Why Conditions Are About to Get a Lot Worse For Europe's Refugees

For the thousands of refugees fleeing violence and conflict in their home countries, including Syria and Iraq, the treacherous conditions they are dealing with as they travel are about to get a lot worse, with aid agencies warning that as winter sets in, the risk of illness and death will increase for the many migrants hoping to reach Europe.

The problem is compounded by the record numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Europe. So far this year, nearly half a million migrants and refugees have arrived, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and across the continent there are already signs that measures put in place for the summer months will not be adequate once winter arrives.

In a speech earlier this month, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: "Do not underestimate our imperative to act. Winter is approaching—think of the families sleeping in parks and railway stations in Budapest, in tents in Traiskirchen, or on shores in Kos. What we will become of them on cold, winter nights?"

Local authorities in Germany have already made it clear they will require greater funding as the tent cities that cropped up across the country over the summer become uninhabitable in the winter months, when temperatures can drop to -15°C in mountainous areas. Earlier this month, the German government announced plans for new "winterised shelters"—more permanent structures—for 150,000 migrants, with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledging to spend nearly €6 billion to deal with record numbers of refugees and migrants in the country.

On the Greek islands, there has already been a noticeable change in the weather conditions, according to Tyler Jump of the International Rescue Committee, a major New York-based aid organisation. "Every day the seas are a bit choppier and rougher, and we think no one will come across today, and yet we are seeing record numbers arriving—around 4,000 every day," he says.

While migrant deaths in the Mediterranean tend to drop over the winter months, as fewer people attempt to make the crossing than in the summer, there is a feeling among aid workers that the numbers who try this winter will be greater than in previous years due to the desperation and sense of despair at the situation in Syria. "We hear reports of people selling their last belongings, and the land of their ancestors inside Syria, because they have given up all hope of better a future where they are," says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent non-profit organisation based in Oslo which helps displaced Syrians. "They see no alternative."

Over 200 migrants died between October and December 2014 in the Mediterranean. And while 12 and 24 migrants died in January and February 2014 respectively, in 2015, these numbers had soared to 77 and 359 deaths.

Kate O'Sullivan, of the charity Save the Children, expects a slowdown in November, but says there will still be a continuous stream of people trying to reach Greece over the winter. About 100,000 refugees arrived to the Greek islands in August 2015; already in September there have been 120,000 arrivals to the Greek islands, and the charity thinks the numbers will remain constant for the next month.

And while up until now conditions have been dry at the two main camps on Lesvos, which are not formally managed and resemble little more than fields, already this month storms have started to make the ground wet. "You're going to start seeing children getting sick," she says. "When children arrive at these camps they are already wet and have lost their clothes; they're going to be really cold and exposed to the elements in the coming months. When I meet children coming off the boats they are already freezing."

In central Europe, there is also a fear that more refugees will take routes that are far riskier due to the turning weather conditions, as countries close their borders. This will make the refugees vulnerable to unscrupulous smugglers. This year alone, Europol, Europe's law enforcement body, has registered 29,000 individuals whom it suspects of involvement in people smuggling inside Europe.

Joel Millman of the International Organisation of Migration, currently based in Serbia, told Newsweek: "As the weather gets colder, we'd be very concerned about people choosing routes through the Western Balkans and getting stuck in the mountain passes. It will be very cold, it will snow, they might be abandoned by smugglers, or get into disputes with criminal gangs, all kinds of things will happen that could lead to people being stuck overnight, and possibly freeze to death."