Welfare cuts ordered in the wake of Europe's economic crisis are hitting the poor disproportionately hard, with child poverty rising and people's health at risk, a leading Catholic charity warned on Thursday.
A new report by Caritas depicted "an unfair Europe" struggling with "disturbing" poverty levels after studying the impact of the financial crisis in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Spain.
"The report depicts an unfair Europe, where social risks are increasing, social systems are being downsized and individuals and families are under stress," Caritas said in a statement.
"Cuts to public services disproportionately affect lower-income groups, and problems accessing healthcare are impacting negatively on people's health," its report said.
Child poverty in the European Union has increased from under 20 percent to more than 22 percent in the last three years, reaching over 30 percent in Ireland, said the organisation's general secretary Jorge Nuno Mayer.
Even Cyprus, long considered an affluent society, has a poverty rate of over 29 percent among older people, the report said.
"Austerity measures have failed to solve problems and create growth," Mayer warned, adding that "the European project and cohesion in our societies is at stake.
Many unemployed and uninsured have turned to their families for help, particularly in southern Europe, but after years of recession, this resource is also running dry.
"Families are now exhausted, they cannot continue paying," Mayer said. "A second wave of poverty is expected... the negative impact can last for decades."
In Spain, the economy could take 20 years to recover to pre-crisis levels, he added.
The Spanish branch of Caritas meanwhile said the number of households living in extreme poverty in Spain rose to 1.5 million last year from 900,000 before the crisis hit in 2007.
The number of individuals in extreme poverty nearly doubled to 5.1 million in mid-2013 from 2.8 million in mid-2007, it said in a new report, calling the rise "unprecedented".
"There is a great risk that the progressive increase in inequality will become chronic in the long-term," it warned.
In Portugal, more than 200,000 people will have left the country by mid-2014, seeking a better future elsewhere, said Eugenio Jose da Cruz Fonseca, chairman of the local Caritas chapter.
The report was unveiled in Greece, the first eurozone nation to require an international bailout in 2010 and arguably the hardest-hit by the crisis.
Caritas called for an urgent shift from financial to social goals, as it accused governments of failing to address the moral responsibility of banks for the crisis.
"The financial system must not be insulated from risk, with the consequent incentive to reckless behaviour," the report said. "The same is likely to happen again unless a different approach is taken."
Caritas has 164 member organisations working in 200 countries and territories around the world to provide food and assistance to the poor, immigrants and war victims.