More refugees are dying than ever before while attempting to reach Europe, almost a year after a controversial deal was struck with Turkey in an effort to prevent boat crossings across the Aegean Sea.
The agreement has stranded thousands of asylum seekers in Greece, where aid agencies say children are among rising numbers of migrants trying to kill themselves after months trapped in squalid camps.
Research by Save the Children found more than 5,000 minors are living in “appalling conditions” that are driving a mounting mental health crisis.
It has recorded children as young as nine self-harming and 12-year-olds attempting suicide, sometimes filming themselves in the act, as well as a spike in drug and alcohol abuse by teenagers who are exploited by dealers in camps.
Violent protests and deaths are traumatising the youngest and most vulnerable refugees, whose families say they are too scared to let their children play out of sight in case they are hurt or abused.
Save the Children staff report that some unaccompanied children live in “24-hour survival mode” and sleep in shifts to try to stay safe, while others disappear or pay smugglers to leave the Greek islands.
“The EU-Turkey deal was meant to end the flow of ‘irregular migrants’ to Greece, but at what cost?” said Andreas Ring, Save the Children’s humanitarian representative.
“Many of these children have escaped war and conflict only to end up in camps many of them call ‘hell’ and where they say they are made to feel more like animals than humans.”
Since 20 March 2016, all migrants arriving on Greek islands have been held, under threat of deportation to Turkey, while their asylum applications are processed, but legal blocks have slowed transfers and left refugees in overcrowded tent camps for up to a year.
Reza, a 23-year-old migrant from Afghanistan, arrived on Lesbos the day after the deal came into force and remains on the island, where three men died over just six days in January.
“I feel I am nothing and that I don’t have control over my life anymore,” he told Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“I can’t leave the island and after such a long time here, I feel that nothing has a purpose anymore. You feel like ‘crazy’, wandering around without knowing why.”
Reza said he received no information about the asylum process for two months and was not told borders had closed across Europe, then watched Syrians be prioritised for asylum interviews.
Eva Cossé, the HRW researcher for Greece, said authorities must ensure people have meaningful access to asylum, that is free of discrimination over nationality or religion.
“The EU-Turkey deal has been an unmitigated disaster for the very people it is supposed to protect,” she added.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working inside designated refugee hotspots across Greece, where charity workers are warning of the “human cost of European policy failures”.
Its research has shown rocketing rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, trauma and psychosis.
Louise Roland Gosselin, MSF’s humanitarian affairs advisor in Greece, said tent camps on Lesbos, Leros, Samos, Chios and Kos were built as transit areas for stays of a matter of days but some are now at double capacity.
Refugee crisis - in pictures
Refugee crisis - in pictures
A child looks through the fence at the Moria detention camp for migrants and refugees at the island of Lesbos on May 24, 2016.
Ahmad Zarour, 32, from Syria, reacts after his rescue by MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) while attempting to reach the Greek island of Agathonisi, Dodecanese, southeastern Agean Sea
Syrian migrants holding life vests gather onto a pebble beach in the Yesil liman district of Canakkale, northwestern Turkey, after being stopped by Turkish police in their attempt to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on 29 January 2016.
Refugees flash the 'V for victory' sign during a demonstration as they block the Greek-Macedonian border
Migrants have been braving sub zero temperatures as they cross the border from Macedonia into Serbia.
A sinking boat is seen behind a Turkish gendarme off the coast of Canakkale's Bademli district on January 30, 2016. At least 33 migrants drowned on January 30 when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.
A general view of a shelter for migrants inside a hangar of the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, Germany
Refugees protest behind a fence against restrictions limiting passage at the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Since last week, Macedonia has restricted passage to northern Europe to only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are considered war refugees. All other nationalities are deemed economic migrants and told to turn back. Macedonia has finished building a fence on its frontier with Greece becoming the latest country in Europe to build a border barrier aimed at checking the flow of refugees
A father and his child wait after being caught by Turkish gendarme on 27 January 2016 at Canakkale's Kucukkuyu district
Migrants make hand signals as they arrive into the southern Spanish port of Malaga on 27 January, 2016 after an inflatable boat carrying 55 Africans, seven of them women and six chidren, was rescued by the Spanish coast guard off the Spanish coast.
