Winter in Refugee Camps

Northern Greece
March 23, 2017

Thessaloniki, January 2017

The temperature outside is -5°. Snow is attempting to fall, but in broken sprees, each too little to settle, as if even it has decided it is too cold to be outside today.

At Oreokastro camp, a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, men, women and children from Syria and Iraq are facing the realities of winter in Greece.

 And despite their best efforts, they are not faring well.

Rizan Poyraz, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria, explains: ‘Everyone here at the camp is sick. We have been sick for two weeks now. We have medicine, but everyone is sick. It is because of the cold. It is very, very cold here.’

At Oreokastro, in common with other camps all over Greece, refugees and aid organisations are working together to overcome the worst that winter throws at them.

But also in common with other camps, the electricity supply is unreliable, cutting out after only a few moments and often not returning for hours.

 And the cold is biting here, cutting through blankets and clothing.

Inside the warehouses, people huddle together, and as anyone would do, they light fires to attempt to get warm. When the wind is low enough, and less biting, they light them outside. But when – like today – it is whipping across from the mountains, they light them indoors, on the freezing brushed concrete floors.

 This, too contributes to people’s poor health, resulting in breathing and other difficulties.

Rizan gestures to one small group sat around an indoor fire, and says: ‘This fire makes smoke in the camp. It is very dangerous, and it makes people sick. But what else can we do? How can we stay warm?’

One woman, a mother of three children, adds: ‘Of course it is dangerous. But we are so cold. Our children are cold. They cannot sleep. We do have heaters, but we have no power. We need power.’

Across the city, at Redestos camp, the same problems breed the same responses and lead to the same issues.

Aras Majid, an Iraqi refugee, notes: ‘People here cannot sleep. They are desperate. They cannot sleep and I know that some are turning to artificial ways of sleeping, such as drugs. It is a bad situation. People are burning everything, even blankets and plastic. It makes all of us sick.’

The temperatures fell further over the next few days, plummeting at some points to -8 degrees. And on Tuesday, it began to snow heavily, with two-three inches falling by 12.30 pm on Wednesday.

Refugees and aid workers have cleared drifts as well as possible, but the fact remains that in a European state, people fleeing war are at present facing a new risk to their lives and health - a bitter winter with inadequate heating or shelter to survive it.

Many refugees are now being moved to hotels in and around Thessaloniki, but more than 150 people remain in both Oreokastro and Redestos, with many more at Diavata and Lagadikia, and others all over Greece.

And the hotels are in any case at best a temporary solution, while the camps are expected to be filled once again when the Greek government begins moving refugees from the reception centres at Lesvos, Chios and other islands.

Rizan adds: ‘We know that they will take us to hotels, but they do not say when, or where, or for how long we can be there. They come every day for people to leave, and that is good, but now we are freezing here. We don't know when they will call us.’

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