I say “winter” and some might think of snow and snowmen. Or maybe eggnog and blankets. December can be your month or, if you are from the lands Down Under, June brings the first chills.
If I said “winter” to refugees, though, that word tastes bitter, rather than gingery. And it feels windy and icy, instead of warm and cosy.
The coldest of seasons for millions does not mean presents, rest and jolly family time. On the contrary it brings along even a more dreadful situation refugees need to brace for.
Refugees are among the most vulnerable people on this planet and each winter tests their ability to survive through it.
Refugees in winter: how does it affect them?
Winter alters the refugees’ environment. It morphs it and not into the merry scenes most of us long for.
Accommodation and shelters. After leaving their country, refugees do not always manage to find a home in the new land. Some are temporarily welcomed in tent camps. Some make the best of unusual shelters until something better comes along. Others, who are less “lucky”, call the streets their nest.
These solutions are not steady nor comfortable. There is no heating, no piles of duvet, nor kitchens to warm up a beverage.
When winter kicks in, most of these structures are not prepared to shield refugees from freezing temperatures and precipitations. Some of them have shaky cabling and unreliable access to sources of electricity and running water. Basic comfort as most of us know it becomes a luxury.
If such resources are missing, it is easier for illness, frost bites and even hypothermia to find a way through their bodies. When they do, they become more debilitated and their already dire situation takes a turn for the worst.
What follows is a vicious circle hard to break.
Healthcare and basic hygiene. Another paramount part that gets blurrier once the misty winds of winter reach the refugees.
Medical care might not be as consistent for these people who cannot usually afford extensive coverages (if any at all).
Some refugees in winter count on healthcare support provided by the organizations who are in the field and involved in aid networks.
Due to weather conditions, at times aids struggle to make their way to the camps and locations where these refugees are based.
This means shortages of medicine and of anything to cure the weakest.
For those who have no choice but to be on the streets, then, the above is not even among the options available.
Some families rely on a member supporting them. If illness makes them unfit to fulfil their tasks, then, the costs for medicine become an unmanageable burden.
Medicines are not the only aspect affected by winter. Lack of running water and energy sources makes it harder to cook anything substantial, to wash themselves and their clothes.
This has serious consequences on their hygiene and well-being. And lack of both does lower immune defenses and fuel the propagation of bacteria that might turn into more sickness.
Clothing and food. Temperatures go down and warmer clothes are in need.
Some refugees do not have the chance of being included in any aid network. There are contexts where all a refugee has is what they wore when they left or little more they could pack.
For those outside any humanitarian organization providing help, access to warm clothes and food is not a given. And even in those cases, winter conditions might render the delivery of these goods more challenging.
On the streets some volunteering associations or the city municipality reach out and set up temporary kitchens or clothing distribution.
Once more, such basic needs turn into distant dreams and hopes and, when they lack, they plug back into a vicious circle of unhealth.
What can you do for refugees in winter?
Awareness is key. This does not mean whipping yourself and giving up all your comfort. Instead, look around your own city and territory and where possible, take action.
Check in with organizations close to home and investigate how you can participate to ensure medicines, clothing, food and beverages can reach people in need.
It could be by buying and sending them over where refugees are based. Alternatively, you can also check locally and volunteer in kitchens, storages and distribution centers.
Climate change is also taking a toll on developing nations and worldwide, causing millions to move due to severe damages caused by unprecedented weather conditions. Read about them and what it can be done to support refugees in this specific situation.
Your actions are needed during the harshest of seasons, but you can continue making a difference all year around. SPEAK is there to support the social integration of refugees who managed to reach their new home and are now in the process of learning and adapting to the new environment.
For those lucky enough to have made it to the other side, new challenges await them. If you wish to do your part, check out SPEAK’s buddy program.