By J.D. Capelouto
LONDON, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A deal between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow of undocumented migrants into EU member Greece has made seeking refuge in Europe "mission impossible" for the most vulnerable, aid groups said a year after the agreement took effect.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Oxfam said the deal exposed migrants to risk and abuse, and accused Europe of setting a dangerous precedent.
The EU-Ankara deal came into force on March 20, 2016 after more than a million refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond reached Europe in 2015, crossing over to Greek islands from Turkey.
Under the deal, anyone who crosses into Greece without documents can be deported to Turkey unless they qualify for asylum in Greece. But long asylum procedures and a huge backlog have stranded 14,000 asylum seekers on five Greek islands, double the capacity.
"The EU-Turkey deal is playing roulette with the futures of some of the world's most vulnerable. It has become mission impossible for those who need it most to seek refuge in Europe," Panos Navrozidis, the IRC's country director in Greece, said in a statement.
Some 1.2 million people sought asylum in the European Union in 2016, slightly fewer than in the previous year, the bloc's statistics office said on Thursday.
International charities said that refugees and migrants stuck in Greek camps, including children as young as nine, are cutting themselves, attempting suicide and using drugs to cope with the "endless misery".
Mental health was "rapidly deteriorating due to the conditions created as a result of this deal", Save the Children said.
From the onset, the EU-Turkey agreement has been fiercely criticised by United Nations refugee and human rights agencies, as well as rights groups, as immoral and a violation of international humanitarian law against blanket returns.
In January, the prime minister of Malta, holder of the EU's rotating presidency, said the EU needed a Turkish-style deal to curb the flow of migrants trying to sail from Libya to Italy.
Criticising the EU's "flawed" policies, Oxfam, NRC and IRC said such a deal should "under no circumstances" be replicated with other countries.
"Europe has set a dangerous precedent and we fear that it will be all too easy for other countries to also shirk their responsibility in providing international protection," said Nicola Bay, Oxfam's country director in Greece, in a statement.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)