Lesbos: Child mental health crisis brews in refugee communities | Migration News

Names marked with an asterisk * have been changed to protect identities.

Lesbos, Greece – Laleh *, an eight-year-old Afghan girl, is one of the thousands of children who live in the new makeshift camp on Lesbos, which was built after a devastating fire that destroyed the infamous Moria camp last September.

She is one of several children currently being treated in a Lesvos psychiatric clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres or MSF), an organization that has warned of a “Emergency” for mental health in the Greek island camps.

Last year, in Moria, a camp known for its poor living conditions, Laleh witnessed a violent fight while waiting in line with her father for food.

Her mother Hawa *, 29, said that Laleh had panic attacks afterwards and increasingly withdrew and was no longer communicative.

The child has since been hospitalized because they stopped eating. She finds most activities challenging these days.

The family now lives in the new camp in Mavrovouni, a dusty patch of earth where everyone lives in tents. The site is closely monitored and most residents are only allowed to leave once a week.

“During the day, she just lies down and closes her eyes,” said Hawa.

A drawing by a child in Lesbos about the dangerous sea voyage of many migrants and refugees to Europe [Courtesy: MSF]Laleh wears a diaper at night because she doesn’t always say if she needs to go to the bathroom.

Something as simple as climbing can be difficult and feel overwhelming to them.

“Before she always drew and painted,” said Hawa. “She was very hopeful, she wanted to be a doctor in the future.

“It’s very difficult for me as a mother. Laleh has never had this problem before. When it started I was so worried and sad that I didn’t know how to deal with it, ”she said. “She doesn’t really speak, she is very quiet.”

The fire that turned Moria to ashes continued to traumatize the family.

“Laleh had a psychogenic one [non-epileptic] Seizure and she fell down, everyone was screaming and running, it was a very difficult time. “

A drawing by a child in Lesbos showing the fire that raged through the Moira refugee camp in September [Courtesy: MSF]Laleh had insomnia and so Hawa lies with her and tells her stories. She massages her head hoping it will calm her down.

The family has seen some improvement in Laleh’s condition since attending MSF clinic, but she is still very withdrawn.

Hawa said the securitization of the camp also had an impact on the children living there.

It is still unclear whether the camp will be monitored due to the pandemic and fears that the refugees could become infected with the coronavirus or spread, or as part of an increasingly securitized approach to camps in the Greek islands.

“Most children are scared of the police because there are so many police officers that it is very difficult to leave the camp and the children believe that it is a prison and that they cannot get out,” she said.

Hawa herself said she viewed the camp as a “prison” and added: “I hope we leave this camp, this is my only hope for now.”

Refugees and migrants wait to be transferred to camps on the mainland after their arrival on a passenger ferry from the island of Lesbos in the Greek port of Lavrio in September 2020 [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]In 2020, MSF child psychologists identified 50 cases of children with suicidal ideation and attempted suicide.

“I never thought it would get this bad,” said Katrin Glatz-Brubakk, a head of mental health at MSF on Lesbos.

She told Al Jazeera that they had seen children with severe depression and thoughts of suicide, and that many had stopped playing.

“As a child psychologist, I am very worried when children don’t play at all, and we see a lot of them in the camp,” said Glatz-Brubakk.

“Many of the children have experienced trauma, but when they are in a [place with] safe and good [conditions] they would begin to heal from it. Now they are getting sicker and sicker because of the conditions in which they live.

“We’re basically teaching them the skills to deal with a situation they should never live in. It’s not treatment, it’s survival.”