GENEVA, 13th January, 2017 (WAM) — Thousands of refugees and migrants are grappling with freezing conditions as severe winter weather sweeps across Europe, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said on Friday, calling on governments to do more to help and protect them.

The agency expressed concern about reports that several people had died because of the harsh conditions as they tried to enter or travel across Europe, including five since the beginning of the year.

“Saving lives is the most urgent priority right now,” UNHCR spokesperson C?cile Pouilly told a press briefing in Geneva.

“We are extremely worried about continued reports of push-backs in all countries along the Western Balkans. These practices are simply unacceptable and must be halted, as they place the lives of refugees and migrants at heightened risk and violate their most fundamental rights.”

The agency urged state authorities across Europe to do more to assist and protect refugees and migrants and expressed concern about abuses by criminal gangs, including kidnappings, physical abuse, threats and extortion.

“We urge European states to enhance their efforts to tackle these criminal networks and ensure the safety of refugees and migrants,” Pouilly said in an interview after the briefing.