Harrowing reports reveal a “mental health emergency” faced by asylum seekers in camps on the Greek islands and call for the asylum seekers to be relocated to the mainland as refugee camps become severely overcrowded, and conditions continuing to worsen.
We were complaining because there were too many people in our tent. I walked out and they [the police] took me to
their office. […] They handcuffed me and pushed my head down in their car. In their office, they kept pressing my head
down and they switched the light off. They tightened the handcuffs until my wrists were bleeding [shows scars] and they
jumped on my back and kicked me. They broke my ribs and I have an X-Ray proving it. […]I came to seek asylum because
I was in danger back home, but now I am in danger again. Police here are like Syrian security. They come with sticks and
beat people up. This is not humane. I feel like a prisoner of war, not a refugee.
– 30-year-old man from Syria, Samos, September 2017
The recent report released by Medecins Sans Frontiers reveals that current asylum seekers have experienced violence in Greece, and 80 per cent of new mental health patients treated on Lesvos reported experiencing violence.
Just over a quarter reported experiencing torture, and 19 percent reported experiencing sexual violence, the report found.
Mental health is quickly deteriorating, with more patients needing to be referred to psychiatrists, with an average of six to seven people requiring urgent care linked to attempted suicide, self-harm, psychosis and other emergencies.
Grigoris Kavaranos, a psychologist working in the refugee camps at Lesvos, said the refugees in the camps, his patients, feel frustrated for having been “trapped” on the island for more than a year living in conditions that are “not humane”, exacerbated by the surge in inhabitants.
The camps are built to accommodate around 2,500 people but a recent influx sees the camp holding 5,500 people who live in cramped prison-like surroundings with razor wire, double fences, and security personnel.
Mr Kavaranos, who received his qualifications from Monash University in Melbourne, described the extent of the conditions forcing asylum seekers to line up for hours to collect breakfast, use the bathroom, or even access asylum facilities.
“Even if you don’t have a psychological problem you’re going to develop one just living under these conditions,” Mr Kavaranos said.
He said the psychologists are completely overwhelmed by the number of people needing psychological support just to deal with the conditions of the camps.
“When you force somebody to live in these inhumane conditions, and they have a background of having been tortured or [the threat of being] killed, every single person I see has a harrowing tale to tell,” Mr Kavaranos said.
“I’ve had patients who have been captured, incarcerated and held by ISIS and then after their release or escape they’ve then been incarcerated and tortured by members of the Syrian military as well.”
Concerns deepen as winter approaches. Mr Kavaranos cites three people dying from exposure to the elements last year, on top of other deaths from gas explosions caused by the gas canisters used for cooking and heating: a mother and child were killed, and another child seriously injured.
“If the camp was prepared for the cold weather then there wouldn’t be a problem. Last year the majority of the camp were living in tents so when it started snowing, you can imagine what that meant. People were pitching their tents on top of wooden pellets, and they could see the water running under the tent – and they were the lucky ones,” Mr Kavaranos said.
The poor conditions of the camps exacerbate psychological problems, especially if they are left untreated, as they compound on the already present psychological distress stemming form experiences of torture, violence, and sexual assault in their home countries.
“At some point these refugees are going to be in the community with their problems, basically what we’re doing now is just putting a lid on something that later may develop into something worse. It’s imperative that they receive the treatment that they need,” Mr Kavaranos said.
Recently human rights groups wrote a joint letter to Prime Minister Tsipras urging him to “put an end to the ongoing containment policy of trapping asylum seekers on the islands.
The letter also criticised the EU-Turkey statement which the groups say has caused the refugee camps to be places of “indefinite confinement for asylum seekers” alleging that some asylum seekers who arrived on the islands around the start of the statement remained on the islands for 19 months.
However, a recent decision that deemed Turkey as an “unsafe third country” was found to contradict the September ruling by the highest administrative court in Greece, Council of State, which had found that refugees deported to Turkey were not under threat of inhumane treatment.
Concerns surround further overcrowding at processing centres as the decision will add further delays in deportations.
“… it is evident that the Greek authorities cannot meet the basic needs and protect the rights of asylum seekers while they remain on the islands,” they wrote.
“Greece has a responsibility to protect the human rights of women, men, and children arriving on the islands,” they said, adding that for this to be achieved asylum seekers “must be transferred to the mainland to be provided with the necessary services.”
A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the government must further strengthen the national services on the island and although it has “scaled up” its capacity, urgent action is needed to “ease overcrowding and substantially improve conditions.”
“As you walk through the site you can see pregnant women and refugees in wheelchairs with their families in camping tents. Conditions are made worse by gaps in essential services such as access to medical care,” the spokesperson said.
But as the Greek economy remains crippled with debt the public health system in Greece remains in shambles. The public hospital in Mytilini has one psychiatrist and two psychologists, and limited or no capacity to take on extra patients. A mental health emergency remains as does its indistinct resolution.