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Mental health issues rise among refugees and migrants in Greece

March 26, 2021
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#Greece, #refugees, #Mental health, #COVID-19 coronavirus
located:Greece, Afghanistan
by:Magdalena Rojo
Staying in a state of limbo for years is already difficult to deal with. With the Coronavirus pandemic, refugees and migrants living in fear and isolation in Greece find themselves amongst the most vulnerable groups. The situation has been impacting the mental health of many.

Zeynab Nourzehi, 29, is the mother of one-year Selena. She is also a painter who started the Facebook page Refugees Art, where she shares her paintings and drawings inspired by her life as a refugee in Greece.

Zeynab and her husband Pejvak fled Afghanistan in search of a safer place. Her father worked for the local government and thus his family was constantly in danger. Later on, when her cousin became a member of the Taliban, Zeynab had no other option but to leave the country.

She was pregnant when her family arrived in Greece in 2019. Ever since, they have been waiting for an interview to process their asylum applications. With Greek authorities being overwhelmed by the number of asylum seekers, it can take years to get a reply. 

At the moment, they are stuck in one room, sharing an apartment with another family. "Covid changed the whole world. I came here to change my life and be in a better situation, but it was not the right timing,” Nourzehi told FairPlanet. “Due to Covid, we cannot go anywhere; we cannot be with other people. I cannot go to any class to learn new things. I cannot learn the customs and the language of the place where I am. Because we are in lockdown, we can only do things at home."  

Nourzehi had attended a painting class organised by The Hope Project on Lesbos Island, where her family had arrived before moving to the Greek mainland. During the pandemic, she paints to make money and feel less miserable.

Zeynab Nourzehi points at the fact that refugees and migrants miss their families even more during the pandemic. They fear whether or not their loved ones are safe in the countries they fled from. "I see a lot of women who want to be with their families like I do. I have not seen my family for three and a half years,” said Nourzehi, before she went on to describe the hardship of being separated from her mom, who lives in Iran at the moment. “You cannot imagine how my mom feels when we talk on video. She wants to talk to me in person not on the phone. She wants for me to be in a safe place. But, at the same time, it is hard for her to be so far.”

Refugees live in fear of COVID-19

Having experience with Greek hospitals from when her daughter was born, Nourzehi doubts she would get enough attention to get treated if she gets sick. "If I get Covid, I will die. I am a refugee, who will pay attention to me? I am really scared whenever we go somewhere. I do not know what would happen to me, I do not see any government attention for refugees," she stated, recalling her time in the hospital: "Nobody understood me. I spoke English with them but they did not listen, they just kept on saying wait, wait." Her worries are greater since she is a mother. 

Omid, 31, (he did not want his surname to be stated) has lived together with his family on the Greek island of Lesbos for the last fifteen months. He also fears the pandemic. "I am worried about getting the virus since I go to the camp every day," he said. 

He currently lives outside the refugee camp, and is a leader of a self-organised group of refugees called Moria Corona Awareness Team. His volunteer work brings him to the camp, since his organisation provides basic necessities for refugees as well as information during the pandemic. 

"My family and I, and basically everyone here, are trying to respect all measures, such as wearing masks, washing our hands, keeping social distance and being indoors as much as possible. It has been very hard and boring," Omid shared.

The situation on Lesbos was already difficult before the pandemic. The Moria refugee camp was hosting around 13,000 refugees and migrants, although the place was built to accommodate one fourth of that number. 

"Refugees are more vulnerable than others in the times of Covid due to the living conditions that they have, such as living in shared tents, hard to keep social distance, low hygiene, very limited access to health care and lack of information," said Omid. 

International organisations have been pointing at how much the pandemic has highlighted the inhumane conditions for refugees and migrants on the Greek islands.

After the first Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the Moria camp, violence among desperate and scared refugees and migrants erupted and the camp burnt down in September last year.

"The situation is worse than in the first Covid wave. For all of us," said Nikos Katsouris, a former fisherman and founder of the NGO Home for All. Before the pandemic, the group would host refugees and migrants at their restaurant and feed them. During the lockdown, they moved their work to Moria camp. 

Now, Home For All work wherever refugees are and in whatever field they need help. They also search for ways to help those experiencing mental health issues. "We rented a few apartments for refugees and migrants who were left without a shelter. Together with Doctors Without Borders, we also provide psychological support for those who need," Katsouris commented.

"There are lots of people in and out of the camp suffering from bad mental conditions. Yet, there is still lack of support for them," Omid said.

Rising cases of mental health issues

A December 2020 report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) titled The Cruelty of Containment  attests to the alarming numbers of refugees and migrants on the three Greek islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and depression.

Between March 2018 and October 2020, three quarters of migrants and refugees assisted by the IRC were dealing with some kind of mental health issues. This was mostly due to inhumane living conditions as well as their experience during their journey towards Europe.

The pandemic and measures adopted by Greece in order to slow down the spreading of the virus reinforced these issues. Due to the lockdown last March, IRC saw a 71 percent spike in the number of people experiencing psychotic symptoms.

“The mental health of refugees has been decimated this year, in the wake of devastating fires in Lesbos and Samos, Covid and the lockdown restrictions brought with it," said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, Director of IRC Greece, when the report was released. "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." 

The international organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) that is active on the Greek islands as well as in and around Athens also confirms the difficult state of mental health of refugees. Yet, aid for refugees going through depression, anxiety and post-traumatic disorder remains very limited.

MSF has various psychologists in the field. Throughout 2020, child psychologists in the organisation attended almost fifty children with suicidal tendencies and suicidal attempts. Many more children experience sleepwalking, nightmares and regressive behavior, according to MSF.

“The most severe cases of children we see are those who want to be isolated or express the desire to end their lives. They want to be inside the tent all the time, they do not want to socialise and they wish to die to stop the pain, to stop feeling like that,” Thanasis Chirvatidis, MSF child psychologist working on Lesbos island, stated on the organisation's website.

NGOs working on the ground, including MSF, ask the Greek authorities to take measures to ensure that mental health patients are attended and receive support.

The most vulnerable refugees and migrants should be moved to the mainland or other EU member states, MSF states.

According to the Greek authorities, around 5,000 migrants and refugees have already been moved from Lesbos to the mainland or other European countries. Yet, there are still more than 7,000 of them living in conditions that are far from dignified and that keep on impacting the mental health of refugees and migrants.

Image: Moria Corona Awareness Team

Article written by:
Magdalena Rojo
Greece Afghanistan
Embed from Getty Images
"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." Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, Director of IRC Greece.
© NurPhoto
Embed from Getty Images
Between March 2018 and October 2020, three quarters of migrants and refugees assisted by the IRC were dealing with some kind of mental health issues.
© NurPhoto
Embed from Getty Images
Asylum seekers receive humanitarian aid in the wake of the Moria fire.
© NurPhoto
Over 1,000 people demonstrated to save the people from Moria camp after the fires.
© Fabian Steffens
Over 1,000 people demonstrated to save the people from Moria camp after the fires.
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