Thousands Trapped in Freezing Temperatures in Greece and Serbia

Marko Drobnjakovic/MSF

Thousands of migrants and refugees are trapped in freezing conditions in Greece and Serbia without adequate shelter, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today, calling again on the authorities to improve conditions for people suffering in below-freezing temperatures.

The situation is particularly dire for those living in tents in overcrowded camps on Greek islands, stranded in abandoned buildings in Belgrade, or stuck trying to cross Serbia's borders.

"Today, people are severely lacking appropriate assistance and this is putting their lives in danger," said Stefano Argenziano, MSF operations coordinator on migration. "We are witnessing the most cruel and inhumane consequences of European policies, which are being used to deter and victimize those who are only seeking safety and protection in Europe."

Legal Barriers

Over the last year, European authorities have sought to stop people from seeking protection in Europe as they flee active war zones, including through an agreement between the European Union and Turkey and the official closure of the Balkan route for migrants and refugees.

More than 7,500 people are currently stranded in Serbia, living in overcrowded camps and informal settlements. Serbia has agreed with the European Union to host up to 6,000 people, of whom only 3,140 live in facilities adapted to winter. In Belgrade, about 2,000 young people, mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, are currently sleeping in abandoned buildings in the city center, while temperatures plummet far below freezing.

In recent months, Serbian authorities have severely restricted the provision of humanitarian assistance to these people, only tolerating volunteers doing a basic distribution of blankets and food.

"For months, the strategy has been to block humanitarian aid, to push these people into official camps," said Stephane Moissaing, MSF head of mission in Serbia. "But the camps are full and already stretched beyond their capacities, so today migrants are left with no option other than to sleep in abandoned, open buildings in freezing temperatures."

Desperate Measures

MSF, which runs mobile clinics in the Belgrade city center, has installed some emergency space heaters as a desperate measure to try to protect people from the cold and is negotiating with authorities to further increase shelter capacity.

"For months we have called on the EU, UNHCR, and Serbian authorities to put in place long-term solutions to avoid this catastrophic situation," Moissaing said. "The collective failure of these institutions has left even the most basic needs uncovered, exposing already vulnerable people to even more suffering. Several people have already died of hypothermia at the borders of Serbia and Bulgaria."

The situation is no better on Greek islands such as Lesbos and Samos, where thousands of people are still stuck in overcrowded camps, living in flimsy tents in below-freezing temperatures, creating serious health and safety risks. 

"These families abandoned under the snow and freezing rain are paying the price of European cynicism and of its reprehensible deal with Turkey," said Clement Perrin, MSF head of mission in Greece. "It is outrageous that despite all European promises and announcements, men, women and children are living in tents under freezing rain. We call on Greek authorities and the EU for immediate emergency measures to ensure that all refugees and migrants on the islands are housed in dignified, adequate living conditions."

The majority of people MSF psychologists have seen for mental health consultations in recent months in Samos and Lesbos cite poor living conditions as either the cause of or an exacerbating factor in their psychological difficulties.

"Greek authorities must stop congratulating themselves on humanitarian achievements while thousands of people are left to suffer in harsh winter conditions as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed," Perrin said. "No person seeking protection, fleeing war, torture, and extreme violence should be left out in the cold."

MSF teams are working in more than 20 locations in Greece, providing care for mental health, chronic diseases, and sexual and reproductive health.

Slideshow: In Serbia, Humanitarian Assistance Restricted Amid Freezing Temperatures