Refugees urgently in need of mental health help flounder on Lesbos

Migrants fleeing the Middle East envision Lesbos, Greece, as a springboard to new lives, but many find themselves stuck on the island for months, living in bleak conditions, and unable to get help for mental health problems. As concerns about their psychological well-being grow, the EU has been accused of turning a blind eye to the problem. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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    Years into the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, human rights activists have accused the European Union of turning a blind eye to Greece's treatment of refugees and migrants now stuck on the island of Lesbos.

    Many of the refugees there suffer from serious mental health problems.

    The charity Doctors Without Borders is raising alarms that health services for the vulnerable are now being cut.

    From Lesbos, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT, Special Correspondent:

    Mohammed Karimi from Afghanistan uses this makeshift gym to eliminate the frustrations of being stuck in a refugee camp on Lesbos for the past 17 months.

  • MOHAMMED KARIMI, Afghan Asylum Seeker:

    Exercise is better for all people, for everything. It supports a good mind. When I come to training, I feel so relaxed and my mind is relaxed. If I never training one day, I never good feeling.


    The gym was installed with a day center run by a Swiss charity called One Happy Family, in the hope that exercise might make a small dent in the growing mental health crisis in Lesbos.

  • GREG KAVARNOS, Psychologist, Doctors Without Borders:

    We are sitting on a bit of a time bomb. The future for these people is dark. I mean, there's not much hope.


    Greg Kavarnos is a psychologist at this clinic in Lesbos run by Doctors Without Borders. Their recent study showed that 80 percent of migrants they examined had severe mental health problems.


    Most of the problems we're seeing are as a consequence of their experiences, and their experiences being left untreated from their home country and untreated here, because currently people are trapped on the island. The longer you leave it untreated, the more likely it is to develop into something more permanent.


    The psychologists' concerns center on Moria. It was set up as a transit shelter two years ago.

    But since the migrant trail north was closed down in the Balkans, it has effectively become a permanent internment camp that is despised by its 6,000 or so occupants.

    This video from the start of this year shows police trying to prevent a migrant from hanging himself on the fence. Volunteers on the island say the man succeeded in committing suicide some time after this attempt.

    Outside the wire, we met a Nigerian man called Frank. He asked us not to identity him. He's afraid that he will be deported for speaking out about conditions inside Moria.

    He says life in the camp has a debilitating effect on the mind.

  • FRANK, Nigerian Asylum Seeker:

    During those nightmares, I don't sleep. I was being transformed to another place. Sometimes, I see myself in the river. I see myself in a big ocean. Some kind of things come into my mind. I see some dead people in the river, which is not normal because of my — because of the prison.


    Frank fled Nigeria after participating in violent protests. He has been in Moria for eight months, and he says the pressure of the camp caused him to attempt suicide.

  • FRANK:

    I was like, let me just hang myself and forget about life, instead of trying to kill somebody.


    But you didn't do it.

  • FRANK:

    No, I didn't.


    Did you try?

  • FRANK:

    Yes, I tried. I got the rope. I went to the bush. At this stage, I have a thought come inside me. Are you stupid? Do you want to kill yourself? Are you crazy? What is wrong with you? Will you go back?


    The psychologists say the nature of the journey to Europe often exacerbates the migrants' mental health problems.

    Fridoon Joinda is from Afghanistan. He was attacked by robbers in a forest.

  • FRIDOON JOINDA, Afghan Asylum Seeker:

    The guy, he put a gun on my head. In five seconds, I saw all of my life, my past, my future, my family, my friends.


    Fridoon's therapy is making videos like this one. He comes from an entertainment family in Afghanistan that had to flee the country after they mocked the government on television.


    I'm trying my best. All the time, I'm listening to videos, positive videos, on how to like even — like, during the night before I go to bed, I watch the videos about how to treat myself, like a doctor, because we don't have any access to psychologists.

    I don't have — I have to be my own psychologist. And I'm trying to find videos, how can I sleep? How can I remove the stress from my body?


    The One Happy Family day center is meant to be an oasis of tranquility for the occupants of the Moria camp. But staff acknowledge that they can only provide the psychological equivalent of a Band-Aid for people at the end of their tether.

  • BRIDGET CHIVERS, Volunteer Nurse:

    I feel very frustrated and upset in my work that I'm referring all these patients and can't help them whatsoever.


    Bridget Chivers is a volunteer nurse from Australia.


    People are saying: I don't want to live. I don't want to be here. I don't know what the best option is. Is it to be in Syria with ISIS? Is it to be in Afghanistan with the Taliban? Or is to sit in Greece for two years, waste my life, and might be sent back anyway?

    Like, the stress is enormous.


    And according to psychologist Greg Kavarnos, that stress is compounded by the realities of life in Moria.


    If you ever visit one of these camps, it's quite clear that, even if you didn't have a psychological problem, you're going to develop one if you're in this camp for any period of time, the facilities, the setup, the way that people are treated in the camp, the hopelessness.


    For example, as this phone video shows, more than two years into the refugee crisis, Moria still suffers from water shortages that make good hygiene impossible.


    All of these things serve to compound or to fray a person's psychological well-being.


    The European Union has literally been throwing aid money at Greece.

    The latest handout was in July, when Brussels promised a contribution of $250 million. The migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said it was essential that there was solidarity within Europe, and he said that Europe had been standing alongside Greece since day one.

    He also said that, in total, $1.5 billion had been placed at Greece's disposal to handle the migration crisis.

    We repeatedly asked to interview Greece's migration minister, Yiannis Mouzalas, but he declined to talk to us.

    Outside Moria, Algerian asylum seeker Akram Ashouli was in no doubt about who to blame for conditions in the camp.

  • AKRAM ASHOULI, Algerian Asylum Seeker:

    The government for Greece is bad. They treat us like animals.


    Last year, the E.U. promised Turkey $3 billion if it could help to stem the migration flow. And this is what their policy looks like from the perspective of a migrants' rubber dinghy. A woman screams, "You're going to kill us" as the Turkish coast guard cutter comes close to ramming the small vessel.

    DIMITRIS CHRISTOPOULOS, President, International Federation for Human Rights: I think that this is a collective disgrace of the European Union, since the whole union wants to make itself more — less attractive for people to come. So, if Greece is attractive, then it means that the union is more attractive.


    Dimitris Christopoulos is president of the International Federation for Human Rights.


    It's not only that the European Union is turning a blind eye to what is happening to Greece. We are talking about an implicit, absolute complicity between the European Union, the European Commission and the Greek authorities in order to leave the situation as it is, to function as a deterrent, so that people will not continue their journey.


    Despite the exit from Lesbos being blocked, Afghan asylum seeker Fridoon Joinda is confident that eventually he will be able to leave.


    And just I have to be patient. And also I'm trying my best. And I'm just inviting all people, all humans to please just think, sometimes, just think, why you are allowed to fly? Why I shouldn't?


    Across the Mediterranean, there's growing evidence that Europe is wrestling back control of its frontiers, but its border force, Frontex, is still rescuing people.

    Although there appears no way out of Greece, they keep coming, increasing the pressures on their fellow migrants and those trying to help them. They may have a vision of Lesbos as a springboard to freedom, but come the dawn, the reality of their plight will soon become apparent.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.

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