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Lesvos: a Mental Health Crisis

With its tall fences, barbed wire and violence, the Moria Refugee camp on the Island of Lesvos resembles a hostile open-air prison.


Here, refugees live in dire and inhumane conditions as they wait for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to process their asylum forms and allow them entry to mainland Greece. The camp was originally designed to hold just 3,000 people; it housed upwards of 20,000 people. Then, in September 2020, it burnt down, leaving thousands without shelter. In its place Moria 2.0 was erected. The same policy regarding the camp has meant the same suffering has ensued, many reporting the camp to be worse than the first due to regular flooding, lack of food and insufficient measures against COVID-19. Moria 2.0 faces many of the same difficulties the first camp grappled with, namely overcrowding, mental health crises and violent crime.


An International Rescue Committee (IRC) report shows that “after the first lockdown in March there was a 71% increase in the number of people experiencing psychotic symptoms, and a 66% increase in self-harm.”

Overcrowding in the camp means that men, women and girls are forced to share tents. Women and girls are fearful as many experienced sexual harassment or assault prior to or within the camp. 13 year-old Fatima sleeps with a knife under her pillow because she is so fearful of being attacked and raped. She has tried several times to commit suicide by overdosing on her mother’s medication. Many of the children here have experienced adversity that will lead to lifelong mental health problems. They are trapped in a threatening environment where the conditions are far removed from the safe, nurturing environments that children need to develop and thrive. With only one physician serving the whole of the Moria camp, healthcare services are stretched and children do not access the healthcare they so desperately need.

A trained psychiatrist, Alessandro Barberio explains that “Here, there’s a concentration of the worst determinants for mental health diseases”.

A Syrian family inside a tent outside Moria. The 2-year-old twins, Azam, center, and Rassul, watched cartoons next to their mother, Ratiba Subhi, 33, and father, Akram Hamid, 35. They were joined by a friend, Aref Ahwal, 34. Credit: Mauricio Lima for The New York Times


Ayesha, a nine-year-old refugee from Afghanistan has experienced such severe psychological trauma, that it has left her in an unresponsive state of withdrawal known as Resignation syndrome. She is unable to speak or move, she remains in nappies and can only be tube-fed. Resignation syndrome occurs amongst refugee children because the psychological trauma they have experienced is often so severe that their protective response is to withdraw and isolate themselves from the horrors of the world.


Ayesha has experienced multiple traumatic experiences; she saw her brother die just a few feet away from her in an explosion, the blast severely injured her left leg and left her unable to walk without a leg support. She made the treacherous journey across the sea to seek safety and refuge and has since been living in dire conditions in the refugee camp. When a teenage boy was stabbed next to her tent at night, it was this a final traumatic event that sent Ayesha into a catatonic state.


Ayesha is one of the many children that Guardian Journalist, Jules Montague saw when he went to investigate the impacts of psychological trauma on the children living in the Moria Refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos. He said:

“Ayesha’s state embodies what can happen when a child loses all hope.”

Once children reach refuge in Greece, they face many more battles, with the lack of support causing a mental health endemic.


Policy-made suffering


The bureaucracies of Greece and the European Union’s anti-immigration agenda have all contributed to the suffering experienced by refugees in the Moria 1 and 2. The EU-TURKEY AGREEMENTS' intention was to hold people on the Greek island in order to deter additional refugees coming. The asylum applications now take years, which has left many vulnerable people stuck in limbo with no hope for their future.


With COVID 19 sweeping Moria 2.0 and no change in policy form the Greek authorities and complete lack of support and action from government the mental health suffering has worsened. Because of the lack of support, grassroots humanitarian organisations have stepped in to tackle the mental health crisis endemic. Small gestures, such as Team Humanity setting up a place in the camp for children can watch cartoons together, gives the children a short break from the camp’s harsh realities and allows them to be children.


Urgent reform is needed


Governments must make immediate reforms into mental health provisions for these refugees, and asylum approvals must be hurried. Urgent culturally relevant psychiatric care is needed. Doad, the co-founder of Humanity says that mental health projects are often side-lined and not given the attention they need. Mental health assessments often rely solely Westernised constructs of mental health, and this can result in improper help being given. Treatments are often given by people who do not speak Arabic or may not understand that trauma is also culturally and contextually embedded. This impacts the way people may express their mental health suffering. Studies show that Iraqi people suffering with mental health trauma often find emotional support in faith and prayer and therefore, psychological services should be understood through an Islamic lens.


The Compound of Moria 2.0 has exacerbated an already dire mental health crisis. Urgent action is needed, and conditions need to change otherwise more and more children will end up with lifelong mental health problems induced by these camps.

As Ali states “Life in Moria is impossible – believe me – most of us here have changed psychologically. Some people have lost their minds.”

Ali with his family. Source: The Guardian

About the Author

Ethan Burn is a recent anthropology graduate and currently works as a COVID vaccinator. In his spare time, he volunteers with different organisations, including Conversation Over Borders, and is passioniate about cooking.


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