Trauma for migrant children stranded in Greece

Published: 25 March 2017

A Save the Children report released on March 16 raises alarm about the dire consequences of the deal made between the European Union (EU) and Turkey that limits the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe via Greece. 1 year after the agreement, thousands of people, many escaping Syria or Iraq, are now stranded on Greek islands. They are living in limbo waiting for asylum or passage, prohibited from leaving, and effectively imprisoned. Conditions are said to be appalling with limited infrastructure and facilities. Of the 13 200 migrants and refugees stranded in the Aegean islands, more than 5000 are children, some of whom are unaccompanied or separated from their families. The report calls for the EU and Greece to immediately end the illegal detention of children and to better protect them. But given the extent of the health consequences documented by Save the Children, the medical community also needs to act urgently.

The charity says that children trapped on the Greek islands are showing signs of depression, anxiety, and distress. Bedwetting, nightmares, and aggressive behaviour are increasing. Some children have witnessed deaths, fires, protests, and police violence in the camps. Basic needs for food, water, and sanitation are barely being met, says the report. Shockingly, children as young as 9 years have attempted suicide or self-harm.

Affected children are clearly traumatised. Many will have already fled war, poverty, or persecution. Along the way they may have lost parents or siblings or been separated from them. But instead of treating that trauma, our collective failure has led to their re-traumatisation. At such a crucial time of a child’s development, the physical and mental health effects of this unacceptable detention are devastating. The long-term consequences will be worse. The medical community should act immediately: we must insist on the removal of these children from the camps with their families into safe and humane shelter. We must provide the health care and treatment these children need to recover from their trauma. And we must support all efforts to help them regain their resilience and hope for free and full lives.

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