.

“This is easier than hearing the bullets and rockets.”

In mourning

Though others walking alongside Daniel aren’t as upbeat as they head up through Europe.

43-year-old Ahmed Elzedin deeply mourns as he prepares to enter Macedonia. At the border crossing he begins to breakdown as he explains that on September 12, he watched his one-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son drown after the shoddy boat he bought from a smuggler overturned.

This father knew it was risky taking his entire family by sea to Greece, but he still never expected he’d end up with his own Greek tragedy. Elzedin’s children are just two of the nearly three thousand migrants taken by the Mediterranean.

The tragic accident happened after the Iraqi family left Turkey and saw a Greek island in sight.

“The boat sank near the island,” Elzedin says through his tears.

But this man from Baghdad vows to keep moving north with the aim of reaching Norway. After a few minutes of explaining his story he managed to raise his head again, and looked at the border guards standing at the very edge of Macedonia.

“I can’t go back to Iraq,” explains Elzedin, who believes Shia militias will kill him if he returns home.

“Maybe I will be better there [in Norway], my psychology will be better. And my wife and [surviving] daughter will be safe.”

Winterizing

It’s this unrelenting determination—that can’t even be dashed in the face of death and despair—of those like Elzedin to reach Western Europe that deeply worries aid workers. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent also deploys staff in Eidomeni and is working on its winter game plan.

“We know there are a lot of [refugees] still in Turkey,” says Red Cross Emergency Communication Delegate Charlotte Hyest.

Hyest is well aware of the fact that most of the 2 million refugees in Turkey, don’t want to stay in Turkey.

“We don’t know if they will be able to cross the sea because of the weather, but we’re sure the flow of people will continue.”

So Hyest says the Red Cross will be ready to hand out socks, blankets and warm sleeping bags at Eidomeni and other refugee meeting and crossing points. The Red Cross is also considering handing out maps or brochures with the locations of border crossings and Red Cross mobile kitchens and mobile clinics. Hyest says that information will be especially critical to those migrating during the harsh winter months.

As for her U.N. counterpart, Guanziroli says all this work and all the worry over what’s to come in winter is exhausting.

“Yes, I feel overwhelmed,” he says, and then quickly adds, “But I signed up for that, it’s my job.”

A Syrian refugee carries his child after they arrived from Turkey to the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, on an inflatable dinghy, with another boat in the background, Saturday Sept. 26, 2015. (AP)

For Guanziroli, there’s a tremendous amount of stress. Even all the cold weather preparations underway can’t eliminate the fear that winter weather could overtake the Mediterranean Sea as the number one killer of migrants. It’s a nightmare scenario aid workers know Mother Nature could turn into a reality.

Just recently Guanziroli’s top boss, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, warned the world from Geneva that, "with the kind of weather that you have in the Balkans, this can be a tragedy at any moment.”

"We know how to winterize a camp. We know how to winterize a tent. We know how to winterize a building. We don't know how to winterize a crowd moving every day from one country to another."

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Last Update: Monday, 19 October 2015 KSA 13:42 - GMT 10:42
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‘A tragedy at any moment:’ Refugees forced to cope with winter cold
Even though Greece is sandwiched between the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, temperatures can hover around the freezing mark
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