Greece: Self-harm and attempted suicides increasing for child refugees in Lesbos

Robin Hammond/Witness Change

MSF calls for emergency evacuation of vulnerable people to other EU Member States

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are witnessing an unprecedented health and mental health emergency amongst the men, women and especially children kept in Moria refugee camp, on Lesvos, Greece. MSF is calling for the emergency evacuation of all vulnerable people, especially children, to safe accommodation on the Greek mainland and within the European Union. 

The policy of containing asylum seekers on Greek islands has led to more than 9,000 people, a third of whom are children, being stuck indefinitely in the Moria camp that has a maximum capacity of 3,100 people. 

MSF teams are seeing multiple cases each week of teenagers who have attempted to commit suicide or self-harmed, and are responding to numerous critical incidents as a result of violence, child self-harm and lack of access to urgent medical care, highlighting significant gaps in the protection of children and other vulnerable people. 

Between February and June this year, in a group mental health activity for children (between 6-18 years), MSF teams observed that nearly a quarter of the children (18 of our 74) had self-harmed, attempted suicide or had thought about committing suicide. Other child patients suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks, anxiety, aggressive outbursts and constant nightmares. 


A therapeutic group for children coming from war zones using play, art and story-telling.
A therapeutic group for children coming from war zones using play, art and story-telling. Photo: Robin Hammond/Witness Change


“These children come from countries in war, where they have experienced very extreme violence and trauma. Rather than receiving care and protection in Europe, they are instead subjected to ongoing fear, stress and episodes of further violence, including sexual violence,” says Dr. Declan Barry, MSF’s medical coordinator in Greece. 

“Moreover, the environment is unsafe and unsanitary, and as a result, we see many cases of recurrent diarrhoea and skin infections in children of all ages. At this level of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the risk of outbreaks is very high”.

In the first two weeks of September alone, more than 1,500 people arrived on Lesvos, and with no space left, they are now sleeping without any shelter, without sufficient food and with extremely limited access to medical care. MSF has treated many children who have been identified by the hospital as needing care in Athens, however, due to a lack of accommodation on the mainland, these children cannot access that care, and so are forced to live in an environment where their medical condition and mental health deteriorates. 

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures and to put in place sustainable solutions to avoid this catastrophic situation,” says Louise Roland-Gosselin, MSF’s Head of Mission in Greece. “It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries and to stop this never-ending cycle of emergency decongestions and the horrendous conditions we continue to witness in Moria. It is time to end the EU-Turkey deal.” 

MSF has been working outside of Moria camp focusing on paediatric, mental health for minors, and sexual and reproductive health since late 2017. MSF also runs a mental health clinic in Mytilene since October 2016.


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