Insecurity in Balkan Camps Affects Refugees’ Mental Health

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ANKARA — Due to the closure of several countries’ borders and the implementation of the EU-Turkey refugee deal in 2016, nearly 75,000 people are stranded in southeast Europe at the moment. UNICEF warns that the insecurity they have to endure in camps can heighten psychosocial distress and constitutes a risk for refugees’ mental health.

Many refugees’ mental health is already burdened by traumatic experiences in their war-torn home countries or during their migration, including physical, psychological and sexual violence. A study published by the German Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists in 2015 found that of refugees living in Germany, between 40 and 50 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and around 50 percent from depression. Refugee children’s risk of suffering from PTSD was elevated 15 times compared to children born in Germany.

Solely in Greek refugee camps, there are currently 47,000 migrants stranded, exceeding the camps’ capacities by far and living under dangerous and insufficient conditions. High rates of self-harm and suicides were reported in these camps. Louise Roland-Gosselin, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) humanitarian affairs advisor in Greece, told The Independent that the mental health of refugees “deteriorated as soon as the deal was signed.”

In total, hundreds of thousands are forced to persevere in countries they only planned to transit, including Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, unsure if or when they will be able to continue their journey. UNICEF reports that almost 25,000 children are affected as well. They are often traveling alone with their mothers, trying to follow the fathers of the family who have settled in Western Europe already. Although families have the right to reunify with their families, the bureaucratic processes currently take between 10 months and two years.

Afshan Khan, Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, says keeping families together is “the best way to ensure that children are protected,” which is why he demands an effort to accelerate the reunification process from EU member states, especially since the number of refugees living in Greek and Balkan camps continues to increase.

Meanwhile, UNICEF and MSF are taking varied measures to confront refugees’ mental health challenges. In Slovenia and Bulgaria, UNICEF supports governments to improve their child protection systems. The organization also provides psychosocial support to mothers and children in Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Croatia. Safe spaces, education and recreation for refugee children are to help them in their recovery and enable UNICEF to identify those who are in need of further individualized treatment.

MSF offers group intervention exercises discussing topics like stress or domestic violence, individual sessions with psychologists or psychiatrists and education campaigns.
Members of both organizations stated that only a minority –- between 15 and 25 percent -– of refugees were in need of individualized treatment, while most were able to recover with the right psychosocial support. But in order to address not only the symptoms but the causes of distress in European camps, there is a need for political solutions approaching bad living conditions and prolonged periods of insecurity.

Lena Riebl

Photo: Flickr

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