A Chilling Environment: Icy Conditions Threaten Migrants’ Health

tent covered in snow
tent covered in snow
Refugee Tent at Moria Camp, Lesvos, sent by refugee to Voice of America

By Vasileia Digidiki and Jacqueline Bhabha

Struggling to manage Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis in recent history, with hundreds of thousands of migrants in legal limbo in all of Europe as anti-immigration sentiments gain ground, countries in Europe and the European Union (EU) in particular now face a new set of challenges: devastating weather conditions necessitating an immediate humanitarian response to end further loss of human life among the most vulnerable.

The ongoing cold spell, which started in early January 2017, has wreaked havoc across a number of different fronts, disrupting public sector services and agricultural production across Europe, and resulting in a rising death toll from freezing temperatures. As of January 12, estimates place the number of dead at 65,[1] among them four migrants, one in Greece and three in Bulgaria.[2]  As weather conditions continue to deteriorate, more migrants, particularly the elderly and young, will succumb if protective measures are not immediately implemented.

As the closest EU member state to the epicenter of violence in the Middle East, Greece has been grappling with unprecedented refugee arrivals for many months. While the first very substantial flows were transitory, with distress migrants moving on from Greece towards chosen destinations further north and west, that is no longer the case.  The closing of borders has led to a situation where over 62,000 refugees are now trapped within Greece, with no prospects of relocation.  This imposes a huge humanitarian responsibility on an already economically embattled and impoverished country, one that is compounded by the dramatic absence of EU relocation or responsibility sharing interventions.  The FXB Center for Health and Human Rights has already reported on the perilous state of Greek refugee camps and on the severe humanitarian hardships and protection risks facing particularly vulnerable populations among the refugees and migrants, including babies, children, and adolescents.  As of mid-January 2017, 295 unaccompanied children and thousands of accompanied children remain detained in closed camps with very limited access to schooling and appropriate care, in violation of well-established international obligations clearly articulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and in June 2016’s related “Recommended Principles for Children on the Move.”[3]  Some children have been detained in these harsh and unsuitable settings, commingled with adults and uncertain of their future prospects, for over 10 months, a situation that exacerbates pre-existing trauma and contributes to high rates of mental illness and distress.[4]

These egregious challenges are now exacerbated by climate extremes, which have not been adequately anticipated.  Greece’s efforts to winterize its camps ahead of the first wave of freezing temperatures fell short, exposing thousands of migrants already struggling to survive in inadequate living conditions to deadly weather. With more than three feet of snow on the ground, and temperatures falling as low as minus 4 degrees F (-18 C), many access roads connecting remote camps remained unreachable, posing a severe threat to migrants and cutting them off from hospitals and other emergency services, also disrupting health care services within the camps.[5] Water pipes and chemical sanitation facilities providing critical services to camps have frozen, resulting in running water shortages for many days, while frequent electricity outages have further impacted efforts to provide heating to camps.[6]  The thin summer tents in which many migrants reside are covered in snow, and many are reported to have collapsed underneath its weight. Unprepared and ill-equipped to face these unexpected harsh winter conditions, migrants, and particularly migrant minors, lack basic winter clothing such as shoes, gloves, scarfs and jackets and suffer frostbite, shivering cold,[7] hypothermia,[8] outbreaks of influenza and acute respiratory infections.[9]

Young girl held by volunteer in Lesvos, Greece, as refugees are transported to warmer accommodation, Courtesy of UNHCR ©UNHCR/Pavlos Avagianos.

Responding to this emergency, the Greek government and UNHCR have begun to transfer vulnerable migrants in Lesvos, an island currently hosting an estimated 6,073 refugees and migrants as of January 17,[10] to heated accommodation sites.  Officials have been working with local businesses to rent hotels and rooms for the migrants, and have gone so far as to commission a naval vessel in a desperate emergency effort to provide shelter from the weather. These efforts are limited in scope and thousands of migrants in Greece (and indeed across Europe), among them families and children, remain in unheated tents unsuitable for the current weather conditions and brutally exposed to the elements.[11]

Unfortunately, as the radical right’s xenophobic rhetoric continues to make political gains with anti-immigrant sentiments increasingly normalized in discussion of Europe’s “migration crisis,” the protection of those in acute need no longer appears to be an EU priority. Instead of expediting the legal processes to relocate migrants to less crowded destinations in the EU as promised, or at the very least prioritizing the relocation of migrant children, the European Commission has opted to reinstate the EU Dublin Regulation with its allocation of legal responsibility to the first state of arrival, complicating the prospects for migrants wanting to move on to western Europe. Though improved conditions for refugees in Greece are cited as a justification, appeasement of populist and Eurosceptic sentiment seems a more likely political trigger.

