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‘Living in a mud hole takes away all your feeling of being human, really’

BETHANY RIELLY talks to refugees and NGO workers about the child mental health crisis in Lesbos refugee camp, where there are no activities, no school, where tents collapse in the night, and storms remind children of the war they fled from

DURING the first week of 2021, Katrin Glatz-Brubakk treated a refugee who had tried to drown himself.

His arms, already covered with scars, were sliced open with fresh cuts.

He told her: “I can’t live in this camp any more. I’m tired of being afraid all the time, I don’t want to live any more.” 

He is 11 years old. Glatz-Brubakk, a child psychologist at Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) mental health clinic in Lesbos, tells me he is the third child she’s seen for suicidal thoughts and attempts so far this year.

At the time we spoke, it was only two weeks into the new year. 

The boy is one of thousands of children living in the new Mavrovouni (also known as Kara Tepe) refugee camp on the Greek island, built after a fire destroyed the former Moria camp in September.

MSF has warned of a mental health “emergency” among children at the site, where 7,100 refugees are enduring the coldest months of the year in flimsy tents without heating or running water.

Situated by the coast on a former military firing range, the new site, dubbed Moria 2.0, is completely exposed to the elements with tents repeatedly collapsing and flooding.

This week winds of up to 100km/h battered the camp and temperatures dropped to zero. Due to lockdown measures residents can only leave once a week, meaning there is no escape, not even temporarily, from life in the camp. 

 

Camp conditions causing children to break down, not their past traumas

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Kids inside the camp play in a mud puddle (pic: Mare Liberum)

 

It is these appalling conditions which are causing children to break down to the point where some are even losing the will to live, Glatz-Brubakk tells me.

While the 11-year-old boy she treated earlier this year had suffered traumas in his past, the psychologist says he was a resilient child and had been managing well for a long time.

“But he has been there in Moria now for one year and three months and now he is acutely suicidal.”

This is also the case for the majority of children who come to the clinic.

“On our referral form, when children are referred to us we have a question: ‘When did this problem start?’ and approximately 90 per cent of cases it says when they came to Moria.” 

Glatz-Brubakk tells me she’s seen children who are severely depressed, have stopped talking and playing and others who are self-harming.

Last year MSF noted 50 cases of suicidal thoughts and attempts among children on the island, the youngest of whom was an eight-year-old girl who tried to hang herself.

It’s difficult to imagine children so young even thinking about taking their lives.

But in the camp, where there are no activities, no school, where tents collapse in the night, and storms remind children of the war they fled from, more and more little ones are being driven into despair.

“It is living in this constant nightmare of insecurity and uncertainty that is causing children to break down,” Glatz-Brubakk says.

“They don’t think it’s going to get better. ‘I haven’t slept for too long, I’ve been worrying every minute of every day for the last year or two’ — when you get to that point of exhaustion, falling asleep and never waking up again is more tempting than being alive.” 

 

Mental health crisis worsening

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Kids beside their tents (pic: Mare Liberum)

 

While there has always been a mental health crisis on the island, Glatz-Brubakk says the problem has worsened since the fire reduced Moria to ashes five months ago.

The blaze “retraumatised” many of the children and triggered a spike in mental health emergencies in the clinic.

But the main difference, she notes, is that many people have now lost any remnant of hope they may have been clinging to.

Following the fire, the European Union pledged there would be “no more Morias,” and many refugees believed they would finally be moved off the island.

But it quickly transpired that this was not going to be the case.

While a total of 5,000 people, including all the unaccompanied minors, have been transferred from Lesbos — according to the Greek government — more than 7,000 remain in Moria 2.0, where conditions have been described as worse than the previous camp.

“They’ve lost hope that they will ever be treated with dignity, that they will ever have their human rights, that they will be able to have a normal life,” Glatz-Brubakk says.

“Living in a mud hole as they are now takes away all your feeling of being human, really.” 

Yasser, an 18-year-old refugee from Afghanistan and Moria 2.0 resident, tells me he’s also seen the heavy toll on adults’ mental health.

