A mental health emergency for asylum seekers is unfolding on the Greek islands, largely created by poor living conditions, neglect and violence, according to a report released today by international medical organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

MSF calls on the EU and Greek authorities to stop inflicting additional suffering on people who are already traumatised, and to immediately relocate all asylum seekers from the islands to the Greek mainland, where they have a greater chance of accessing proper accommodation and health services.

“These people have survived bombing, extreme violence and traumatic events in their home countries or on the road to Europe,” says Jayne Grimes, manager of MSF’s mental health activities on the island of Samos. “But shamefully it’s what they face on the Greek islands that leads them into despair hopelessness and self-harm. Every day our teams treat patients who tell us that they would prefer to have died in their country than be trapped here.”

MSF, Asylum seekers, Greece
Nazim tried 8 times to cross the border into Greece. Photo by: MSF

As detailed in MSF’s report confronting the mental health emergency on Samos and Lesbos, the scale of the needs for mental healthcare and the severity of patients’ conditions have overwhelmed the capacity of mental health services on the islands. 

Over the summer, an average of six to seven new patients per week arrived at MSF’s clinic on Lesbos in acute need following suicide attempts, incidents of self-harm or psychotic episodes and a 50 percent increase in the number of patients to our clinic compared to the previous trimester was reported.

Among the factors aggravating people’s mental distress was violence experienced either on the journey or in Greece, according to many of MSF’s patients.

A survey conducted by MSF and Epicentre in Samos in late 2016 and early 2017 reported that close to half of those surveyed had experienced violence while passing through Turkey, and close to a quarter had experienced violence since arriving in Greece.

MSF, Asylum Seekers, Greece
Karon, his wife and their two twins are blocked in Lesvos since their arrival on August 2nd 2016. Photo by: MSF

The survey also found that people who arrived on Samos after the EU-Turkey deal was signed in March 2016 reported more violence in Turkey and Greece than those who arrived before the deal came into force. Between 50% and 70% of that violence was allegedly committed by state authorities.

MSF calls on the Greek authorities to immediately relocate asylum seekers to the Greek mainland, and as an urgent measure to step up the provision of mental healthcare, including psychiatric care and other crucial services, to meet the needs of these extremely traumatised men, women and children.

Greece, Asylum Seekers, MSF
Since March 20, 2016, when the EU externalized its borders by striking a deal with Turkey, people fleeing war and persecution have faced extremely tough conditions on the Greek islands. Photo by: Mohammad Ghannam

“Moving people to the mainland is a humanitarian imperative,” says Louise Roland-Gosselin, MSF’s advocacy manager in Greece. “European and Greek authorities are directly responsible for this suffering. People’s extreme vulnerability and the complete failure of systems on the islands leave them with no other choice.”

Find out more about MSF's work in Greece.