Mental health ’emergency’ among child refugees in Greece
Concerns mount for children who have witnessed violence, a devastating camp fire, and other horrors in Greece.
Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.
Lesbos, Greece – Laleh*, an eight-year-old Afghan girl, is one of the thousands of children who live in the new, temporary camp on Lesbos, which was established in the wake of a devastating fire that destroyed the notorious Moria camp last September.
She is among several children who are currently being treated at a mental health clinic on Lesbos, which is run by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), an organisation which has warned of a mental health “emergency” in the Greek island camps.
Last year in Moria, a camp known for its poor living conditions, Laleh witnessed a violent fight as she was waiting in a queue for food with her father.
Her mother Hawa*, 29, said that afterwards, Laleh started having panic attacks and became increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative.
The child was since hospitalised because she stopped eating. These days, she finds most activities challenging.
The family now resides in the new camp in Mavrovouni, a dusty patch of earth where everyone lives in tents. The site is strictly monitored and most residents are only allowed to leave once a week.
“During the day, she just lies down and closes her eyes,” said Hawa.
A drawing by a child in Lesbos of the perilous sea journey to Europe undertaken by many migrants and refugees [Courtesy: MSF]
At night, Laleh wears a nappy because she does not always say if she needs to go to the toilet.
Something as simple as climbing steps can be difficult and feel overwhelming for her.
“Before she was always drawing and painting,” Hawa said. “She was very hopeful, she wanted to be a doctor in the future.
“It’s really hard for me as a mother. Laleh never had this problem before. When it started I was so worried and sad, I didn’t know how to manage,” she said. “She doesn’t really speak, she’s very quiet.”
The fire which reduced Moria to ashes traumatised the family further.
“Laleh had a psychogenic [non-epileptic] seizure and she fell down, everyone was shouting and running, it was a very difficult time.”https://www.aljazeera.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Image-of-fire-by-child-in-Lesbos.jpg?w=770&resize=770%2C488
A drawing by a child in Lesbos depicting the fire which raced through the Moira refugee camp in September [Courtesy: MSF]
Laleh has had trouble sleeping and so Hawa lies with her and tells her stories, massaging her head in the hope it will soothe her.
The family has seen some improvement in Laleh’s condition since she started attending MSF’s clinic, but she is still very withdrawn.
Hawa said the securitised nature of the camp also has an effect on the children who live there.
It is yet unclear whether the camp is being policed because of the pandemic and fears that the refugees may contract or spread the coronavirus, or as part of an increasingly securitised approach towards camps on the Greek islands.
“Most of the children are afraid of the police because there are so many police around, it’s very difficult to go out of the camp and the children believe it’s a prison and that they can’t get out,” she said.
Hawa herself said she views the camp as a “prison”, adding: “I hope that we leave this camp, this is my only hope for now.”https://www.aljazeera.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/2020-09-29T180539Z_767460756_RC2I8J9M6310_RTRMADP_3_EUROPE-MIGRANTS-GREECE.jpg?w=770&resize=770%2C513
Refugees and migrants wait to be transferred to camps on the mainland after their arrival on a passenger ferry from the island of Lesbos at the port of Lavrio, Greece, in September 2020 [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]
In 2020, child psychologists at MSF noted 50 cases of children with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
“I never imagined it would be this bad,” said Katrin Glatz-Brubakk, a mental health supervisor for MSF on Lesbos.
She told Al Jazeera they have seen children with severe depression, suicidal thoughts and that many have stopped playing.
“As a child psychologist, I get very worried when children don’t play at all and we see a lot of that in the camp,” Glatz-Brubakk said.
“Many of the children have experienced trauma but if they were moved to a [place with] safe and good [conditions] they would start healing from it. Now they get sicker and sicker because of the conditions they live in.
“We are basically giving them skills to deal with a situation they should never be living in in the first place, it’s not treatment: it’s survival.”