“In this camp they are not the same people as they were in the previous camp,” he says. “They changed. They have a different feeling when you look in their eyes.” 

 

No improvements to Moria 2.0

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(pic: Mare Liberum)

 

The feelings of abandonment, uncertainty and despair have also been exacerbated by failures to make improvements to the camp, which is run by the Greek government.

It’s been five months since the new camp was built yet there is still no running water or mains electricity.

Instead bottled water is trucked in and generators provide energy for around 12 hours a day.

Residents and grassroots NGOs have taken it upon themselves to dig trenches to mitigate the risk of flooding, and shore up their tents to protect them from collapse. But parts of the camp still flood.

“When it rains even for one or two hours it comes like a lake,” says Yasser, who lives in a tent with his four younger siblings and parents.

Humidity inside the tents also leaves clothes and blankets perpetually damp with no opportunity to get them dry again.

Despite temperatures dropping to zero this week, residents of the camp still have no form of heating, except blankets and sleeping bags. 

The camp management have not only been unforgivably slow to improve the camp, but have also frustrated NGOs’ attempts to make changes.

Sonia Nandzik, co-founder of ReFOCUS Media Labs, an organisation which teaches asylum-seekers to become citizen journalists, tells me that plans by NGOs to provide low-energy heated blankets for residents back in December were rejected.

Camp management decided small heaters would be a better option. “But they are still not there,” Nandzik tells me. 

“Now they are afraid that the power fuses will not take it and there will be a fire. So there is very little planning, this is a big problem,” she says.

UNHCR says it has purchased 950 heaters, which will be distributed once the electricity network at the site has been upgraded. But this all feels too little, too late. 

Other initiatives suggested by NGOs like building tents for activities and schools have also been rejected.

The Greek government, which officially runs the camp, has repeatedly insisted that conditions there are far better than Moria.

Just this week Greek migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis claimed that “no-one is in danger from the weather in the temporary camp.” 

While the government claims the site is temporary, which may explain why it has little will to improve it, the 7,100 people stuck there — of whom 33 per cent are children — have no idea how long they will be kept in Moria 2.0 and must suffer the failures and delays of ministers in the meantime. 

“I would say it’s becoming normal,” Yasser says, when asked if he expected to be in the “temporary” camp five months after the fire.

“I know that it’s not good to feel these situations as normal but for me it’s just getting normal because it’s something I see every day.”

Yasser is one of Nandzik’s citizen journalism students. Over the past few months, she says she’s seen the mental health of her students who live in the camp worsen.

“They are starting to get more and more depressed, that sometimes they do not show up for classes for several days,” she says, referring to the ReFOCUS’s media skills lessons which now take place online.

One of her students recently stopped eating and sleeping because of depression.

Nandzik took him to an NGO providing psychosocial support, but they had to reject his case.

With only a few mental health actors on the island, most only have capacity to take the most extreme cases, she says.

“So we managed to find a psychologist for him that speaks Farsi but in LA because we were seriously worried about him that if we didn’t act now it is going to go to those more severe cases.” 

 

No escape or respite 

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What makes matters far worse is that asylum-seekers have no escape or respite from the camp. Residents can only leave the camp for a period of four hours once per week, and only for a limited number of reasons.

A heavy police presence enforces the strict lockdown, supposedly implemented to stop the spread of Covid-19.

While the officers have significantly reduced the horrific violence that often broke out in Moria camp, their presence adds to the feeling of imprisonment for residents.

“The Moria was a hell but since people have moved into this new camp, the control of the place has increased so if you have a walk, it feels like I have entered a prison,” Nazanin Furoghi, a 27-year-old Afghan refugee, tells me.

“It wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say that I feel I am walking in a dead area. There is no joy, no hope — at least for me it is like this. Even if before I enter the camp I am happy, after I am feeling so sad.” 

Furoghi was moved out of the former Moria camp with her family to a flat in the nearby town of Mytilene earlier last year. She now works in the new camp as a cultural mediator. 

Furoghi explains to me that when she was living in Moria, she would go out with friends, attend classes and teach at a school for refugee children at a nearby community centre from morning until the evening.

