A new report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) shows how EU migration policies have perpetuated a mental health crisis for thousands of asylum seekers trapped on the Greek islands.

New data from the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) mental health programme in Lesvos, Samos and Chios, confirms the alarming numbers of people experiencing suicidal thoughts and depression since 2018: one in three people have considered suicide and one in five have attempted it, either before arriving in Greece or during their time living on the islands. 

The reasons for this mental health crisis are clear. Five years on from the establishment of reception centres such as Moria camp in Lesvos, nearly 15,000 people remain stranded in Greece in inhumane, and often dangerous living conditions, without access to sufficient water, sanitation, shelter or vital services such as healthcare, education or legal assistance. 

Since the onset of COVID and in the aftermath of the first lockdown in March, the IRC saw a 71% spike in the number of people experiencing psychotic symptoms, while a 66% increase in self-harm has caused concern among mental health professionals. Severe lockdown measures have meant that people are unable to leave the confines of the camps, and have been pushed into an even smaller space. Residents are forced to share water points and toilets, making regular hand washing difficult and sparking greater anxiety about their health and wellbeing.

Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, IRC Greece Director, said:

“The mental health of refugees has been decimated this year, in the wake of devastating fires in Lesvos and Samos, COVID and the lockdown restrictions brought with it, and the move to a new temporary reception center on Lesvos, which is yet to provide dignified living conditions. IRC psychologists have told me how people have been restricted to remain inside camps that are dirty and dangerous, stand in queues for food and communal toilets, and have little space to carry out hygiene practices and social distancing. 

 “NGOs have continued to help fill the gap left by the lack of support by the EU and Greek government. As of November 2020, there were no psychiatrists working inside any of the island hotspots, while the services offered by NGOs to fill this gap are significantly oversubscribed. The IRC is continuing to help address this void but more must be done to ensure that people are not abandoned by the mechanisms there to support them.”

Imogen Sudbery, IRC’s Director of Policy and Advocacy for Europe, said:

“This new data shines a spotlight on the worsening mental health crisis faced by 15,000 people trapped in reception centres on the Greek islands. Their overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair can be traced back to concrete political decisions and policy gaps at both national Greek and EU levels which have left people languishing in overcrowded and under-resourced camps. This is the human face of five years of political stalemate on migration policies.

After many years of negotiations, no one can be under any doubt as to what needs to change. We need a fair and predictable system whereby EU Member States share responsibility for hosting new arrivals, which respects the right of each individual to a full assessment of their asylum application, and guarantees people can live in safety and dignity throughout this process. 

“The EU Pact on Migration and Asylum presents policymakers with a golden opportunity to fix this broken system. Yet, once again, it appears that member states are struggling to agree on even the smallest steps towards these urgent reforms. Worse still, they look set to repeat the same mistakes including further entrenching policies of containment along Europe’s borders, which can lead to more camps and more human suffering, not less. 

“We’re calling on the EU and its Member States to seize this moment to finally establish the fair, humane system that Europe desperately needs and put a definitive end to the cruelty of containment.”

You can read the IRC’s latest report from Greece, The Cruelty of Containment: The Mental Health Toll of the EU’s ‘Hotspot’ Approach on the Greek Islands here.