Syrian children could freeze to death on European soil if more is not done to help Greece cope with the influx of refugees from the country, warns Yvette Cooper, as she embarks on a tour of crisis hotspots around Europe and the Middle East.
Just months after the Greek economy was on the brink of collapse and pushing the Eurozone into meltdown, the country is now struggling to support the 9,000 refugees arriving daily on dinghies to the island of Lesbos.
Lines of families walking on foot from the island’s shore to registration camps are now succumbing to the elements as winter draws in, said Ms Cooper, who met families sleeping in woodland as they attempt to make their way primarily to Germany.
As well as financial support for Greece, the former Labour front-bencher, who is now chair of the Refugee Taskforce, is today calling on the Government to commit to a five year programme of funding for councils to help resettle refugees and wants David Cameron to make a commitment to protect funds at the forthcoming Spending Review.
The Government has so far spent £1.1bn supporting refugees in Syria and neighbouring countries hosting camps and has pledged to take 20,000 refugees by 2020.
Witnessing the impact in Greece, and in Syria’s neighbour Lebanon after a visit to its capital Beirut last week, Ms Cooper is convinced that untold tragedy will happen this winter, with aid workers telling her the poor sanitation in registration camps could lead to an outbreak of cholera.
“As you drive along the road from the refugee resigration centre to the north shore in Lesbos, it’s a continual line of people and families, and kids and babies being carried on the side of the road.”MP Yvette Cooper
“I do fear we are going to have children freeze to death in Europe if we don’t have more action to resolve this,” said the Labour MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.
“As you drive along the road from the refugee resigration centre to the north shore in Lesbos, it’s a continual line of people and families, and kids and babies being carried on the side of the road. It started to pour with rain. We passed a couple with a one year old and just suddenly being drenched in this downpour.
“We stopped to give them a lift and the woman was six months pregnant. They had come from Syria the night before but had not thought they could travel anywhere so they slept in the woods.”
On the shore she witnessed boat after boat arriving with up to 50 refugees at a time. She was told how the traffickers are told to puncture the boats as they get close to the beach so there’s no chance people can be turned back. This leads to a lethal scramble to get people out before the vessel sinks.
“The first thing that hits you when you get to the northern shore is that the shoreline is orange and when you get closer you see it’s mountains of life jackets. The next thing that strikes you is that you see arm bands or little swim jackets kids would go in a swimming pool,” said Ms Cooper.
Later she said she was shown pictures by an aid worker drawn by children of their boat sinking, and of people having their heads cut off.
She said: “These were really distressing drawings.”
In Lebanon where one quarter of the country’s entire population are Syrian refugees - 1.4m people - they are dealing with their own emergency. Families want to return home but bombing from both President Assad’s regime and Isis makes it too dangerous. Schools have closed in Isis-controlled towns and young men fear conscription.
She will next visit Calais in France to investigate what assessments are taking place to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants.