700,000 Europeans face a cruel winter under canvas

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The Independent Online

More than 500,000 people are homeless and freezing across Europe, facing the desperately cold winter without proper shelter. As Europe prepares to celebrate a new millennium, they are ending the present one in little better conditions than their ancestors began it.

More than 500,000 people are homeless and freezing across Europe, facing the desperately cold winter without proper shelter. As Europe prepares to celebrate a new millennium, they are ending the present one in little better conditions than their ancestors began it.

The roll call is monstrous: 30,000 Chechen refugees in tents and disused railway carriages in Ingushetia, 130,000 people in tents in earthquake-shattered Turkey; 120,000 homes destroyed or damaged in Kosovo, 350,000 people sheltering in the patched-up ruins.

More than 200,000 people have fled the Russian bombardment of Chechnya and taken refuge in neighbouring Ingushetia. According to Russian figures, 30,000 are sleeping rough in tents and disused railway carriages. The remainder are staying with host families in extremely cramped conditions. Up to 70 people are sleeping in a single house. There are fears of a possible outbreak of tuberculosis in the cramped and unhygienic conditions, and Ingushetia is in urgent need of help with food and medical supplies.

But officials at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) say they and other relief agencies can cope with Ingushetia if the number of refugees does not rise drastically. The real problem is for those still trapped in Chechnya.

"It's a blank on our map," says Urs Boegli of the ICRC. The Red Cross left the breakaway republic after its headquarters in Chechnya was attacked. Now, nobody is sure what conditions those trapped inside are facing.

Turkey issued an urgent appeal for tents this week. The country needs at least 25,000 more to cope with its earthquake disaster, say authorities. There were already too few insulated winter tents to go round after August's quake. Since a second severe quake struck this month, the position has become desperate. The official number of people in tents is 130,000, but the real figure is probably far higher.

You cannot go far in north-west Turkey without seeing the pathetic huddles of tents. With their houses damaged in the quakes and predictions of more tremors on the way, nobody is prepared to sleep indoors.

But night-time temperatures are sinking to minus 8C (19F) and snow is forecast. There is a desperate shortage of tents, and people are living in hopelessly inadequate shelters they built themselves: plastic sheeting stretched over makeshift wooden frames.

In Kosovo, nobody knows how many people are still in tents. One-third of the housing was destroyed or seriously damaged during Nato's war with Serbia. Relief agencies are distributing emergency kits with heavy plastic sheeting and wooden strips to make the ruined homes habitable, but 50,000 are beyond repair.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mission set a target of providing a heated room for everybody in Kosovo.So far, that target has not been met.

"We are telling people they have to be prepared to spend a very, very difficult and cramped winter," said a UNHCR spokes-man. United Nations agencies are seeking $16m (£10m) for the next three months of the relief effort in Kosovo.

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