A refugee holds two children as dozens arrive on an overcrowded boat on the Greek island of Lesbos
A child, covered by emergency blankets, reacts as she arrives, with other refugees and migrants, on the Greek island of Lesbos, At least five migrants including three children, died after four boats sank between Turkey and Greece, as rescue workers searched the sea for dozens more, the Greek coastguard said
Migrants wait under outside the Moria registration camp on the Lesbos. Over 400,000 people have landed on Greek islands from neighbouring Turkey since the beginning of the year
The bodies of Christian refugees are buried separately from Muslim refugees at the Agios Panteleimonas cemetery in Mytilene, Lesbos
Macedonian police officers control a crowd of refugees as they prepare to enter a camp after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
A refugee tries to force the entry to a camp as Macedonian police officers control a crowd after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
Refugees are seen aboard a Turkish fishing boat as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast to Lesbos
An elderly woman sings a lullaby to baby on a beach after arriving with other refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
A man collapses as refugees make land from an overloaded rubber dinghy after crossing the Aegean see from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos
A girl reacts as refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Refugees make a show of hands as they queue after crossing the Greek border into Macedonia near Gevgelija
People help a wheelchair user board a train with others, heading towards Serbia, at the transit camp for refugees near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija
Refugees board a train, after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, near Gevgelija. Macedonia is a key transit country in the Balkans migration route into the EU, with thousands of asylum seekers - many of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia - entering the country every day
An aerial picture shows the "New Jungle" refugee camp where some 3,500 people live while they attempt to enter Britain, near the port of Calais, northern France
A Syrian girl reacts as she helped by a volunteer upon her arrival from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, after having crossed the Aegean Sea
Refugees arrive by boat on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey
Beds ready for use for migrants and refugees are prepared at a processing center on January 27, 2016 in Passau, Germany. The flow of migrants arriving in Passau has dropped to between 500 and 1,000 per day, down significantly from last November, when in the same region up to 6,000 migrants were arriving daily.
“People’s mental health condition deteriorated as soon as the deal was signed,” she told The Independent.
“Firstly because of the conditions in the camps – crammed in these difficult conditions, with no activities to do at all in the day.
“The second thing that’s even harder is they don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
“A lot of these people have fled terrible conflicts and are facing a return to Turkey, where their future would be very uncertain.
“People over the last year have just been crushed, mentally and physically.”
MSF is treating dozens of torture victims at a specialist centre in Athens, with asylum seekers reporting being imprisoned, beaten and raped, and fears many more are not getting the help they need.
Ms Gosselin said between 5 and 30 per cent of refugees have been tortured, including people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose citizens make up almost a third of MSF’s patients.
“At the moment there’s real discrimination with a sense of there being ‘good refugees’ and ‘bad migrants’, and the Africans are usually seen less deserving of international protection,” she added. “There is a need for fair procedures.”
Arash, a 30-year-old asylum seeker, who was a political prisoner in Iran, said he was tortured and forced through mock executions but was not afforded protection as a vulnerable person by Greek authorities.
“I’ve attempted three times to kill myself,” he told HRW in the EU-sponsored Moria detention centre on Lesbos.
“The conditions here remind me of the prison in Iran, the nightmares, the threats and the torture.”
Almost 13,000 asylum seekers are trapped on Greek islands according to UN figures – far above the 8,700 capacity – and a backlog in claims is expected to grow amid legal disputes over whether Turkey can be considered a safe country for deportations.
With many tent camps lacking proper shelter, heating and fuel, several asylum seekers were killed by hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning and a gas blast during a period of extreme cold over the winter, with at least 13 dying so far this year on European soil.
A grim record of 5,000 deaths at sea in 2016 is on course to be surpassed this year, with at least 525 migrants being drowned or suffocated on boat journeys over the Mediterranean in 2017.
Most lives are lost on the treacherous crossing between war-torn Libya and Italy, where numbers have increased since the EU-Turkey deal slowed shorter and comparatively safer voyages over the Aegean Sea to a trickle.
The European Union vowed to increase cooperation with Libya’s fragile government at a summit last week but face opposition from humanitarian agencies as conflict between warring factions worsens in the country.
Opponents warn that any move to prevent refugees from leaving warzones in Libya force them into detention centres where they are being tortured and killed would be a violation of international law.
The British Government has sent millions of pounds in aid to Turkey, Libya and other countries housing migrants but has been criticised for scrapping a programme to resettle child refugees in the UK.
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