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Conditions are horrific at Greece’s ‘island prisons’ for refugees. Is that the point?

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The deterioration has occurred even though far fewer refugees are arriving on Lesbos now than at the height of the influx to Europe in 2015 and 2016. (Video: Griff Witte, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The first thing you notice is the smell: the stench from open-pit latrines mingling with the odor of thousands of unwashed bodies and the acrid tang of olive trees being burned for warmth.

Then there are the sounds: Children hacking like old men. Angry shouts as people joust for food.

And, finally, the sights: Thin, shivering figures drinking water from washed-out motor oil jugs. A brown-haired girl of no more than 3 clutching a fuzzy toy rabbit and smiling as she repeats to all who will listen, "I love you. I love you." 

For years, the turquoise-ringed vacationer's paradise known as Lesbos has been on the front lines of Europe's struggle to contain its part of a global refugee crisis. But conditions at the Greek island's vastly overcapacity, razor-wired main camp have rarely if ever been as bad as they are this winter.

The deterioration has occurred even though far fewer refugees are arriving on Lesbos now than at the height of the influx to Europe in 2015 and 2016. 

On Lesbos, endless waves of boats and fears of a more treacherous voyage

That seeming paradox has led aid workers, island officials and human rights activists to a disturbing conclusion: The appallingly bad conditions are no accident, but rather the result of a deliberate European strategy to keep people away. 

"There's no reason why 5,000 people in a camp in Europe cannot have access to basic shelter, health care, toilets and hot water," said Aria Danika, Lesbos field coordinator for the aid group Doctors Without Borders. "The fact that they have to endure this tells me it's part of a broader plan." 

That plan, she said, comes down to a single word: deterrence. And the message being sent to asylum seekers by the camp's Greek operators and European Union financial backers rings clear. 

" 'Don't come here, or you'll be stuck on this horrible island for the next two years,' " said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. 

"It's urgent that people be transferred to the mainland," Cossé said. "But they don't want to do that."

European leaders, acutely sensitive to challenges from the far right and to popular opinion that has swung against refugees, have made no secret of their desire to stop people from reaching the continent. 

Ever since the E.U. inked a deal with Turkey in March 2016 to send those who arrive on Greek shores back across the sea, E.U. officials have warned people that paying a smuggler to make the treacherous voyage would earn them only a return ticket, not a new life in Europe.

By some measures, the strategy has worked. Arrivals on Lesbos and other Greek islands averaged 2,500 a month last year, compared with the 10,000 who made landfall on Lesbos in just one day at the height of the crisis in October 2015. Drownings in the Aegean Sea have also plummeted, to 45 last year from nearly 800 in 2015. 

But in other respects, the deal has not gone according to plan. The number of people sent back to Turkey, for instance, has dropped into the low dozens per month as asylum seekers appeal rejections and rights groups challenge the legality of turning away those in legitimate need of protection. 

Meanwhile, Greece once ferried people off the islands and to the mainland for processing but has sharply cut back. The result is more than 7,000 people stranded in limbo on Lesbos, more than double the island's capacity to house. Newcomers still arrive daily. Thousands more live on other islands also well past their maximums. And many are stuck for months — or more. 

Qamar Ahmad, a Pakistani who is a member of the persecuted Ahmadi minority, arrived in Lesbos just as the E.U.-Turkey deal was kicking in. 

They’ve escaped war and crossed the sea. Now Europe wants to send them back.

He's still there, living with a dozen others crammed on a plywood frame beneath a leaky tarp, and with no indication of a departure date. 

"All my legal papers are in Greek, and I can't understand them. They haven't told me when I'll get answers," said Ahmad, 22, who studied physics in Pakistan. 

The contrast between the Europe he expected and the one he's experienced still shocks him. 

"We'd seen on television that Europeans were protecting the law and fighting for refugees," said Ahmad, slim with a neatly trimmed beard and a knit cap too thin for the January chill. "But when we got here, we found that no one is looking out for our rights."

