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PART 2: The Aegean Island refugee camps – An unprecedented mental health emergency

(This is part 2 of the article. If you haven't read the first part yet, click here and come back to this one later.)

Trigger warning: readers might find the following content distressing as it discusses mental illnesses, suicide and self-inflicted harm.

Image by Reuters

In Spring 2018, during an organized mental health activity for children between the ages of 6 and 18 years old, MSF observed that nearly a quarter of the children participating had self-harmed, attempted suicide or had considered ending their lives. Psychiatrists have reported children as young 7 or 8 years old expressing their desire to die. Aid groups also recognize that the number of people self-harming or suicidal is under-reported since not everyone will admit to this or try to seek help. Shame and stigma exist (and vary) around the topic of mental health across different cultures. Notably, researchers on perceptions of mental health in the Middle East describe tendencies to associate mental illness with supernatural causes or weakness of the self or one’s faith. They have noted the barriers to accessing services that strong cultural prohibitions on revealing personal or family matters to outsiders present.

As the most recent comprehensive statistics are from 6 months to 2 years ago one hopes when reading them that things have improved since this time. However, the camps have become more crowded since 2018, increasing pressure on scarce resources. For instance, 9,000+ people were living in Moria camp on Lesvos in September 2018. In February 2020, this figure was over 20,000.

Covid-19 put the spotlight on the topic of mental health around the world as many of us experienced how uncertainty about changes in our lives and stress about catching the virus or passing it onto loved ones impacted our own well-being. There can be no doubt that Covid-19 has exacerbated existing stresses and tensions in the Aegean Island camps where social distancing, adequate handwashing and ‘shielding’ vulnerable family members is impossible. People are scared and angry – demonstrations have taken place protesting the overcrowding, inadequate sanitation facilities, derisory access to healthcare and the lack of preparation for an outbreak of coronavirus. With the camps in lockdown, only a small number of refugees are allowed out of the camps every hour. People are subject to fines of €150 if they disobey these rules, however the police frequently fine refugees even if they have permission to be outside the camp. Covid-19 has added new stresses and fears to people’s lives.

Image by People’s Dispatch

The scale of mental health needs in the camps vastly outstrips the capacity of mental health services. MSF, one of the major providers of this support on the islands acknowledges that their psychologists and psychiatrists are ‘completely overwhelmed’ by the number and severity of the cases. As a result, they can only deal with the most severe ones. A 2017 MSF report claimed that patients on the islands can wait up to six months for an appointment with a psychiatrist and that on Samos those considered a risk to others or themselves were sometimes kept in the police station’s jail without staff appropriately trained to address their needs. On Chios, which hosts over 5,000 asylum seekers, even MSF is absent.

The increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced camps on the islands are a result of disastrous and inhumane EU migration policy. It is widely argued by humanitarian organizations that the poor conditions and high level of suffering in the camps exist because the EU wants to deter people from making the sea crossing to Europe. These policies are literally putting lives at risk. Europe cannot ignore this situation any longer nor leave Greece to deal with it alone. We need a new and humane migration policy and the existing camps must be evacuated immediately. All European states have a moral obligation to act by resettling refugees in their own country.

Europe Must Act NOW.


About the author: Isla is from Scotland and recently finished her MA in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. She volunteered with asylum seekers for organization Action for Education on the island of Chios in 2017 and hopes to return to this project later this year. Isla feels strongly about social justice and universal human rights and wants to see more countries resettling more refugees across Europe as soon as possible. She is also a focal point for Europe Must Act – Aberdeen.

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