Instead of succumbing to this rhetoric, the European Union must live up to its main landmark achievements,[12] to protect people’s fundamental rights and freedoms, while governments, NGOs and world leaders should offer immediate protection to those in most need, prioritizing the most vulnerable populations including children on the move. With President Trump’s executive order banning Syrian migrants indefinitely from the United States, acting in accordance with the core human rights principles of the EU becomes even more vital.* Over 27,000 forcibly displaced children are currently exposed to freezing temperatures in Greece, on top of the other hardships including the trauma of displacement, camp violence, and the risk of forms of exploitation that are endemic in their situation. With only 2,413 migrant children relocated as of the end of 2016,[13] it is imperative that Europe prioritize the best interests of children and their right to an adequate standard of living and protection as a matter of urgency. [14] Security or migration control concerns cannot supersede the basic survival and protection imperatives generated by the current emergency situation.

*This blog was updated to include this sentence referring to the executive order.

Vasileia Digidiki is a psychologist and a visiting scholar at FXB.

Jacqueline Bhabha is FXB research director and Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Photograph of tent sent to Voice of America (VOA) by an unnamed refugee in Moria, in John Owens, “Amid Pledges, Life Remains Miserable for Greece’s ‘Hot Spot’ Refugees, VOA, January 8, 2017.

Photo of children on bus in Lesvos, Greece, Courtesy of UNHCR ©UNHCR/Pavlos Avagianos.

Recent Related FXB Publications

Lara Jirmanus, “FXB and MEI Host “Building Bridges” Seminar: An Interdisciplinary Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” (blog post), January 12, 2017.

Health in Conflict: New Lancet-AUB Commission on Syria,” (blog post), December 20, 2016.

Vasileia Digidiki, “A Harsh New Reality: Transactional Sex Among Refugee Minors As a Means of Survival in Greece,”(blog post), December 20, 2016.

Jacqueline Bhabha et al, Children on the Move: An Urgent Human Rights and Child Protection Priority (report), November 2016, particularly the chapters, Examples of Good Practices: Germany (education), Sweden (protection of unaccompanied minors), and the United Kingdom (age assessment); In Transit: On and Through Lesbos, Greece; and En Route Through Europe: On the Western Balkan Route via Serbia.

Vasileia Digidiki, Humanitarianism in Crisis: Lesbos, Greece (report), April 2016.

Jacqueline Bhabha and Vasileia Digidiki, “The Mean Bargain: The EU/Turkey Refugee and Migrant Deal,” (blog post) April 7, 2016.


[1]  Agence France Presse (AFP), “Homeless People and Migrants Most at Risk as Freezing Conditions Cause at least 65 Deaths in Europe,” thejournal.ie, January 12, 2017.
[2]  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Bureau for Europe, “Weekly Report-January 2- January 8, 2017,” released January 13, 2017, p. 1, 4, available at UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Response-Mediterranean,
[3]  295 unaccompanied: according to EKKA, 277 unaccompanied minors are detained in closed facilities and 18 in police stations under protective custody: see EKKA, “Situation Update: Unaccompanied children in Greece,” January 13, 2017, available at http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/country.php?id=83; thousands of unaccompanied: see, for example, Save the Children’s estimate of 6,000 in  mid-November, “Fears for 6,000 Children as Some Camps on Greek Islands Soar to Triple Their Capacity,” Save the Children website, November 14, 2016; Convention: United Nations (UN) General Assembly, “Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),” 1577 UNTS 3, November 20, 1989; Principles: Jacqueline Bhabha and Mike Dottridge, “Recommended Principles for Children on the Move and Other Children Affected by Migration,” June 2016.
[4]  Medicins sans Frontieres, Greece in 2016: Vulnerable People Get Left Behind, (Greece: October 2016), p. 11, 21-22,  26-27.
[5] UNHCR, Bureau for Europe, “Weekly Report: January 9-January 15. 2017,” released January 20, 2017, p. 3, available at UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Response-Mediterranean.
[6] Ibid., 1-3.
[7]  See Nadia Khomami, “European Countries Mistreating Refugees in Cold Weather, Says UN,” The Guardian,  January 13, 2017.
[8] See also Eliza Mackintosh, “Conditions Worsen for Europe’s Refugees as Temperatures Plummet,” CNN, January, 13, 2017.
[9] According to Unicef UK’s deputy executive director. as quoted in Khomami, “European Countries Mistreating Refugees.”
[10] UNHCR, “Europe Refugee Emergency: Daily map indicating capacity and occupancy,” January 17, 2017, available at http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/country.php?id=83
[11] For example, according to UNHCR, 1000 migrants among them families with children and unaccompanied minors in the island of Samos are hosted in unheated tents, see UN News Center, “More must be done to assist, protect freezing refugees and migrants in Europe – UN agency,” January 13, 2017.
[12]  In 2000, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council proclaimed the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, setting out the fundamental rights and freedoms recognized by the European Union. These fundamental rights became legally binding on the EU with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. See European Council, Council of the European Union, “Protection and Promotion of Human Rights.
[13] As of December 31, 2016. Unicef, “Refugee and Migrant Children in Greece,” December 31, 2016, available at https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations
[14] Bhabha and Dottridge, “Recommended Principles”; see also UN, CRC,  Art. 3.3 and Art. 27.