Cold weather increases health risks for refugees and migrants in Serbia and other countries in the Region

WHO/Violeta Egic

Staff from the WHO Country Office in Serbia visit the barracks near the Belgrade central station, where around 1200 refugees and migrants currently live.

As cold temperatures continue across the WHO European Region, conditions worsen for those in the most vulnerable situations, including refugees and migrants stranded in countries. When refugees and migrants sleep outdoors or in cold shelters at temperatures below 16 °C, they are prone to hypothermia, frostbite and other poor health conditions. Their risk increases if they lack proper clothing, food and medical care. The elderly, children, people with health problems and people who abuse alcohol are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of cold weather.

Representatives of WHO/Europe have visited the informal settlements near the central station in Belgrade, Serbia, where around 1200 refugees and migrants currently live. The international community and aid organizations are providing heaters, blankets, clothes and food in Serbia and other affected countries to prevent the negative health effects of the icy weather. However, there is an increasing need to scale up assistance to ensure appropriate accommodation and safe living conditions for the refugee and migrant population temporarily living in Belgrade, as well as to enhance coordination between the national authorities, the international community and nongovernmental organizations.

As part of its work to implement the recently adopted strategy and action plan for refugee and migrant health, WHO/Europe is deploying additional staff to the field to provide assistance.

WHO recommendations to prevent the adverse effects of cold weather

The most important preventive action during cold weather is to reduce exposure to the cold by providing heated shelters, warm meals and proper clothing. Refugees and migrants should be informed about the risks associated with cold weather and about how to live in a changed environment.

Exposed people can protect themselves by wearing layers of warm clothing, covering their hands, feet and head, warming their food, drinking enough fluids but avoiding cold drinks, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, taking physical exercise and avoiding standing or sitting still for long periods in the cold. If they use solid fuels (such as charcoal, wood or coal) for cooking and heating, they must ensure that the space is ventilated. They should look out for warning signs of frostbite on the skin (numbness in the fingers and toes and pale spots on the face or other skin areas) and warm the area immediately.

Particular care must be taken of vulnerable groups. Influenza vaccination should be provided and cold-related diseases detected and treated. The adverse health effects of cold weather are largely preventable, but the short lag between the onset of extreme weather and its health effects means that planning and preparedness are essential.