On Friday at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Cecile Pouilly, expressed grave concern over the reported death of asylum seekers who were “trying to enter or move across Europe” amid harsh winter conditions.
The bodies of two Iraqi men who had apparently died from exposure and exhaustion were found last Friday in southeastern Bulgaria near its border with Turkey. In addition, a young Somali woman was found dead in the same region, while two teenagers who had been accompanying her were taken to the hospital with frostbite. The group was found after spending five days in a forest in extreme cold, the UN official said.
Meanwhile, a 20-year-old Afghan man froze to death in Greece after crossing the Evros River on the border between Greece and Turkey when night temperatures plunged below -10 degrees Celsius. The body of a young man from Pakistan was found on the Turkish side of the border in the same region.
“We reiterate our call to increase safe pathways for the admission of people in need of protection, including via resettlement, family reunification, private sponsorship and other mechanisms to provide a viable alternative to irregular movement and reliance on human smugglers,” Pouilly said.
The UN official also called on European nations to stop the practice of “pushing 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,” she said, noting “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.”
Thousands of asylum seekers remain in unheated premises in Greece and Serbia, Pouilly reported. On the Greek island of Samos, some 1,000 refugees, including families with young children, are living in tents. In Serbia, some 1,200 males have been staying “in inadequate informal sites in Belgrade.”
“As a life saving measure, we continue to provide heaters, blankets and winter clothes to residents of informal sites who have not yet agreed to move to government centers. We urge the authorities to continue their efforts to expand emergency shelter capacities, with particular consideration to the specific needs of unaccompanied children,” Pouilly said.
Meanwhile, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, has warned that children are particularly prone to the dangers of cold weather.
“It’s about saving lives, not about red tape and keeping to bureaucratic arrangements,” Sarah Crowe, a UNICEF spokeswoman told journalists in Geneva.
UNICEF data has shown a spike in the number of unaccompanied and separated children arriving in Europe. In Italy alone, the number has more than doubled since 2015, reaching 25,800, the Guardian reported.