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.
“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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