There are 14,000 refugees currently on the Greek islands after what Public Radio International (PRI) calls a historic exodus to Europe. On the Greek island Samos, over 1,000 refugees are being kept in a military detention centre meant for barely 600 people. Many live under plastic tarps, in tents, or in metal containers. These refugees are hoping for asylum in Europe. If this asylum is denied, then a deal between the European Union and Turkey will see these immigrants deported to Turkey. According to PRI, “humanitarian groups have condemned this agreement for ‘prolonging and exacerbating suffering’ of refugees.” They refer to mental health as “one of the latest casualties” of this crisis, one that continues to take its toll on all the refugees. An increasing number of refugee suicides attests to this new problem: twelve refugees attempted suicide on the island of Samos alone in January of this year, and six others were victims of self-harm. According to PRI, in March, a 25-year-old Syrian man was found hanging in a successful suicide attempt with an asylum application on his person. PRI notes that “despite their purgatorial misery in Greece, fear of deportation stalks migrants here.” If they are deported to Turkey, Turkey could send them back to Syria or Iraq.
PRI spoke to Dr. William Gorman, a clinical psychologist at the Marjorie Kovler Center in Chicago. He has worked for decades researching refugee trauma and treating survivors of torture. He visited Samos last month and noted that the migrants there frequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder with acute pervasive anxiety symptoms and major depression, with “grief and loss, guilt and remorse, helplessness, and hopelessness, at times accompanied by thoughts of suicide.” However, he also notes the importance of recognizing the resilience of refugees in the face of a great deal of adversity, for they continue to find meaning in life and are determined to find a better life.
Refugees are frequently smuggled across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. According to PRI, the cost of passage on a boat is now around $200, compared to $1,200 in 2015. According to the International Organization for Migration, 434 people drowned attempting the sea crossing in 2016. In March 2016, an agreement was signed with the Turkish government. PRI reports that “in exchange for 6 billion euros in aid and visa waivers for Turks to travel to Europe, Turkey would increase sea and land border patrols and accept migrants deported from Greece.” Since the agreement, drownings in the crossing have decreased, but PRI states that 11 Syrians, including 5 children, died when a boat sunk just last month.
Turkey currently holds the world’s largest population of refugees, almost 3 million, according to PRI. Most of those refugees are from Syria, and the Turkish government claims that it is attempting to integrate these refugees into its society. However, PRI notes that many migrants who arrive in Samos “speak badly of their time in Turkey, and of getting trapped in an intolerable web of exploitation and segregation in the workplace.” Majad Thabet, a 24-year-old from Damascus, told PRI, “If you are going to make a deal to keep us there [in Turkey] then you must ensure that every refugee has rights. If not, then of course people want to come to Europe.”
The Turkish refugee deal is currently under threat as the relationship between Turkey and Europe deteriorates. According to PRI, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu said to a crowd of supporters last month, “I’m telling you Europe, do you have that courage? If you want, we’ll send the 15,000 refugees to you that we don’t send each month and blow your mind.” If the refugee deal is broken, the situation on the Greek islands will become increasingly dire. The already horrible standard of living in refugee camps will only become worse as more and more people are packed into small spaces. Vangelis Orfanoudakis of the Samos branch of Doctors Without Borders has said that in Samos they “have a dystopia now but what could happen in the near future would be an increase in arrivals but with the same detention policies that we are experiencing. And that will be a ticking bomb.”
To fix the current refugee situation, Europe needs to ensure a higher standard of living for the refugees on the Greek islands, as well as continue to grant (and grant more) asylum applications from migrants stranded in Greece. In Turkey, migrants need to be positively assimilated into society in the way that the Turkish president claims he intends. To prevent more deaths in the Aegean Sea, the current deal between Turkey and the European Union needs to be upheld, resulting in better policing of the coast.