Plunging Temperatures Bring Greater Perils for Refugees Trying to Reach Greek Islands

Nick Squires, Telegraph, October 31, 2015

They have endured ruthless smugglers, hunger and exhaustion, but now the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe have a new adversary to face–the onset of winter weather.

“We were freezing cold,” said Yasmin, a 30-year-old Palestinian woman, as she waded ashore on the Greek island of Samos after a five-hour, night-time crossing in a large inflatable dinghy from the coast of Turkey.

“The smugglers made us wade into the sea to reach the dinghy, so we were wet before we even began the journey,” the young woman, a translator and journalist from Gaza, said in impeccable English.

The misery of the passengers–most of them Syrians fleeing the war–was compounded by waves splashing over the low sides of the dinghy, and sea spray whipped up by a biting northerly wind.

The grey rubber dinghy was crammed with 60 people, 25 of them young children.

As they clambered ashore in a picturesque bay on the coast of Samos, women and toddlers shivered uncontrollably.

Their clothes were soaked, and their bags and rucksacks dripped sea water.

A mother hurriedly stripped her little boy of his wet trousers, leaving him standing barefoot in his pants and a Bob the Builder singlet with the words “Don’t Worry, I’ve Got a Plan”.

The boat journey from Turkey to Greece’s eastern Aegean islands is already dangerous enough, as demonstrated by the deaths of more than 60 refugees, half of them children, in the past three days alone after their boats sank while trying to reach Samos and the islands of Lesbos, Rhodes and Kalymnos.

But it will become even riskier as the winter months approach, with plunging temperatures, heavy rain and strong winds.

“There’s going to be even greater risk of hypothermia,” said Capt Lars Axvi of the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, a volunteer organisation that has sent two specialist rescue boats to Samos to work with the Greek coast guard.

“The sea temperature right now is around 18C (65F), which is OK, but it is going to get much colder, and then your survival time in the water diminishes. So much can go wrong on these crossings–there’s a very small margin of error. In the winter it will be much tougher.”

Syrian refugees who make it to the shores of Samos are taken to a rough, makeshift collection of Portakabins in Vathi, the island’s main town.

Other nationalities–whose documentation takes longer because their claims to asylum are considered to be less strong–are taken to a grim, fenced camp on a hillside overlooking the town.

There is still some heat in the autumn sun during the day, but already emergency workers are witnessing acute health problems among the refugees, including hypothermia, exhaustion and bronchial problems.

“They are wet when they arrive so above all they need dry clothes. Many of them are freezing cold and get sick,” said Signe Dalsgaard Jakobsen, 30, a Danish nurse working as a volunteer.

“We’re seeing people with hypothermia. We have a lot of small children arriving. We had a baby who was two weeks old who had a bad cold. That can be really dangerous because their airways are so narrow and they get full of mucus, so that they can’t breathe. You have to suck it out and give them oxygen but we have no facilities to do that here.”

While women and children are given priority to sleep in the Portakabins lined up on the dockside, the men have to sleep out in the open, most of them without sleeping bags or blankets.

They lie on the concrete ground or on pieces of cardboard, their hands thrust into their pockets, with hoods and woollen hats pulled low over their faces.

“I’m afraid that with the cold weather it will get worse and it will start to become really dangerous,” said Ms Jakobsen.

Conditions are even worse on Lesbos, which has received the bulk of the 560,000 Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others who have reached Greece by boat so far this year.

At one refugee centre outside the main town of Mytilini, mud and rainwater mix with liquid faeces from insufficient lavatory facilities, streaming down unpaved pathways.

“We have witnessed a lot of pregnant women and children queuing for several days in the mud and pouring rain, without any protection from the elements, soaked to the skin and often wearing nothing warmer than a T-shirt,” said Yves Wailly, project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres on the island.

“Some people can no longer stand up because their feet are so swollen after being wet for days at a time.”

The hard-pressed Greek coast guard has rescued thousands of people stranded in boats that were taking on water or sinking.

A coast guard vessel unloaded 48 Syrians in the main port of Samos this week, the latest batch to be rescued.

