As winter approaches, blankets and warm clothes are not enough for the 50,000 refugees in Greece awaiting resettlement in Europe
Correction appended, Nov. 15
Camp residents heard the screaming before the acrid scent of burning plastic and polyester wafted through the abandoned factory. Once a tobacco processing facility, the vast warehouse had been turned into a refugee camp near the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, housing nearly 1,400 refugees from Syria in regimented rows of canvas tents. Early on the morning of Oct. 30, one of those tents caught fire, sending the camp into panic as neighbors attempted to put out the flames and rescue the inhabitants. Graphic videos posted to the camp’s Facebook page show friends and family desperately trying to pull a screaming 8-year-old boy out of the melted remains of a polyester sleeping bag. He is now on life support at a local hospital with burns over most of his body.
Greek authorities are still trying to determine the exact cause of the fire in Oreokastro camp, but residents say they already know the culprit: northern Greece’s bone-chilling winter nights. The boy’s mother had left a hotplate on in a desperate attempt to heat her tent and keep the family warm. Most likely the boy brushed up against the electric cooking appliance with his sleeping bag, which subsequently caught fire. Camp resident Hayat Abdullah, from Deir ez-Zor, Syria, warns that these kinds of fires are likely to happen again, as refugees battle the cold. “Of course it is dangerous to leave the hotplate on,” she says “But a lot of people use them to heat the tents. It’s all they have.”
As President Obama embarks on his final European tour, he will be making a stop in Greece to discuss, in part, that country’s struggle to cope with the more than 50,000 migrants who, after fleeing the battlefields of the Middle East, are now waiting for relocation elsewhere on the continent. A recent cold snap brought temperatures across Greece to near freezing the day before his arrival, a stark reminder that while some 15,000 of the most vulnerable refugees have been moved to pre-fab housing containers hotels and apartments with heat, 38,000 are still living in camps that are ill prepared for the cold and snow of the coming winter. “Conditions are appalling,” says Roland Schönbauer, the Athens-based Public Information Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR supplied the besieged residents with blankets, plastic sheeting and replacement tents; overall it has distributed more than 200,000 winter items—including sleeping bags, hats, gloves and thermal leggings—to refugees living in similar conditions across the country. The so-called “winterization” kits, which were funded in part by the European Commission with donations from fashion brands Uniqlo and Falke, were appreciated by camp residents, who donned the leggings and socks immediately. Still, says Schönbauer, the kits aren’t nearly enough. “We — the community of humanitarian actors, NGOs and UNHCR — we started late, and we really need to speed up to be ahead of the first snow.”