Sunday 15 December 2019

Refugee children at risk from harsh Balkan winter

A migrant mother carries her child as they walk through the snow from the Macedonian
border into Serbia (AP)
A migrant mother carries her child as they walk through the snow from the Macedonian border into Serbia (AP)

Nick Squires

Refugee children are at grave risk from hypothermia as they trek with their parents through Greece and the Balkans in temperatures as low as -20C, British charity Save the Children has warned.

Deep snow, biting winds and freezing temperatures are making the journey a misery for refugees and migrants as they cross by boat from the Turkish coast to Greece's Aegean islands and then make their way from Athens north into Macedonia and Serbia.

More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe last year, with fears that continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries will propel a similar exodus this year.

Despite rough seas and freezing temperatures, more than 24,000 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

Children are walking long distances and having to sleep out in the open as they make the journey north, their goal being western Europe and Scandinavia.

On the border between Macedonia and Serbia, temperatures are forecast to drop to -20 °C, raising the risk of hypothermia, pneumonia and other potentially fatal respiratory illnesses.

At Presevo, on Macedonia's frontier with Serbia, aid workers said children were arriving with blue lips, their bodies shaking from the cold.

"The conditions here are very, very difficult, and with temperatures forecast to drop as low as -20C today, the lives of children are at risk," said Save the Children's Valentina Bollenback.

Hypothermia "The mothers I have met arriving here are distressed because they are unable to keep their babies warm and safe.

"We see children with early signs of hypothermia such as blue lips and hands, as well as high fevers and respiratory problems.

"Instead of focusing on closing their borders, Europe's governments should be doing more to give people fleeing war a dignified and humane reception."

It has snowed on Lesbos, which receives the largest number of refugees of any Greek island.

Some of the children arriving in boats and rubber dinghies are wearing nothing more than T-shirts. Many are soaking wet from the voyage.

"The boat journey was the hardest part," said Nasir, a Syrian man who fled the war five months ago with his wife and two young children.

"It was extremely cold, everything was wet and the babies were ill. Sometimes I fear for my children. We couldn't remain in Syria, but it doesn't get this cold there. We have never been this cold."

Save the Children is handing out children's rain jackets, socks and shoes, as well as hot drinks and hygiene items.

On Monday, the president of Greece accused Turkish border authorities of facilitating people smuggling by turning a blind eye to the trafficking of thousands of migrants to Europe.

"I have a strong fear that Turkish smugglers have the support of the authorities, in particular, border authorities who act like they have seen nothing," Prokopis Pavlopoulos told the German newspaper 'Sueddeutsche Zeitung'.

"There are even cases where the smugglers are helped. We have evidence. It's a type of slave trade," he said, stressing that he was not speaking about Turkey's leaders. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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