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No Refugee Child Should Have To Sleep In The Snow

02/03/2017 11:11 EST | Updated 02/03/2017 11:11 EST

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Even makeshift shelters, like this one in Lebanon, are better than sleeping on the street, as many refugees navigating their way across Europe are being forced to do. Photo: World Vision

A few weeks ago, I challenged some of my friends to sleep outside for a night. Since it was January, you can imagine the looks I got.

"But it's research for a story!" I cajoled. As if that would change their minds.

From Polar Bear dips to winter camping, I'd like to think that many Canadians are immune to the cold. But that belief was being shaken by the responses I got from my friends.

"It would be completely irresponsible," said one friend. "You could freeze to death!"

"I'd do it if I had the right gear," said another one, but then quickly chickened out. I don't blame him; I wasn't exactly rushing to sign up myself.

Picture this scene

As we imagined the chilly ordeal, we decided that if you didn't die of cold, you'd certainly get sick. If there was a group of you, you might have to huddle together to stay warm.

Fights might break out over blankets. Firewood would become a hot commodity. Gloves and scarves could sell on the newly set-up black market for exorbitant prices. And as the mercury dropped further, desperation would ring high.

It sounds far-fetched, but this is what's happening in parts of Europe, since unprecedented numbers of migrants arrived at the same time as winter did. There are now concerns about an escalating humanitarian crisis within the continent's borders.

Who is responsible?

The cold truth is this: Europe's winter weather has set in quicker than its leaders were able to make decisions on how to protect these people.

My friend was right when she said it's completely irresponsible. As a member of the global community, I find it irresponsible that 700,000 migrants who sought refuge in Europe last year have now been left to face yet another life-or-death hurdle: the bitter, dangerous cold.

As reception countries like Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria experience icier-than-usual weather, children are trapped out in the open, sleeping on the streets or in flimsy tents and shelters. Before, fleeing conflict was their families' main concern, but now conditions like hypothermia and pneumonia pose an even bigger threat.

17 years a refugee

Charities are speaking out against this. World Vision works inside Syria and Iraq and witnesses the horrors that many refugees are fleeing. And here in Canada, where many refugees have found safety and welcome, we have heard all about the difficulties families faced to get here.

For many migrants and refugees, the shores of the Mediterranean aren't just arrival points. They have actually become semi-permanent homes. According to The UN Refugee Agency, the average time of refugee displacement is an unbelievable 17 years.

That means that entire childhoods are in jeopardy, not to mention their window for an education. Surely, then, more needs to be done to provide stability and protection to those 'on their way' or stuck in these 'temporary' set ups?

The power to prevent suffering

"EU leaders need, now more than ever, to work together on a European response to protect children on the move," said World Vision Brussels' Executive Director, Justin Byworth.

"They have the opportunity and the power to prevent unnecessary suffering. They need to stand by countries of first entry, like Greece, so they don't have to shoulder on their own all the responsibility for managing overcrowded reception sites."

From conflict to political uncertainty, migrants and refugees have to weather tempests of many kinds. The least EU leaders and the international community can do is empower cities to protect them from the literal storms.

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