Families would often bring food to the olive groves outside the camp and have picnics.

Those rare moments can make all the difference, they can make you feel human.

“But people here, they don’t have any kind of activities inside the camp,” she explains.“There is not any free environment around the camp, it’s just the sea and the beach and it’s very windy and it’s not even possible to have a simple walk.”

Parents she speaks to tell her that their children have become increasingly aggressive and depressed. With little else to do and no safe place to play, kids have taken to chasing cars and trucks through the camp.

Their dangerous new game is testament to children’s resilience, their ability to play against all odds. But Nazanin finds the sight incredibly sad.

“This is not the way children should have to play or have fun,” she says, adding that the unhygienic conditions in the camp also mean the kids often catch skin diseases. 

The mud also has other hidden dangers. Following tests, the government confirmed last month that there are dangerous levels of lead contamination in the soil, due to residue from bullets from when the site was used as a shooting range. Children and pregnant women are the most at risk from the negative impacts of lead exposure. 

 

The cruelty of containment

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Asylum-seekers living in camps on the Aegean islands have been put under varying degrees of lockdown since the outbreak in March.

Recent research has shown the devastating impact of these restrictions on mental health. A report by the International Rescue Committee, published in December, found that self-harm among people living in camps on Chios, Lesbos and Samos increased by 66 per cent following restrictions in March.

One in three were also said to have contemplated suicide. The deteriorating mental health crisis on the islands is also rooted in the EU and Greek government’s failed “hot-spot” policies, the report found.

Asylum-seekers who arrive on the Aegean islands face months if not years waiting for their cases to be processed.

Passing this time in squalid conditions wears down people’s hopes, leading to despair and the development of psychiatric problems. 

“Most people entered the camp as a healthy person, but after a year-and-a-half people have turned into a patient with lots of mental health problems and suicidal attempts,” Foroghi says.

“So people have come here getting one thing, but they have lost many things.” 

 

Long-term impacts

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Traumatised children are not only unable to heal in such conditions, but are also unable to develop the key skills they need in adult life, Glatz-Brubakk says.

This is because living in a state of constant fear and uncertainty puts a child’s brain into “alert mode.”

“If they stay long enough in this alert mode their development of the normal functions of the brain like planning, structure, regulating feeling, going into healthy relationships will be impaired — and the more trauma and the longer they are in these unsafe conditions, the bigger the impact,” she says. 

Yasser tells me if he could speak to the Prime Minister of Greece, his message would be a warning of the scars the camp has inflicted on them.

“You can keep them in the camp and be happy on moving them out but the things that won’t change are what happened to them,” he says.

“What will become their personality, especially children, who got impacted by the camp so much? What doesn’t change is what I felt, what I experienced there.”

Glatz-Brubakk estimates that the majority of the 2,300 children in the camp need professional mental health support.

But MSF can only treat 300 patients a year. And even with support, living in conditions that create ongoing trauma means they cannot start healing. 

 

Calls to evacuate the camps 

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This is why human rights groups and NGOs have stressed that the immediate evacuation of the island is the only solution. In a letter to the Greek ombudsman this week, Legal Centre Lesvos argues that the conditions at the temporary site “reach the level of inhuman and degrading treatment,” and amount to “an attack on “vulnerable’ migrants’ non-derogable right to life.”

Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees have called for the European Union to share responsibility for refugees and take in individuals stranded on the islands. 

But there seems to be little will on behalf of the Greek government or the EU to transfer people out of the camp, which ministers claimed would only be in use up until Easter.

For now at least it seems those with the power to implement change are happy to continue with the failed hot-spot policy despite the devastating impact on asylum-seekers. 

“At days I truly despair because I see the suffering of the kids, and when you once held hands with an eight, nine, 10-year-old child who doesn't want to live you never forget that,” Glatz-Brubakk tells me. 

“And it’s a choice to keep children in these horrible conditions and that makes it a lot worse than working in a place hit by a natural catastrophe or things you can’t control. It’s painful to see that the children are paying the consequences of that political choice.”

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