Children forced to live in overcrowded refugee camps on Greek islands such as Lesvos are being left to battle a mental health crisis alone. New research from Refugee Rights Europe is shedding light on their plight, writes Helena Eynon.

Child refugees across Europe are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, and as numbers continue to rise, resources are being stretched to breaking point. Thousands of children who have experienced serious traumas are unable to access the care, help and support they desperately need.

On the Greek islands, non-governmental and aid organisations continue to raise serious concerns about the mental health crisis currently unfolding there. Following the EU-Turkey Statement in 2016 and the subsequent containment policy put in place by the Greek government, new arrivals are banned from travelling to mainland Greece until their asylum claims have been processed. As a result, thousands of displaced people are currently trapped on the islands and the situation has rapidly deteriorated.

Children suffering behavioural issues, bedwetting and nightmares

The largest camp on the islands is the notorious Moria camp on Lesvos, with an estimated 3,000 minors now living there. Moria has been described as an “open-air detention centre” because of its severe overcrowding and culture of tension, anxiety and violence.

There is now an overwhelming mental health crisis amongst the people in the Moria, where children as young as 10 are known to have attempted suicide. Despite the undeniably high incidence of childhood mental health problems, there is little to no psychiatric or psychological help available.

According to Medecins sans Frontieres doctor Liz Clark, increasing numbers of children are suffering from behavioural issues, bedwetting and nightmares. Their symptoms are rooted in the traumas that they have experienced as well as those of their parents and are aggravated by their appalling living conditions and the violence they are continuing to witness within the camp.

“Through our mental health group therapy for children we have found that both unaccompanied children and children with family in the camp are being re-traumatised from their experiences of living in Moria, which is deeply concerning.”

Dr Alessandro Barberio, Medecins sans Frontieres

A systemic failure of protection and safeguarding

Research by Refugee Rights Europe has documented an alarming number of human rights violations occurring on the islands and raised serious concerns about the systematic failure to provide adequate protection and safeguarding mechanisms for children in displacement.

Almost three quarters of the minors interviewed during research conducted in June 2018 had experienced health problems since arriving on the island, although over 41 percent of these had not received any medical help. Almost half attributed their health issues to the living conditions inside the camps, with nearly one quarter suffering from mental health problems.

Extreme overcrowding in the Moria camp has forced some people to pitch tents in overflow areas, where they risk exposure to snakes and scorpions. One child was bitten by a scorpion, and her father was unable to access appropriate treatment within the camp and eventually borrowed the money needed to take her to hospital.

Access to healthcare, information and dignified living conditions urgently needed

Alarmingly, over half of the minors interviewed said that they had no access to legal advice and information about European asylum rules. Over one quarter told us that they had been arrested or detained by the police, sometimes for simply being in the vicinity of unrest occurring between other refugees.

In order to address the unfolding mental health crisis among displaced and unaccompanied children on the Greek islands, urgent action is needed to ensure the adequate provision of health services, dignified living conditions and access to information. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be at the centre of any policy initiative to ensure that refugees and displaced people are given the protection and opportunities expected by international standards.

Helena Eynon is a researcher for Refugee Rights Europe.

Picture: A child living in a refugee camp in Greece. ©Tdh

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