Thursday, January 12, 2017

The winter crisis in Greece - refugees left in limbo as those in charge pass the buck

Cold Kills Refugees

After days of anticipation, the Ariadni cold wave finally hit Greece a few days ago bring polar temperatures and heavy snowfall across across the country. Not only was this spate of bad weather predicted days in advance, it was the butt of many jokes and sarcastic comments on Facebook and Twitter as the full force of the front hit nearly two days later than had been originally forecast. So why the Greek authorities and the large international NGOs who help run many of the camps were taken so completely by surprise by the event is something of a surprise in itself. While many ordinary Greeks were left without water and electricity by the extreme cold, those worst hit were many of the 60,000 refugees still living in tents and abandoned industrial buildings in makeshift camps.

On the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos some refugees were left to spend days in unheated tents enduring temperatures as low as -5C , Nor was it only the islands that saw such squalid neglect of people in dire need.  Despite repeated assurances by Greece' Migration minister, Yannis Mouzalas that, with a few minor exceptions that those on the mainland were already in properly "winterised" accommodations (see his interview in the Turkish daily Hurriyet) photographs and video soon appeared on both Facebook and Twitter from volunteers and aid workers on the ground showing freezing families in snow covered tents and freezing warehouses struggling to survive polar temperatures.

Once the story was picked up by the international media the Greek government's response was to first ban photography and filming in the worst effected camps (refugee camps are under the control of either the Greek army or police force and access to them is strictly regulated) and then slowly place a minority  (500 out of nearly 6,000) of the most vulnerable in more suitable housing, at least until the worst of the winter weather abated.

While the severity of the cold spell is unusual for Greece, it is not unprecedented, Greek winters especially in the north are shorter than those in northern Europe but are often quite severe due to the mountainous topography of the region, so much so that the nation has over 25 ski resorts that people flock to every year. Even on the islands winter temperatures are often no more clement than those in some parts of northern Europe such as southern UK and Ireland, even in a mild winter. Forcing people to live in tents and abandoned buildings for months in such conditions is nothing short of criminal.

As is so often the case, finding the villain of the piece is a complicated, frustrating process with all the major players, Greek central government, local authorities, EU and UNHCR Greece busily blaming each other for this easily avoided fiasco. In the meantime many refugee still find themselves in cold, squalid camps waiting for a plan to improve the situation that no one in a position of authority seems willing to provide.

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