Aid workers warn looming Balkan winter threatens migrant children

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 22, 2015 12:03 PM

By Fatos Bytyci and Aleksandar Vasovic

PRESEVO/BERKASOVO, Serbia (Reuters) - Shams Dassuki, a 24-year-old from Damascus, wrapped a white blanket tightly around her young daughter against the cold rain as they reached Serbia from Macedonia along with thousands of migrants moving West.

Aid workers in Serbia warn children struggling across the Balkans on their way to western Europe face serious health risks as cold winter months approach. Many children arriving here are already coughing from colds caught along the route.

The trek has slowed down after Hungary last week sealed off its southern border against Europe's worst migration crisis since World War Two. Bottlenecks have formed at border crossings as the migrants redirect through Serbia toward Croatia.

"I did this entire road only with my daughter but I am afraid they will stop us somewhere before I reach my husband in Duesseldorf," Dassuki said Presevo, a southern Serbian town near the Macedonian border.

Seda Kuzucu, a U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) worker in Presevo, said families with children made up 70 percent of new arrivals in the past few days, which are estimated at over 6,000 a day.

"There are more and more single parents (mothers) carrying four or five kids that are arriving ... The situation is alarming," she said, adding those arriving were not dressed properly for the weather and mostly lacked warm shoes or socks.

Temperatures in winter months in the region frequently fall below zero, posing potentially grave health risks for people who have already traveled thousands of miles, often with limited access to food and basic amenities.

Another Syrian in Presevo, Tareef Sharifi, said he left a refugee camp in Turkey a week ago, traveling with his wife and eight children aged between 12 years and only 8 months.

"I don't want my children to be like me, to live amid war or be homeless," said the 38-year-old man, holding one of his twin daughters in his arms.

He said the family left Damascus three years ago and three of their children were born in Turkish refugee camps since then.

Over half a million refugees and migrants have arrived by sea in Greece this year, fleeing war zones and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

Some 1,000 migrants woke up on Thursday to a chilly morning at Berkasovo, up on Serbia's northern border with Croatia, after spending the night under open skies, another stark reminder of an approaching winter.

A UNHCR field coordinator there, Niklas Agerup Stoerup, said more than 250 of them were children, including some with disabilities. "That is a quite high percentage," he said.

(Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Tom Heneghan)