BELGRADE – Leading children’s charities warned Tuesday that young refugees crossing through the Balkans were at serious risk from the bitterly cold weather and lacking adequate shelter from the snowy conditions.
“It’s an absolutely desperate situation,” Valentina Bollenback, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, told AFP by telephone from southern Serbia near the Macedonian border, where the ground is currently covered with about 6 inches (15 cm) of snow.
She said refugees were forced to trudge through the cold for 2 km (about 1 mile) to cross the border into Serbia. They then travel to the Presevo registration center, where she had seen shivering children with chattering teeth and blue lips.
“There’s an increasing risk of hypothermia, pneumonia, and other life-threatening illnesses,” Bollenback told AFP.
While tents were being heated and local authorities were “stepping up” their efforts, she said a better system was needed to give a “dignified and humane” response to refugees.
UNICEF also released a statement warning that children arriving in Southeast Europe were “physically exhausted, scared, distressed and often in need of medical assistance.
“The recent sub-zero temperatures and sometimes snowy conditions (are) exacerbating the children’s poor physical condition as many children on the move do not have adequate clothing, or access to age-appropriate nutrition,” the statement added.
“This has been worsened by the lack of shelter and inadequate heating in some reception centres as well as buses and trains.”
Mirjana Milenkovski, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Serbia, said nearly 7,000 refugees had entered the Presevo reception center from Friday to Monday, adding that the “situation was under control.
Despite the onset of winter, more than 31,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece this year — some 21 times the number recorded by the Greek coast guard in January 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
They follow the 1 million who crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2015, nearly half of them Syrians.
Relief agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Tuesday denounced the European Union’s “catastrophic failure” last year to help the waves of asylum seekers, demanding that safe transit corridors be provided for them.
The International Monetary Fund also warned Europe of the economic challenge of the refugee crisis and urged it to work harder to assimilate migrants.
“The tide of refugees is presenting major challenges to the absorptive capacity of European Union labour markets and testing political systems,” the IMF said in its latest global economic outlook.
“Policy actions to support the integration of migrants into the labour force are critical to allay concerns about social exclusion and long-term fiscal costs.”
Greece’s shipping minister has meanwhile criticized coast guards who forced an alleged Turkish smuggler to look at the bodies of three dead migrant children who died crossing the Aegean.
The affair surfaced after Sky News on Friday broadcast footage of a distressing migrant rescue near the Greek island of Samos where two 2-year-old boys and a 4-year-old girl died.
In the footage, the coast guardsmen arrested a 21-year-old Turk who was driving the boat as a suspected smuggler, and forced him to look at the bodies of the children until he broke down in tears.
“Clearly this is exaggerated behaviour,” Shipping Minister Thodoris Dritsas said in a statement late on Monday.
“The state and its officials should be cool-headed and professional against any detainee, even one accused of heinous crimes.”