It’s winter. Thousands of refugees in Serbia and on the Greek islands are living in unheated places. That’s while the stretch of sea between Libya and southern Italy continues to be a death trap.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration: As harsh winter sweeps across Europe, thousands of refugees in Serbia and on the Greek island sareliving rough in inadequate informal sites or unheated tents and dormitories. Volunteers and independent NGOs have reported dire living conditions for refugees. That’s while the stretch of sea between Libya and southern Italy continues to be a death trap for those seeking safety and protection in Europe.
SOUNDBITE [English] Joel Millman, Spokesman, and International Organization for Migration: “There are rubber dinghies, inflatable dinghies that we have seen countless times this year. We’re talking about over 100 people in each boat, and these are normally supposed to carry 25 to 30 people. So we can imagine only its rough seas, it’s winter weather and when they capsize they don’t have long to survive in that weather.”
Narration: In Belgrade, Serbia, about 2,000 young people, mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, are currently sleeping in abandoned buildings with little hope of moving forward on their journey.
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “Everybody here is waiting; Syrian, Pakistani, Iraqi, Afghanistan, Bangladesh. Too many people here. Everybody needs open the border.”
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “Now it is cold inside. People don't sleep because we don't have a heater. I've been here nine months in this camp, nine months, sleeping in tents for why? I wait for what? Every day same day, same foods, same people. No school, no job nowhere, nothing.”
Narration: With no running water or electricity, they keep themselves warm using improvised fireplaces inside the barracks, while temperatures fall far below freezing.
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “There has been problems with the influence of flu. People are frozen. It's very cold.”
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “We already (have had) admit two guys to a hospital, because they have cough and they have lungs problem because of the smoke. Carbon monoxide gas is too much, you can see around the area here. It is too much, and all the people are, almost you can say forty to fifty percent of people are having this problem here.”
Narration: Humanitarian organizations have accused Serbia of forcing hundreds of refugees back towards Macedonia and Bulgaria, refusing them help in freezing temperatures.
According to Nikola Kovacevic, of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights: “The assessment is that a total of 700-1,000 refugees have been illegally deported to Macedonia and Bulgaria since September.”
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.
SOUNDBITE [English] Cecile Pouilly, Spokesperson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “We are particularly concerned by reports that authorities in all countries along the Western Balkans route, continue to push back refugees and migrants from inside their territory to neighboring countries. In several cases, refugees and migrants have alleged that police have subjected them to violence. Many have also reported that their phones were confiscated or destroyed, thus preventing them from calling for help once stranded. Some even reported items of clothing being confiscated, thus further exposing them to the harsh winter conditions. These practices are simply unacceptable.”
Narration: The situation is no better on Greek islands where thousands of people are still stuck for nearly a year in overcrowded camps, living in flimsy tents in below-freezing temperatures, creating serious health and safety risks, and even death from the cold.
SOUNDBITE [English] Cecile Pouilly, Spokesperson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “We are extremely concerned by reports that several refugees and migrants have lost their lives trying to enter or move across Europe including five deaths since the beginning of the year due to the freezing weather. At the Greece-Turkey land border on January 3rd, a twenty year old Afghan man died of complications resulting from exposure to extreme cold.”
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
Narration: Although the appalling camp conditions have drawn condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union has left the cash-strapped Greek government to handle the challenge mostly on its own. A year after the European Union sealed its borders to large numbers of newcomers, Greece remains Europe’s holding pen for nearly 60,000 men, women and children.
SOUNDBITE [English] Monica Costa, Campaigner, And Amnesty International Migration:“The situation in Lesbos and in general in the islands is extremely concerning now and we believe that this is the result, the direct result, of the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal. So, because of this deal the overcrowding in the islands of refugees and migrants is very, very concerning.”
Narration: Many have been living for months in a distressing limbo in sordid refugee camps on the mainland and on Greek islands near Turkey, unable to move to countries where they hoped to seek asylum, and with no means or motivation to return their war-stricken countries.
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “Most of people here have a hope that they will open the borders, at least for those people stuck here on the border, but finally they said no way to go through these borders. This make us feel so bad, angry.”
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “I am live here, on the border. I stay here on the border. No sleep, no food, no water, just here on the border.”
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “Ok, I just want to tell you something, why they are closing the border? We are not terrorist people. Did I look like a terrorist? Really, I swear.”
SOUNDBITE [English] A Refugee: “Not good, not good. We are waiting here, rain, cold, sick. Lie, everybody lie.”
Narration: The extremely slow processing of asylum applications for those in the Greek camps has been the stumbling block to refugees. That is partly because the European Union has sent just a fraction of the assistance it pledged to Greece last year. A separate European Union plan to ease Greece’s burden by relocating tens of thousands of asylum seekers has also failed to take off, with European countries taking only a few thousand of the many stuck in Greece.
SOUNDBITE [English] Adrian Edwards, Spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency: “As of two days ago (4 January), only 7,760 asylum seekers had left Greece or were scheduled to leave under the EU Relocation Mechanism that? You may recall? Was agreed in 2015 to relocate people within two years. This figure represents just 12 per cent of the 66,000 agreed last year. It is unacceptably low, we are appealing again to Member states to respect their previous commitments and offer additional relocation spaces without delay.”
Narration: While European leaders have hailed the “success” of a deal aiming to stop migrant boats being launched from Turkey to Greece, the number of asylum seekers taking the longer and more treacherous route from Libya to Italy has increased dramatically. While more than 5,000 refugees died attempting sea journeys to Europe in 2016, of drowning, and suffocation in overcrowded dinghies, the cold itself is taking lives now. That’s while calls to increase search and rescue missions and provide safe passage have gained no response.
SOUNDBITE [English] Michele Telaro, Coordinator at Medecins Sans Frontiers: “Now the winter is going on, the conditions become more and more difficult and unfortunately the departures do not stop. We already said but we continue to repeat that there is not the only possibility to decrease mortality is just a legal solution and a legally safe way for people to access Europe, knowing that this year has been the deadliest year ever with more than 4,600 people that died in the sea trying to reach Europe.”
Narration: It seems deportation is the only help the EU can offer to these refugees who are seeking shelter in European countries.
SOUNDBITE [English] Max Avis, Coordinator at SOS Mediterranean Rescue Team:“The idea that they could be repatriated to Libya is horrifying. We are talking about... I can't give statistics, but most of the women that we brought in today have been raped and abused. Many of the men have been beaten, and not just once, this is a kind of routine thing that goes on for months and months in Libya. People are robbed, I mean, it is a tragedy. And if you think about, you know, someone said once that a society should be measured based on how they treat the most vulnerable. And I think we are doing a terrible job there, and I dread to think how we will be measured in the future by trying to repatriate these people to Libya. I think it is appalling.”
Narration: Despite the scale of the crisis, there is no coordinated response by European authorities. The biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII is on. Those who have survived years of war, violence and deadly journeys to safety, are now freezing to death on Europe’s doorstep.