A prominent humanitarian group has warned of a worsening mental health crisis among asylum-seekers trapped at refugee camps on three Greek islands, saying its research reveals severe symptoms among people of all ages and backgrounds, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and self-harm.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), in a new report on Thursday, said nearly 15,000 people remain stranded at the European-Union funded Reception and Identification Centres, camps known as “hotspots” that were set up on Europe’s borders almost five years ago to swiftly process applications for asylum.
Citing data collected from 904 asylum-seekers supported by its mental health programmes on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Samos, the IRC said one in three of its clients reported suicidal thoughts, while one in five reported having made attempts to take their lives.
“I even tried to hang myself but my son saw me and called my husband,” Fariba, a 32-year-old Afghan woman, was quoted as saying. The mother of two young children lives in the Vathy camp in the island of Samos.
“I think about death a lot here: that it would be a good thing for the whole family, that if I could add a medicine in our food and we all died it would be a deliverance. But then I look at my daughter and I think it is not her time yet,” she said.
The hotspot centres were established up in 2015, when the Aegean islands, especially Lesbos, came under enormous pressure, with nearly a million refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe arriving on the Greek islands.
In January of this year, the five camps together hosted more than 38,600 asylum-seekers – a number six times higher than the hotspots’ capacity. The number had reduced significantly by November, yet, asylum seekers still live under “inhumane” conditions and “in great distress, with limited access to food, water and sanitation,” read the report.
On Lesbos, thousands of people live in a temporary camp after a fire burned down their overcrowded facility known as the Moria refugee camp. With winter in full swing, many people now live in tents battered by winds and flooding, the report said, adding an even deeper sense of exhaustion and frustration. On Sunday, the camp of Kara Tepe in Lesbos – where more than 7,000 people live – was flooded for the third time after three days of rain amid stormy weather conditions.
Mohammad, a 23-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who fled the city of Idlib in 2019, told Al Jazeera how he is affected by depression and sleeping disorders.
“How could my mental health not be affected? When you wake up and find a rat on your chest, when you are constantly waiting [for your legal status to proceed], when rain is pouring into your tent for days, you have no toilet but just garbage around you?” he said, asking his surname to be withheld as his second attempt to gain residency is under way.
This is the second winter Mohammad has spent in a self-made wooden hut in what is known as “the jungle” in the island of Samos. The 600-people capacity camp, located on a hill, comprises of tents made out of recycled material and houses more than 3,000 people.
Mohammad said there were high level of distress and constant fear of possible violent escalations among the residents of the camp. “We need some sort of improvement as it is getting difficult to control the anger,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic and the strict restrictions on movement has inflicted further blows.
The IRC reported an “alarming spike” in the number of people disclosing psychotic symptoms following the pandemic, jumping from one in seven to almost one in four. There was also a sharp rise in people reporting self-harm, which jumped by 66 percent, as well as a surge in those reporting symptoms of PTSD, which climbed from close to half of clients beforehand to almost two in three people.
These severe symptoms of mental health negatively affect people’s ability to cope with the many challenges they face at the hotspot centres, such as standing in line for hours to get food, or successfully navigate the complex asylum process, the report said.
‘Trauma of hotspot centres’
“Such stressful situation triggers a sort of re-traumatisation,” said Essam Daod, a psychiatric and mental health director of Humanity Crew, an NGO providing first response mental health interventions to refugees in Samos.
“You left home because you felt hopeless, unsafe and with a massive distrust with the system. You reached Europe and you start to stabilise your mood, but then COVID-19 destroyed all of this triggering the same feeling they had when they were fleeing their own country,” he said.
IRC found that mental health issues can also cause high levels of stigma and discrimination, while increasing vulnerability to exploitation or violence, including sexual violence.
Children are also bearing the brunt of the the worsening crisis.
“When parents break down, it has a major impact on children,” said Thanasis Chirvatidis, a psychologist with Doctors Without Borders who has been working in Lesbos since August.
Children perceive parents who experience psychological collapse as being unable to protect them, said Chirvatidis. The result is an increasing number of children are developing symptoms such as hopeless, insomnia, night terrors and regression symptoms as they go backwards at an earlier mental state where they had better memories and felt safer.
All of the people in the hotspot centres – adult and children alike – “even those who had a sense of normalcy in their life before, at this point will need support in the future for sorting what they are going through here, which has now become a trauma itself,” said Chirvatidis.