Soaking wet, they climbed down a gang plank, some of them barefoot. A small girl cried because she had lost one of her pink, glittery shoes.

“Beyond the island the weather was really bad. The wind was blowing at around eight knots. Their boat was sinking. It was totally dark,” said the young naval officer in charge of the patrol vessel.

“We were at sea for about six hours. We are tired so much. All night there was big trouble for us,” said Ghassan Badar, 53, a Syrian who was travelling with five members of his family.

“The children were very scared. They were crying all night.”

He fled Syria, he said, because there was nothing left in his home town of Deir Ezzor, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates.

“Daesh (Isil) has taken our town. It’s all damaged by bombs. People’s houses are destroyed and they have had to leave. Now it’s empty.”

While the Syrians describe a country that has been torn apart by years of fighting between government forces, rebels and Isis, the many Afghans arriving on the Aegean islands also say they were compelled to leave their country by violence and persecution.

Many of those making the journey are Hazara, an ethnic group who have faced discrimination and persecution at the hands of the majority Sunni population for decades.

“The Taliban and Daesh hate the Hazara, they try to kill us,” said Abdul Alizada, 20. “They are Sunni, we are Shia. The government despises us too. There are many more Hazara coming.”

In the southern Mediterranean, the mass exodus of migrants from Libya traditionally slows almost to a halt during the winter months, when rough weather makes the long sea crossing to Italy much more hazardous.

But in the Aegean, the desperation of the Syrians in particular, and the fact that the journey by sea from Turkey is much shorter, means that arrivals may continue even through the winter months.

“If the situation remains so difficult at home, Syrians will keep leaving. There is no other choice. They want to find safety, that’s all,” said Mr Badar, as his children shivered on the dockside in the early morning cold.

“We are risking death to find peace–we do it even with our children, these little flowers.”

At the hillside refugee camp, Rena Simopoulou of the International Organisation for Migration is wrestling with the problem of how to accommodate more than 1,000 people in a reception centre with just 260 beds.

People are crammed into 11 grey dormitories, many of them sleeping on the floor, while others stay in tents pitched on a basket ball court.

Until recently the Greek police provided regular meals for the migrants, but they now say they have run out of money.

No meals have been given out since Sunday, leaving many refugees to go hungry.

“I think the numbers will decrease over winter, but who knows?” said Ms Simopoulou. “Last week the weather was very bad but we still had arrivals.”

It is not as if the refugees are unaware of the risks involved.

“I know it’s a dangerous trip but I had no other choice. I thought we had a 50-50 chance of making it across,” said Yasmin, who worked as a journalist in Gaza but says she faced persecution from the Hamas government.

She was travelling with her husband, who worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund in the Palestinian territory, and her daughter, a lively five-year-old who chattered away happily about her favourite characters from Frozen despite her sodden clothes and wet shoes.

“My daughter speaks four languages and I need her to start her life in a good country. We are educated people. I read 10 books a month. We need the world to show us a little bit of humanity,” Yasmin said.

The family applied for asylum in Norway and France but were turned down. Now they are desperate to reach Sweden, where they have relatives.

And they believe there are many more refugees waiting to make the same journey across the sea.

“Maybe the numbers will drop a bit over the winter, but people will keep coming. I know there are many Syrians and Iraqis applying for visas for Turkey. That means only one thing–that they want to go to Europe.”

There was a huge surge of refugees reaching the Aegean islands in late October, with 50,000 arriving in one week alone.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has made it even more deadly and more complicated.

Turkey warned this week that the Russian intervention could displace another two million people in Syria.

A senior government official told The Telegraph that at least half of them would cross into Turkey and many would then travel onto Europe.

Rubbing his hands to keep warm and waiting to be issued with a temporary permit that will allow him to board a ferry to Athens, from where he will travel up through the Balkans, Ammar Fares has little doubt that the flood of refugees will continue.

“People will keep coming through the winter,” said the 25-year-old from Latakia, Syria’s principal port. “They need safety. It won’t stop. It will not stop.”

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