On Friday, August 31, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called upon the Greek government to immediately address the dire situation inside the country’s refugee camps. The call comes after reports of severe overcrowding, squalid conditions, and a recent trend in children as young as ten-years-old committing suicide at Moria refugee camp located on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Aid agencies, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have appealed to the Greek government and UNHCR to transfer individuals and families from the island camps to the mainland. After the European Union struck a deal with Turkey in 2016, Greece began holding refugees at these island camps in hopes of sending them to Turkey instead of allowing them to continue to Europe. Moria refugee camp is currently holding over 8,000 people in a space meant to accommodate between 2,000 and 3,000.
Often underreported and largely ignored, the upsurge in mental health issues among migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers is due, in part, to how Europe and various international aid agencies have mismanaged the refugee crisis. Responsibility for refugee mental health services and support is shared by the UNHCR, the World Health Organization (WHO), host governments, and various non-profit organizations.
Both the EU and UNHCR say they are unequipped to deal with the large influx of people arriving to Europe’s shores. Most EU member states have not established formal procedures to identify mental-health disorders amongst asylum-seekers. Difficulties in coordinating national and international efforts, along with scarcity and inequitable distribution of services, make it likely most refugees suffering from mental health problems or disorders will never receive the assistance they need.
Migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face unique risk factors when it comes to mental illness, which include but are not limited to family withdrawal, integration difficulties, traumatic experiences, and poor living conditions in reception centers and camps. Along with a lack of funds and resources, limited access to information about available services, cultural stigmas about mental health issues, and a lack of trust in authorities are the primary barriers facing governments and providers trying to reach refugees.
Sadly, suicide amongst refugees is not a new phenomenon and is not limited to refugee camps in Greece. In July, the United Kingdom’s treatment of child refugees came under the spotlight, after three teenagers from a Calais refugee camp in France committed suicide. In 2017, twelve unaccompanied refugee minors committed suicide in Sweden while waiting for their asylum requests to be processed. Giovanna Bonvini, a mental health expert at MSF, said in an article published in the Telegraph that people inside refugee camps have fled from traumatizing experiences in search of dignity and safety in Europe, and, instead, often find inhumane conditions.
The refugee mental health crisis highlights an enormous gap in Europe’s short-term plans for resettling and providing basic services to refugees. If a long-term solution is not found, the crisis will only get worse.