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Refugees in Greece Shiver at Winter's Approach


A bleak winter lies ahead for many refugees and migrants trapped in Greece, with thousands left vulnerable to the elements.

Aid organizations are offering winter assistance to those stuck in the country since last spring's closure of the Balkan route into other parts of Europe.

The Greek government has largely succeeded in shifting most people from ad hoc sites into some 50 state-run camps, but those camps' conditions vary widely.

As one UNHCR spokesman admits, "more speed" is needed in efforts to minimize the impact of the coming cold. Many still have no more than a tent to protect them in the coming months.

Temperatures dropping

As autumn turns to winter, father of six Karim Husseini has his share of problems.

"When it rains, all of the tents get wet and we have to take the blankets out until they dry," he said.

An Afghan, he and his family are some of the 800 residents of Schisto camp, a few kilometers from central Athens. Husseini worries about the potential health risk of such conditions for youngsters during winter.

"We are adults," he said of his family, "but for families with children, the situation is more dangerous."

There is good news for the Husseinis: Cabins are expected to replace the remaining tents at the site. However, in the lottery that is life in Greece’s state-run camps, others will not have the same luxury.

Enduring the elements

More than 50,000 refugees and migrants are trapped in Greece. Among them, 10,000 are still living in tents and exposed to the elements. An estimated 6,000 more live in tents within warehouses, prompting fears of indoor fires as the cold bites.

A few thousand more have found their way into squats, which can lack basic heating.

FILE - Refugee children enter a primary school in Athens on the first day of lessons under the new refugee schooling program, Oct. 10, 2016.

FILE - Refugee children enter a primary school in Athens on the first day of lessons under the new refugee schooling program, Oct. 10, 2016.

Across the country, a patchwork of aid agencies and volunteers is moving to respond to the onset of winter, with a mixture of cash assistance and items such as warm clothing and sleeping bags being distributed, while some people are being moved into housing.

Even in the best case scenario, however, it is expected that at least 10,000 people will be left to endure the elements in tents or warehouses.

The United Nations organization that overseas aid for refugees admits current measures are not up to pace.

"It’s late in the game, and it is a serious matter if you have people in tents when it begins to snow," said Roland Schoenbauer, a UNHCR spokesman. "There is goodwill, but we need more speed."

Planning

Others are more specific about where they think the problem lies.

Hamstrung with debt and host to a new population because of other nations' decisions, Greece has found itself trapped in a situation not of its making.

Although acknowledging the challenges it faces, the International Rescue Committee’s Jane Waite questions what she sees as a lack of planning by the government, which did not respond to a VOA request for comment.

Waite said getting permits to bring aid into the camps could be a struggle. She pointed out that facilities in the Greek islands are crowded, well over capacity, unlike those on the mainland. The state could move people from inadequate camps into those with better facilities but, she said, was missing an opportunity.

"Winter is not a new thing; everyone knows it will come," added Waite, the IRC’s deputy director for programs in Greece. "While a plan is now being developed, it has taken a very long time."

Waiting game

Most of the camps' residents remain stuck in the slow-turning cogs of European Union bureaucracy, waiting for permission to stay in Greece or legally relocate elsewhere in Europe.

Of the 66,400 people that the European Union pledged to move from Greece to elsewhere on the continent, less than one-tenth has moved on. That has prompted some to attempt illegal crossings into other parts of Europe.

“It’s not rocket science,” said the UNHCR’s Schoenbauer. “The number of people that need to be relocated is absolutely manageable, but the number of spaces provided [for relocation] has been far too few.”

In Schisto camp, Azizola Sedarat is treading the legal path. The Afghan father of four can only hope that the container set to replace his family’s tent arrives before the bitter cold, and that somehow things will speed up so the family can secure a stable future.

Having fled danger, he once again fears what the coming months will bring.

"Here, we are dying slowly."

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