As the extreme cold weather and storms continue to sweep Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, refugee and migrant children are threatened by respiratory and other serious illnesses, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
“Without proper shelter and warm clothing, young children are in real danger because of the severe weather,” said Basil Rodriques, UNICEF Regional Health Advisor for Central and Eastern Europe, in a news release.
The UN agency pointed out that in Greece and the Balkans, an estimated 23,700 refugee and migrant children – including infants and newborns mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – remain stranded. Many are being housed in shelters that are ill-equipped for winter, even as temperatures fall below freezing.
Some parts of Greece, especially the islands sheltering thousands of refugees in flimsy tents, have experienced heavy snowfall for the first time in years. UNICEF continues to call for refugees and migrants currently living in overcrowded and underserviced camps on the islands to be moved to more appropriate and safe accommodations on the mainland.
“Infants and the very young generally have less body fat to insulate them against the cold, making them more susceptible to respiratory problems and potentially fatal viral and bacterial infections such as pneumonia and influenza,” Mr. Rodriques pointed out.
Overcrowding and poor insulation make the shelters particularly unhealthy, allowing respiratory diseases to spread quickly when cold weather hits. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Europe’s influenza season is already underway.
“Apart from the cold weather, the health risks children are facing are a consequence of their plight as refugees and migrants, the victims of uncertainty and of backlogs in processing their claims to asylum,” stressed Mr. Rodriques, adding “This state of limbo impacts on children’s health, compounding their hardship.”
UNICEF’s ongoing winterization efforts throughout Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are helping women and children stay warm by distributing winter clothing and other essential items.
In Bulgaria, UNICEF has supported 1,100 children in reception centres with winter clothes and boots. Since late 2015-2016 in the Balkans child and family support hubs, child-friendly spaces and mother and baby corners were transformed from the initial light structures into winterized and heated pre-fab and container structures, or have since moved into hard/permanent structures.