A group of asylum-seekers break the trek to rest at Tovarnik train station in Croatia. Photo: UNHCR/I. Pavicevic
“As long as this robust reception and screening capacity does not exist, the only ones who are in control of the situation are the smuggling networks whose unscrupulous activities have already cost the lives of nearly 3,500 people in the Mediterranean Sea this year,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a joint statement with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“The current situation, if not addressed quickly and comprehensively, will lead to a fragmentation of the routes and additional challenges,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told the regular news briefing in Geneva in a statement on the refugee influx, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans pour into Greece from Turkey.
“Much more has to be done to crack down on smugglers and traffickers – but in ways that allow their victims to be protected,” he said, noting that in the last couple of days, Governments have instituted various restrictions against movements from Greece through the Western Balkans and further northwards, including profiling people the basis of nationality. “This is becoming increasingly untenable from every point of view – humanitarian, legal, and also safety related, not least in light of falling temperatures and the risks for children and others with specific needs,” he stressed.
The measures are having a domino effect, leaving in total limbo refugees and migrants stranded at border points. UNHCR and IOM have been working with Governments to increase reception capacity in the affected countries, and install protection against winter conditions by providing blankets, winter clothing and other key items for basic needs.
UNICEF is supporting child friendly spaces in reception centres at border crossings along the Balkan routes, mobilizing for winter and working with governments to strengthen child protection systems for all children, including refugee and migrant children.
“But we remain concerned by a shortage of places to accommodate people along the route should the movement be slowed down and crowding result,” Mr. Edwards said. “There is urgent need to put in place additional reception capacity at the points of entry, to allow for decent and effective accommodation, compliance with child protection standards, assistance, registration and screening of the thousands of people arriving every day.”
This will help identify those who in need of protection, those to be relocated to other European countries, and people who do not qualify for refugee protection and for whom effective and dignified return mechanisms have to be put in place.
“As urgent, is the need to give people uprooted by violent conflicts safe, legal avenues, such as resettlement, humanitarian admission and family reunion, as alternatives to the chaotic and dangerous smuggling routes they are forced to take today to reach safety,” Mr. Edwards said.
At the same briefing, UNICEF’s Sarah Crowe said that last week, she had been at the Slovenia-Austria and Slovenia-Croatia border and there were large number of families who would stuck for hours in a no man’s land there leaving children at heightened risk when temperatures plummeted. They had put up tents now. She noted that the number of children was growing, and while in June it was one in 10 migrants and refugees was a child, while in October was one in three.