Lesbos: A mental health crisis beneath the surface
A mental health crisis among asylum seekers from the former Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos is worsening. In the new ’Kara Tepe’ tent facility, even more young children are receiving psychiatric treatment, including medication, to deal with ongoing trauma.
Before it burned to the ground, the #Moria camp on the Greek #hotspot island of Lesbos was described as “hell on earth”. The terrible conditions and overcrowding in the migrant camp had led to daily incidents of violence, abuse, and suicide attempts, even among children.
According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which provides mental health support to refugees on Lesbos, between December 2019 and August 2020, more than 40% of migrants they counselled in Moria had suicidal thoughts and a quarter had actually tried to commit suicide.
On the night of September 8, 2020, the camp was destroyed. For thousands of asylum seekers, the fire was a traumatic experience, yet it allowed them to hope that they would never again have to suffer in such conditions.
However, worse was to come. In the days after the disaster, they would sleep in the streets and face violence and intimidation from anti-migrant groups as well as Greek police, before being moved to a new a tent camp with no showers, no areas insulated against cold and, it turned out, subject to major flooding.
Mental health worsening
According to Martha Roussou, senior advocacy officer with the IRC, almost all of the migrants attending counselling on Lesbos say their mental health problems are caused by poor living conditions and long waiting times for their asylum claims to be heard. For those at the new camp, these problems that had reached crisis proportions in Moria have not gone away, instead they have worsened with the loss of hope.
Greg Kavarnos, a psychologist with the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) working with asylum seekers on Lesbos, says conditions in the Kara Tepe camp would cause any mentally healthy person to become anxious and depressed. The effect is catastrophic for those seeking his help, who are already deeply traumatized.
“I have had patients who were incapable of talking when they were brought to me. Or they were so mentally unwell that they couldn’t even go to the toilet by themselves,” says Kavarnos.
For those who have been incarcerated in the past, the experience of being in the camp, which is heavily policed and surrounded barbed wire, can also trigger memories of traumatic experiences, he adds.
Some also experience disillusionment and a loss of hope because they have not reached a safe place, according to Kavarnos. “Imagine what it would be like if you’re in a region controlled by the Taliban in Afghanistan, or you’re a political prisoner in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or you’re a victim of the regime in Syria, and you escape this danger expecting to come somewhere where it’s safe and you’ll be treated as a human being. Imagine that instead of having this, you’re treated worse than an animal.”
Long-term effects on children
In the weeks following the Moria fire, almost all of the unaccompanied minors – children traveling without a parent or guardian – were transferred off the island. But many children were also left on Lesbos, as well as the other hotspot islands.
And according to Kavarnos, these remaining children are among those most at risk of suffering long-term mental health effects.
“Even though children are resilient and can bounce back from things, they’re at a stage when they’re developing their character and their personality,” he says. “If they have to go through traumatic experiences at this age, these will then shape their personality or their character in the future, leading to long-term problems.”
Children in the camp are increasingly feeling a sense of resignation. Seeing their parents trapped and unable to make decisions or take action, they become hopeless, according to Kavarnos.
“If at eight years old a child has already resigned itself, what does that mean when this child becomes 12 years old or 16 years old? If at 8 years old or 10 years old a child has to take psychiatric medication in order for the symptoms to be held at bay, what’s this going to mean later?”
In the new Lesbos facility, 17-year-old Nour from Syria tells us that when the Moria camp went up in flames in September, she had asked her mother to leave her there to die.
Like a growing number of children and young people in the migrant camps, Nour is taking antidepressants.
“Generally, if a psychiatric problem arises as a result of trauma, if you don’t deal successfully with the trauma, the psychiatric problem then becomes chronic,” Kavarnos explains.
“So, what are we doing? We’re creating a generation of children that are going to be reliant on psychiatric medication for the rest of their lives.”
‘We all have mental problems because of Lesbos’
Karima, from Afghanistan, is also on antidepressants and has trouble sleeping. Most of her family, including her granddaughters, aged two and three, were in a boat from Turkey that sank in the Aegean. They were rescued and brought to Lesbos. For about two years, they lived in the Moria camp.
Karima’s son; Rahullah tells us: “It was a very bad situation. ... People died, they drank, they killed each other. We didn’t sleep. So now we have mental problems, all of us, just because of Lesbos.”
Rahullah’s sister F., the mother of the two little girls, became so unwell that she cut herself, says another of her brothers, a softly-spoken law graduate. F.’s husband was murdered in Afghanistan.
Another young asylum seeker in the camp, Ahmad*, is 25. He travelled alone from Afghanistan to Greece. He says that he has twice attempted suicide, and if it hadn’t been for his friends, he would have gone through with it and succeeded in killing himself.
Removal the only solution
The IRC’s Martha Roussou says the organization tries to help migrants with counseling and medication, but while some people do improve, “the only durable solution is to remove them from the traumatic space they are living in.”
Until this happens, she continues, the migrants cannot escape the trauma they have already experienced, “despite the best efforts of psychologists to focus on positivity and hopeful thoughts.”
According to MSF’S Greg Kavarnos, no matter how much medication or psychotherapy you give a person, “if they’re constantly being traumatized by their experiences, you’re always one step behind.
“I can’t do anything for the ongoing trauma, the threats of violence, the inability to access simple facilities,” he continues. “I can’t say to the person, ‘it’s okay, things will get better,’ because I don’t know if things will get better for them.”
*Ahmad is an assumed name