Humanitarian groups have accused the Greek government of fomenting a hunger crisis in refugee camps with “conscious” policy choices that have left thousands unable to access food.

Decisions aimed at deterring migrant flows had, they said, created an intolerable situation in which refugees have been left struggling to feed themselves for months.

“It is unthinkable that people are going hungry in Greece,” said Martha Roussou of the International Rescue Committee. “Through no fault of their own they have fallen through the cracks and all because of a problem created by gaps in legislation and policy.”

The IRC said it estimated that 40% of camp occupants – about 6,000 refugees – had been denied basic means of subsistence because of the centre-right administration’s decision to halt food provisions for those no longer in the asylum procedure.

Worryingly high numbers were children. About 40% of the population residing in the state-run facilities are minors.

“Teachers in local primary schools have reported children turning up to school without having eaten, without even a snack to see them through the day,” the New York-based group said in a statement.

Although 16,559 refugees were registered in camps on the Greek mainland, new catering contracts had been agreed to provide food for only 10,213 people, it revealed.

Aid organisations first raised the alarm in October after a change of law resulted in vital services not only being cut for recognised refugees and rejected asylum seekers but those who had failed to register applications, often because of chronic processing delays.

In an open letter addressed to Greek and EU officials, the 33 groups demanded that food be given to all camp residents irrespective of their legal status. The European home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, responded that Greek authorities had been repeatedly called on to “ensure that all persons, particularly the vulnerable” receive food and other necessities.

Athens’ migration ministry vigorously rejects any suggestion of a hunger crisis. Manos Logothetis, who oversees refugee reception, described the allegation as “nonsense”, saying it had been manufactured by NGOs.

“If there are 10 refugees in this country who have been denied food I will quit my job,” he said. “If a hunger crisis really existed there’d be riots and protests. We are in discussion with the EU commissioner every week and have reassured her that there is no issue with food, that everyone who is supposed to receive it, including the vulnerable and incapacitated, is getting support.”

But in a written statement the ministry reiterated that under Greek and European law only people applying for international protection could be considered “beneficiaries eligible for material conditions of reception, and therefore food”.

In recent months camp residents who do not fit that description have grown, despite Athens also being applauded for accelerating asylum claims.

Rights groups said excessive expectations of successful asylum seekers are partly to blame. Under legislation implemented last year recognised refugees are quickly left to fend for themselves, with benefits they once enjoyed, including cash assistance and food, suspended after 30 days.

In a society with little integration support, survival is often impossible, and most are forced to return to camps after confronting bureaucratic hurdles, linguistic challenges and difficulties finding work.

Turkey’s refusal to readmit rejected asylum seekers has not helped either. A landmark deal reached between the EU and Ankara in 2016 aimed to send migrants who failed to win refugee status back to Turkey. The country has refused to take any back since March 2020 when the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, encouraged thousands of asylum seekers to enter the bloc, via Greece, sparking a border crisis that further soured the Nato allies’ already strained ties.

With their claims rejected and without anywhere to go, they, too, are forced to remain in camps.

But rights groups say it is the Greek government’s controversial decision to rule Turkey as a safe third country that has mostly accounted for the build-up of people no longer considered part of the asylum process. Since June, Afghans, Syrians, Somalis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have been denied the right to seek refugee status, with Athens saying they should apply for asylum in neighbouring Turkey.

“It has created a situation where thousands have been left in legal limbo and in utter destitution without access to food and other basic rights in the camps,” said Minos Mouzourakis, legal officer at Refugee Support Aegean, a migrant solidarity group in Athens. “What is absolutely clear is that the hunger crisis unfolding in Greece is a direct result of the conscious policy choices of the government.”

It was imperative, he said, that given Turkey’s stance, Greek asylum officials ended the impasse by examining the asylum requests of all five nationalities based on merit.

About 90,000 refugees currently live in Greece and arrivals are much reduced from the height of the migrant crisis when close to 1 million Syrians crossed the country en route to the EU. Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ administration has taken a much tougher approach to the issue than that of Alexis Tsipras, his leftist predecessor.

Last year the government assumed control of the running of all 24 camps on the mainland, previously administered by the International Migration Organization, and in a much-delayed process took charge of a EU-funded cash assistance programme formerly run by the UN. The chaotic transition further exacerbated the food crisis and handouts for refugees who were eligible for cash disbursements in camps and private housing were frozen for three months.

Logothetis acknowledged the problem but insisted that as of last week payments were being “rolled out”.

“So much of this crisis is the result of mismanagement, disorganisation and not thinking policies through,” said Roussou at the IRC. “We work in Afghanistan where there is hunger and it is so difficult to resolve. Here in Greece it should be so easy.”