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UN warns of winter 'tragedy' amid refugee crisis

October 9, 2015

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned the European Union (EU) to speed up its response to the refugee crisis. Antonio Guterres said the bloc faces a 'tragedy' if people travel during winter.

Refugees on the Turkish-Bulgarian border
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

The UNHCR chief told reporters in Geneva on Friday that tragedy could occur at any moment, particularly due to the winter weather in the Balkans. Thousands of Syrian asylum seekers have crossed the region to reach northern Europe over the summer and fall.

"We know how to winterize a camp. We know how to winterize a tent. We know how to winterize a building. We don't know how to winterize a crowd moving every day from one country to another," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news conference on the eve of a visit to Greece which includes talks with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday.

'Unacceptable and very risky'

Guterres' plea came as the Refugee Commission hailed the launch of the EU's scheme to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers within the Union. The plan intends to relieve the pressure of unprecedented numbers of refugees arriving in frontline countries, such as Greece and Italy.

Guterres' warning words continued, however, insisting that Greece, which has seen more than 440,000 arrivals this year, would find it much more difficult to create the necessary reception and processing facilities required for the relocation process.

"This is not something that we can ask Greece to do by itself," Guterres said, adding that they would only be able to succeed with massive investment from the EU.

"If the system is not powerful enough for the numbers coming, and is not credible enough for the people coming, what will happen is that the people will go on moving by their own means through this chaotic situation that we have today," he said, warning that such events were "totally unacceptable and very risky."

UN visit to Greece

As part of a three-day visit to Greece to assess the country's humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, Guterres was due on Saturday to visit the island of Lesbos, which has become a main entry point for refugees who successfully cross the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece.

More than 600,000 migrants have arrived in Europe so far this year, most of whom are fleeing war, persecution or poverty.

According to the Commission, more than 3,000 people have also died over the same period whilst attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

ksb/jm (Reuters, AFP)