For many of us, the winter season evokes warm memories of celebrating holidays, being surrounded by our loved ones or gathering around a cosy fire. Yet for refugees and displaced populations, winter is a season defined by harsh conditions, formidable challenges, and the struggle to survive.
As of October 2023, there are approximately 110 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Whilst the migration journey itself presents ongoing challenges, the arrival of winter adds a unique dimension to the hardships faced by displaced individuals.
As we approach the most difficult season for refugees, it is crucial to explore how extreme weather exposes the vulnerability of refugee populations: existing challenges are amplified by perilous winter conditions and freezing temperatures, whilst the experience of winter creates new and distinct problems to be addressed.
In this blog post, we delve into the crisis of winter, the imminent dangers for displaced populations and the challenges facing our charity partners.
The Desperate Search for Shelter
Refugees face heightened vulnerability during winter due to the threat of exposure to freezing temperatures, whether they are sleeping in formal or informal settlements.
Across the Middle East, refugees face extreme cold and snowstorms.
The Insecurities of Informal Shelter
For populations who remain outside of camps, freezing temperatures are particularly life-threatening. When official camps are full beyond capacity, individuals are left with no choice but to shelter informally in abandoned and open buildings in freezing temperatures. Millions of displaced people will be forced to face winter this year whilst living in buildings that are damaged or ill-suited to protect them from the cold, and may be isolates from support services. Refugees in this situation have often had no choice but to create makeshift fires using various materials as kindling, yet using alternate sources of fuel can be toxic.For those in informal shelters with limited resources, winter forces them to prioritise between fundamental needs:
In November of 2022, the UNHCR claimed many displaced families in Ukraine had to choose between food and warmth:
The Failures of Formal Shelter
Whilst camps and reception centres can prove a lifeline for some refugees in theory, the inadequacies of current migration policies relating to refugee camps become stark during winter. The failure of governing authorities to invest in adequate infrastructure, sanitation, and medical facilities within camps hinders their ability to accommodate and support the needs of refugee populations. More people require access to shelter and aid during winter, yet they find camps to be challenging and harsh environments.
Most camps are established to provide temporary shelter and amenities to refugees and internally displaced people and are not adequately equipped to withstand extreme weather conditions. Makeshift tents and temporary, flimsy structures offer limited protection from the elements, leaving individuals exposed to freezing rain, extreme wind, or snow storms for prolonged periods.
Refugee camps are often overcrowded, and house numbers of people that stretch far beyond their capacity. Overcrowding in camps compromises hygiene and sanitation conditions, facilitating the quick spread of disease. In 2015, a risk assessment carried out by the ECDC found that overcrowding, inadequate sanitation and lower temperatures increased the risks posed by spreadable disease. In 2023, the same risks are equally relevant. To prevent the spread of disease among a dense population, effective hygiene and sanitation systems are crucial. Yet, during winter, frozen water pipes and frozen ground can hinder waste disposal.
Similarly to refugees outside of camps, refugees in camps have often been forced to create makeshift fires to address the issue of warmth. In overcrowded camps, the risk of fire spreading is incredibly high. In September 2020, a series of fires broke out in the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos: although the camp was designed to accommodate c.2,800 people, it housed over 13,000 residents. The spread of the fire was extremely rapid due to the densely packed and highly flammable makeshift tents, resulting in the near destruction of the facility. The incident, which forced refugees to spend multiple nights in open spaces, reignited discussions around the urgent need for comprehensive humanitarian solutions for managing refugee camps.
The Physical and Psychological Toll of Winter
During the winter months, refugees face a variety of existing and new medical concerns that are exacerbated by the weather conditions and limited access to healthcare resources.
Cold and damp conditions strain the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
When camps are overcrowded, or shelters have poor ventilation, there is a higher risk of respiratory illnesses and diseases spreading quickly, such as measles, polio, viral hepatitis, diphtheria and whooping cough.
Refugees are more susceptible to frostbite due to the lack of shelter, warm clothing and heating facilities.
Refugees are at an elevated risk of hypothermia due to prolonged periods of exposure to freezing temperatures. It has been life-threatening and has tragically claimed the lives of numerous displaced people
For vulnerable populations, the harsh effects of winter are particularly salient. For individuals with chronic illnesses, cold weather can exacerbate symptoms, increase the severity of chronic diseases, and place individuals at a higher risk for complications. Snow and ice make it difficult for individuals with limited mobility, including the elderly or those with chronic illnesses, to reach and access medical facilities and points of contact. Elderly people, pregnant women and young children often have weaker immune systems, and less ability to regulate their body temperatures; this means they are more susceptible to the effects of freezing temperatures, such as frostbite.
Beyond physical medical concerns, the cold and isolation that characterises winter displacement can have a unique and insidious impact on refugees’ mental health. Individuals may face extreme isolation, should they be forced to shelter in areas cut off from transportation links or access to facilities. On the other hand, the stress of sheltering in overcrowded areas and facing competition for scarce resources has a detrimental impact on well-being. Limited sunlight, prolonged exposure to cold and damp conditions, and a lack of adequate shelter undeniably leads to increased stress, anxiety and depression.
The Isolation of Refugees
Insufficient Resources and Icy Roads
To mitigate the physical and psychological effects of winter, refugees need access to essential items that provide warmth, such as blankets, warm clothing that can be layered, insulated jackets, hats, gloves and waterproof boots. Beyond the provision of warmth, these items are necessary as they allow for mobility.
Weather conditions can disrupt the logistical process of humanitarian organisations receiving and distributing items to refugee populations, and so it is crucial that they are able to move freely to different access points. However, refugees who do not have proper winter clothing and footwear are unable to navigate terrain covered in snow and ice, and may be forced to stay static in one area. If water sources, distribution points or healthcare centres in this area are scarce, refugees may find themselves isolated from essential services and face dehydration, malnutrition or growing health concerns.
Access to these critical items may be severely limited, particularly in areas where large groups of refugees are sheltering and the demand for items surpasses the available supply. Moreover, items have frequently been confiscated by police and legal authorities: confiscations and evacuations in northern France have drastically increased the vulnerability of the refugee population. Such confiscations not only reduce the available supply of items but also amplify a sense of scarcity that intensifies panic and competition among refugee populations.
Challenges facing our Partners
In this context of insufficient infrastructure and limited resources it is often humanitarian organisations that step in to provide support, address the bulk of the logistical challenges mentioned to ensure refugees have access to support.
During winter, there is a heightened demand for our partners’ services, which range from providing access to warm clothing, shelter, medical care to providing other essential services. Indigo’s partners and volunteers act as a lifeline: from the distribution of winter-specific essentials like blankets, warm clothing, to the provision of hot meals and medical assistance, our volunteers get help where it is needed most.
However, the hardships faced by our partners are also amplified during the winter months. As we quickly approach the winter season, the ability of our partners to sustain their vital work is becoming increasingly precarious due to a significant shortage of:
Funding: There is an increased demand for immediate and long-term humanitarian services during winter: more refugees require shelter, warm clothing, hot meals and medical care. Without sufficient funding, our partners are limited in their ability to cover their operating costs, respond to the heightened needs of this period, ensure they are meeting the demand for items, and provide support to those facing the harsh conditions of winter.
Volunteers: During winter, the role of Indigo’s volunteers becomes increasingly critical, as more people are required to carry out vital services, respond to increased demand on charities, and address the unique challenges faced by refugees during winter. However, it is precisely during this period that the number of available volunteers, particularly long-term volunteers, experiences a notable decline. This decline is particularly concerning for the work of our partners, who serve to bridge the gap and provide aid to a bulk of displaced populations.
The challenges posed by winter for refugees underscores the urgency of continued support from donors and volunteers.
How you can help refugees this winter
As winter approaches, displaced families need your support now more than ever. The challenges faced by the approximately 110 million forcibly displaced individuals will be intensified by freezing temperatures, hazardous conditions and a struggle for survival in the upcoming months. From the dangers of exposure, the struggles for warmth to the insidious toll on mental and physical health, refugees face an uphill battle.
Indigo’s volunteers join our partners across Europe & Lebanon to support the health and well-being of refugees during the winter months, and minimise the hardships. The provision of adequate shelter, clothing, food, clean water, sanitation facilities and healthcare services will become crucial in mitigating challenges.
As the cold reality of winter intensifies the struggles of displaced populations, you can provide the warmth of compassion in two ways:
Apply to volunteer with one of Indigo’s incredible partners and make a meaningful difference this winter.
Donate to Indigo to fund immediate and long-term humanitarian services, and ensure refugees will have access to shelter, warm clothing and hot meals this winter.