A year after a controversial deal between the EU and Turkey blocked the flow of asylum seekers into Europe, tens of thousands are stuck in camps and suffering from rising levels of trauma and depression, aid workers have warned.
Suicide is also on the increase among the refugees and migrants trapped in detention centres in Greece and the Balkans, as they despair about their future.
Since the Balkan migration route was closed in early March last year and the EU-Turkey accord drawn up a few days later, around 62,000 have been left in limbo in Greece, 14,000 of them on the islands of the eastern Aegean, where they arrived after crossing by boat from Turkey.
A further 8,000 asylum seekers are stranded in Serbia.
Psychologists from Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international medical organisation, documented a 2.5 fold increase in the number of refugees suffering from anxiety and depression and a threefold increase in the number of people with post traumatic stress disorder between the start and the end of 2016.
In a report released on Tuesday, MSF teams said they are witnessing an increase in suicide attempts and cases of physical self-harm. As well as mental distress, asylum seekers who are stuck in the Balkans have reported being beaten up by police and border guards, bitten by police dogs and repelled with tear gas and pepper spray.
“The deal is having a direct impact on the health of our patients, and many are becoming more vulnerable. These people have fled extreme violence, torture and war and survived extremely dangerous journeys,” said Jayne Grimes, an MSF psychologist working on the Aegean island of Samos, where refugees and migrants are kept in a “hot spot” reception facility.
“Today, their anxiety and depression is aggravated by the lack of information on their legal status and their poor living conditions. They are losing any hope that they will find a safer, better future than the one they fled. I often see people who contemplate suicide or self-mutilate.”
On Samos, in January alone, there were 12 attempted suicides and six cases of self-harming among asylum seekers.
The deal between Turkey and Brussels was signed nearly a year ago, on March 18 2016.
Under its terms, Ankara agreed to stop asylum seekers from crossing by sea to the Greek islands in return for three billion euros in aid to deal with the three million Syrian refugees who are living on Turkish soil.
Syrian refugees who had reached the Greek islands were to be returned to Turkey, while Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey were to be resettled in the EU.
The “one in, one out” deal was hailed as a breakthrough in the migration crisis, but a year on less than 1,000 migrants and refugees have been sent back to Turkey.
Just over 3,500 refugees have been resettled from Turkey to the EU, out of the three million refugees hosted by Turkey. Less than 10,000 refugees have been relocated from Greece to other EU countries.
“The EU cannot hail the policy a success as people are trapped in dangerous areas outside of Europe unable to flee, forced to travel via more dangerous routes or trapped in overcrowded and dangerous ‘hotspots’ on the Greek island,” an MSF spokeswoman said.
The EU-Turkey deal “has been not a success story, but a horror story, with terrible consequences for people’s lives and health.”
The charity called on Brussels to open “safe and legal alternatives” for refugees to reach Europe, including accelerated resettlement and humanitarian visas. The crisis could about to become worse. Turkey threatened on Monday to tear up the deal and relax controls on refugees and migrants trying to enter Europe.
Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, said Ankara might consider relaxing controls on its land borders with Greece and Bulgaria. "In my opinion, the issue of the land passages should be reviewed," he said.