The migrants' winter walk: Oxfam calls for safe passage of refugees to Europe

The migrants' winter walk: Oxfam calls for safe passage of refugees to Europe

Nearly 60 million people around the world are now officially “displaced” from their homes – the highest figure recorded by the United Nations since the Second World War.

Millions of these refugees are fleeing poverty and conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of them are making the difficult journey to Europe in the hope of a better life for them and their children.

In January 2016, the total number of arrivals of refugees to Europe reached 1,167,475 but at least 3,810 women, men and children are dead or missing, lost during the journey at sea or over land.

These are not just numbers, they are real people.

“People are arriving here exhausted, hungry and thirsty and often in need of urgent medical attention.” Riccardo Sansone Oxfam’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Serbia.
 
 
Fatheh, 45, (pictured above) is travelling alone with her 4 children. She had to flee Syria, but her husband stayed to take care of his mother who is too old for such a long and difficult journey. “Mine and my relatives’ homes were totally destroyed. There are no buildings left in my neighbourhood. We started going from one place to another. We were refugees inside our own country until we had nowhere to go. At that point, we had no other option but to leave Syria and become refugees. Even if the war ended, I don‘t think we’d ever come back home”.
 
 
Smart phones are a life-line to migrants and refugees. They help them to plan their journeys and stay in touch with their families. 
 
At Oxfam we recognise the importance of information sharing. We are working on the ground to provide refugees with information on safe roads, places, and their human and asylum rights.
 
 
Between October 2015 and January 2016, 985,600 arrivals were documented in Serbia and Macedonia. Many of the refugees along this route come from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
 
To cross Serbia refugees must be granted a travel pass which gives them 72 hours to cross the border out of the country. Most refugees, who are mostly women, children and elderly people, make this journey on buses, trains and on foot.
 
For most of the route there are no, or inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
 
We believe that everyone has a right to safe water, sanitation and hygiene as a basic essential service.
 
So far we have supplied vulnerable people with portable latrines, sanitary and waste containers and sanitation equipment such as soap and toilet paper in three areas of Serbia.
 
 
Khalid (pictured above) has wrapped his children in a blanket to protect them from the cold as he carries them towards the Serbian border. He and his family, like millions of others, have fled the ongoing war in Syria.
 
People are only able to take the possessions that they can carry and are not prepared for the winter conditions that they face along the Balkans route, where temperatures drop below -16°C (3°F). 
 
Oxfam has supplied around 100,000 refugees and migrants with urgently needed winter items (such as jackets, underwear, gloves, cups, blankets and scarves) during the cold winter months in Dimitrovgrad, Sid, Preševo (Serbia).
 
 
The opening and closing of borders only adds to the challenges that refugees face. As routes change so do the needs in each location, even the train stations become temporary camps.
 
The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse throughout winter as the heavy snow will make the journey harder and more dangerous.

 

What Oxfam is doing

Working with local organisations in Serbia and Macedonia to protect new arrivals
 
 
Many of the migrants and refugees arriving in Europe along the Balkan route face daily uncertainty and practical challenges such as the route to take on their journey, from basic information about aid points and available services to the increasing risk posed by human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Most of them are women, children and elderly people. Through close interaction and monitoring of local authorities we support them, by ensuring that local organisations can provide adequate assistance and protection to new arrivals.
 
Besides our protection programme, we are also installing toilets, showers and water points and will be distributing hygiene and sanitary packs, as well as socks, coats and blankets to about 100,000 people in Serbia and in Macedonia. With the Balkan winter here, refugees not only face dropping temperatures, but food and water shortages, poor sanitation, and few winter clothes. The opening and closing of borders only adds to their struggle as routes change and so do the needs in each location. The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse in the coming months: the heavy snow will make the journey harder and more dangerous and people may be unable to continue.
 
We have been working in partnership with UN women to support the distribution of urgently needed items in Serbia and Macedonia following a UN Women gender assessment that shows women and girls' specific needs and vulnerabilities are not being adequately addressed. In partnership, we are also poised to deliver a targeted information campaign to women, capacity-building training to local counterparts and advocacy activities raising the voice of women migrants and refugees.
 
Providing emergency, legal and psychological support in Italy
 
We are helping those arriving in Italy by providing food, clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene kits as well as longer term psychological and legal support. We are supporting asylum seekers to find accommodation, and with cash so that they can meet their basic needs in Sicily and around Florence.
 
Distributing hot meals and winter kits in Lesbos, Greece
 
 
Above: Sanitation facilities at Kara Tepe camp, Greece. Photo: Jodi Hilton/Oxfam
 
We are providing hot meals to people on the Greek island of Lesbos.Thanks to the help of volunteers we are distributing meals of rice, lentils and vegetables once a day in co-operation with Save the Children.
 
We are also preparing winter kits and clothes for distribution on Lesbos and Kos and improving water and sanitation facilities in Moria Camp, Lesbos.
 
Border access is restricted between Greece and Macedonia: only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans are allowed to cross, while thousands of asylum seekers from other nationalities are stuck in Greece.
 
Life-saving emergency support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan
 
More than 4 million people have had to flee Syria to escape its civil war. In 2014 we reached nearly half a million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water or cash and relief supplies, such as blankets and stoves and vouchers for hygiene supplies. We are helping families get the information they need about their legal and human rights and connecting them to medical, legal and support services.
 
We have built shower and toilet blocks in refugee camps, informal settlements and on deserted routes used by people fleeing Syria and have installed or repaired toilets in communities hosting refugees. Piped water schemes are being developed for Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and in host communities in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
 
We are also providing clean water to Syrians inside their country through rehabilitation of infrastructure, water trucking and repairing of wells.
 
Calling for safe passage 
 
Many refugees face brutality and poor treatment. Every day, approximately 50 boats with refugees or migrants, fleeing war or poverty, arrive off the coast of the small island of Lesbos, Greece. 
 
Desperately seeking safety in a new country, refugees pay traffickers amounts of around €1,000 per person (€800 if you're over 60 or if the weather is bad), to risk their lives on dangerous journeys.
 
 
Some are lucky enough to get to beaches where they face volunteer groups across Europe, others are not so lucky. More than 4,000 people fleeing for their lives, failed to reach the coast in 2015.
 
Our call for safe passage is founded in the belief that all people have the right to a life of dignity.
 
The EU must urgently provide safe and legal passage for migrants and refugees coming to Europe.
 
Refugees and migrants must not be forced to risk their lives or resort to extremely dangerous measures to continue their journey.
 

All photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam.