Years of trapping in the Aegean islands have led to a mental health crisis for thousands of refugees, with one in three contemplating suicide, a report compiled by psychosocial support experts revealed.
EU containment policies have also prompted more people to try to end their lives, according to the report released by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on Thursday.
“Research reveals consistent accounts of serious mental health conditions,” says the report, which cites data collected over the past two and a half years on Lesbos, Samos, and Chios.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and self-harm “among people of all ages and backgrounds” have emerged as by-products of hopelessness and despair in the border areas of eastern Europe, he says.
“Up to three out of four people that IRC has helped through its mental health program on the three islands reported experiencing symptoms such as trouble sleeping, depression and anxiety,” wrote its authors. “One in three reported suicidal thoughts, while one in five reported attempting to kill themselves.”
In a year disrupted by the coronavirus and disastrous fires on Lesbos, some 13,000 asylum seekers were temporarily displaced after the destruction of Moria, the island’s infamous detention center, psychologists concluded that the humanitarian situation at the outposts it had gotten considerably worse.
The cost of mental health had been compounded by lockdown measures that had kept men, women and children confined to facilities for much of 2020, they said.
Previously, residents of Moria, the largest refugee camp in Europe before its destruction, had participated in off-site soccer games and other group activities.
Noting that the restrictions were stricter for refugees and migrants than those applied in other parts of Greece, IRC support teams found a marked deterioration in the mental well-being of people in the camps since the closures were enforced in March.
“The research demonstrates how the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated the suffering of already vulnerable asylum seekers and exposed the many flaws in Europe’s asylum and reception system,” the report says.
Throughout the year there has been an increase in the proportion of people reporting psychotic symptoms, from one in seven to one in four. Self-harm disclosures have increased by 66%.
The IRC, founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 and now led by former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, said the findings offered further evidence of persistent political and political failures at the Greek and EU level.
Five years after authorities rushed to establish reception and identification centers, or hotspots, on the front-line islands at the beginning of the refugee crisis, some 15,000 men, women and children remain stranded at the facility.
Describing the conditions in the camps as dangerous and inhumane, the IRC said residents were still being denied access to sufficient water, sanitation, shelter, and vital services like health care, education and legal assistance to process asylum claims.
On Lesbos, the island most often targeted by smugglers working along the Turkish coast, government figures this week showed an estimated 7,319 men, women and children registered in a temporary camp erected in response to an emergency that it was attributed to the arsonists.
Three months after the fires, more than 5,000 people have been transferred to the mainland, according to Greek authorities. Of that number, more than 800 were relocated to the EU, including 523 children who had made the trip to Europe alone and were also detained in Moria.
Many had hoped that the new camp would be a great improvement on Moria, whose dire conditions and severe overcrowding earned it worldwide notoriety as a humanitarian disaster. But the new facility, located in an old shooting range meters from the sea, has drawn condemnation from locals and NGOs.
“The winds beat it, the rains beat it and there is no shade, so this place is not suitable for any camp,” said the island’s mayor, Stratis Kitilis. “It is right next to all the warehouses, transport companies and supermarkets that keep Lesbos going. Nobody wants him there. “
This month, the EU announced that it was working with the center-right administration in Athens to replace the facility with a modern structure due to open next September. New reception and identification centers will also be built on Samos, Kos and Lesbos. “They say it will look nothing like Moria and it will be more of a transfer stop, but by the end of next year is a long time,” Kitilis said.
Kiki Michailidou, the psychologist in charge of IRC’s psychosocial support programs on Lesbos, agreed that conditions were far from dignified. As winter approached, residents of the camp were resorting to increasingly desperate measures to keep warm, he said, while waiting in long lines for food and common toilets.
With camp managers moving families into giant tents, social distancing remains elusive. “Many people fear the unknown again,” Michailidou said. “Moria was terrible, but it was also a familiar place, a place they called home. After the fires they lost their point of reference and that has also had a significant impact on their mental health. “
The IRC report calls on European policy makers to learn from past mistakes. While the EU is new pact on asylum and migration it is a step in the right direction, he says, it is still a long way from the bloc managing migration in a humane and efficient way.
Echoing that sentiment, Michailidou said: “After the fires we saw what could happen. There were transfers to the continent and the children were transferred to other parts of Europe. That is proof that where there is political will and coordinated action, the lives of the people in these camps can be transformed. “
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