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Trapped in Greece, refugees are suffering severe mental health issues

A toy stuck in the razor wire which hugs Moria detention centre in Lesvos, Greece [Anna Pantelia/Save the Children]

Exactly one year into the EU-Turkey deal and the conditions for refugees and migrants stuck on the Greek islands since the agreement are dire. The United Nations estimate that of the 13,200 asylum seekers 5,000 are children that remain trapped in harrowing conditions, overwhelmed by profound uncertainty and without access to an education.

An alarming development on the Greek islands noted by international aid agency Save the Children is the deteriorating mental health issues including depression, self-harm and suicide attempts among children as young as nine. The EU-Turkey deal has stemmed the flow of migrants to Greece but at what cost?

Save the Children released a detailed report last week in which it described self-harm among the children seeking asylum as “common” with one social worker explaining:

They cut themselves to get attention. One day, in my 30-minute meeting with one unaccompanied child, two incidents of self-harm occurred in the rooms next to us.

Mothers in the camps are finding self-inflicted scars on their children’s hands when bathing them. “I’ve seen a big change in my son’s behaviour,” says Babak*, a refugee from Iran who was caught with his 12-year old son in a fire that destroyed part of a camp where they were living on Chios island last year. “He is very scared. Ever since the time the camp burnt he doesn’t sleep well and he has nightmares.”

Disturbing reports of child suicide attempts have been flagged with one child as young as 12 intending to film his suicide in response to seeing others do so. In the same vein, teenagers are increasingly resorting to drug and alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism making them easy prey to dealers and traffickers alike.

A young girl holds the fence in kara Tepe camp in Lesvos, Greece [Anna Pantelia/Save the Children]

Violence and aggression is widespread and particularly prevalent among the estimated 2,000 unaccompanied children on the islands. Many of these unaccompanied children live in 24-hour survival mode sleeping in shifts to try to stay safe. Sacha Myers, Save the Children’s communications manager, warns:

If conditions remain unchanged, we could end up with a generation of numb children who think violence is normal.

 So why is more not being done to improve the conditions and prospects of a generation living in a place they call “hell”? “There is a push to paint this whole EU-Turkey deal publicly as a success,” explains Imad Aoun, Save the Children’s regional communications manager. This push is based on the sharp decrease in migrant and refugee numbers arriving in Greece since the deal came into effect on 20 March 2016. Yet despite lower numbers, those who continue to arrive are adding to a dangerous backlog of thousands of asylum seekers already stuck in over-stretched facilities.

Fahim* from Afghanistan is on the Island of Lesvos with two small children, he asks:

If you [Europe] don’t want us here, why are you dragging on the process? Isn’t that against what you call human rights?

Unfortunately human rights are not at the forefront of the main agendas. The Greek authorities want to move numbers from the islands into mainland Greece and other European countries while the EU maintains its strategic decision to keep people on the islands, closer to Turkey and thus closer to deportation. Furthermore as Aoun explains: “There is a move to use the conditions on the island as a way to deter other people from coming, everyone knows what’s happening, nobody wants to take responsibility and I think politics is taking precedence here.”

 Interestingly, the UK Home Office just published the selection criteria for the 150 unaccompanied refugee children it intends to resettle in Britain from France, Greece and Italy under section 67 of the 2016 Immigration Act. Only unaccompanied children who had arrived in Europe before the EU-Turkey Deal will be considered, leaving the majority of children in Greece ineligible.

Safa* and Bari* are stranded with their third sibling and parents on Chios, Greece [Sacha Myers/Save the Children]

Safa* and Bari* are stranded with their third sibling and parents on Chios, Greece [Sacha Myers/Save the Children]

Ali* is a 15-year-old unaccompanied minor from Syria who would have been a prime candidate for the UK rehabilitation plan had he not arrived to Greece after 20 March 2016. Ali has no family members in Europe, an extremely difficult past and severe mental health issues.

Elianna Konialis, coordinator from the Athens based NGO Praksis, says:

Europe has lied and is failing them once again. We see no correlation between vulnerability and date of arrival, which is purely circumstantial.

Timing and circumstance is a poor explanation to the children abandoned to the fate of an agreement. It comes as no surprise that some asylum seekers have returned, or are considering returning, to the war-torn countries they fled. While parents weigh out their dwindling options they and their children continue to develop long-term physical and mental illnesses that are in urgent need of attention.

“The first step in any recovery is taking them out of these conditions,” Aoun explains. “The longer they stay in there the more their treatment will get delayed and the higher the chances their symptoms become chronic.”

For the EU, confusion as to what will happen in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere, should in this case prompt action, not an excuse for further stagnation.

*names have been changed to protect the identity of the speakers

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