Europe's approach to refugees has changed dramatically while Ahmad has been waiting. 

In early 2016, there were still leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguing that the world's most peaceful and prosperous region had an obligation to help as many people as possible fleeing wars and oppression in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, by contrast, was treated as a pariah for saying the asylum seekers were actually "Muslim invaders."

But it's Orban's vision that has won out; Merkel's political allies in Munich made him a featured guest at their annual conference this month, where he railed against supposed plans to "let in millions of Muslims." 

European and Greek officials acknowledge that conditions at the main camp in Lesbos, a former military facility known as Moria, are poor. But they insist that it's not by design, while seeking to shift the blame to others. 

E.U. Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, for instance, has argued that Brussels has provided well over $1 billion to deal with asylum seekers in Greece and that responsibility for the conditions at Moria is "in the hands of the Greek authorities." 

Greek Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas counters that much of that money has gone to nongovernmental organizations and that local officials have resisted efforts to expand facilities. 

But he also acknowledged that transporting people to the Greek mainland, where conditions are markedly better, would create new incentives for asylum seekers and result in "a mini version of 2015."

"If we relieve the islands, that would play into the hands of the smugglers," he told the German magazine Der Spiegel last month.

Those arguments all ring hollow on Lesbos, where the island's 86,000 residents have shown remarkable hospitality and forbearance over the past several years, but where frustration has now reached critical levels. 

Pope Francis takes refugees back to Rome following provocative and emotional Lesbos visit

"The refugees are not to blame. But patience toward the Greek government and the European Commission is over," said Marios Andriotios, spokesman for the island's mayor. 

The mayor, Spyros Galinos, recently joined his counterparts from other islands in a protest in Athens against the creation of "island prisons." The Greek government responded in December by transferring several thousand people to the mainland. 

But with new arrivals every day, Andriotios said, there's been virtually no improvement at Moria. And as winter deepens, he said, so does the evidence that camp authorities were unprepared. 

It can be seen all around the camp, where Moria's population overflows onto a hillside packed with hundreds of makeshift tents. Once lined with the gnarled trunks and silvery-green foliage of olive trees, the area has been stripped nearly bare. Residents burn the wood to keep warm and heat pots of water over the open flames so they can cook or bathe.

"There's winter every year. It shouldn't have been a surprise," Andriotios said. "Letting things get worse and worse just to warn newcomers is not the solution. It's not the humane thing to do." 

The local government has proved that Moria doesn't have to be the way it is. Just down the road, island authorities have set up a camp for more than 1,000 especially vulnerable asylum seekers — the sick, the disabled and the old. Residents say conditions there are far superior.

On the northern Greek mainland, meanwhile, the American financier and philanthropist Amed Khan worked with partners to turn an abandoned factory into a home for hundreds. Residents co-run a facility that features kitchens, gardens and yoga classes. 

Visiting E.U. officials rave about the space when they visit, he said, but have done nothing to emulate it.

"It's not incompetence; it's by design," said Khan, who was inspired to get involved in part by his experience on Lesbos at the height of the crisis in 2015. "There's no other explanation for the conditions people are living in 2½ years into this." 

Even those accustomed to a harsh environment are taken aback by Moria. 

Ahmed al-Kilani walked the camp in a disbelieving daze one recent evening, just 24 hours after his arrival in Europe. 

He had come from Gaza, where he worked at refugee camps known chiefly for their misery and where he was forced out by threats from Hamas. But he was unprepared for this. 

"Why is there no entertainment for the children here? Or training programs for new mothers? Or psychological support?" asked the tall, fit 26-year-old as he watched kids wrestle in the sewage-stained dirt.

As a pink sun set over the island's green hills and a shimmering sea, Kilani scrolled through his phone. Over and over, he watched videos of himself playing soccer with laughing children in the refugee camps of Gaza, his thoughts lost in a better place. 

The waypoint: A visual journey through Lesbos, the gateway to Europe

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