The ‘Silent Crisis’ Of Mental Illness Among Asylum Seekers In Europe


A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has brought to light the severity of the psychological traumas being suffered by asylum seekers in the European Union. Suicide attempts, self-harm, aggression, anxiety, and depression were found to be endemic among those contained in camps on Greek islands, particularly among young people. Acknowledging the often traumatic circumstances that refugees have experienced in their countries of origin and journeys to Greece, the report expands on the refugee experience within European camps as a cause for mental distress that has been termed a ‘silent crisis’ by HRW disability rights researcher Emina Cerimovic. The report further serves to bring attention to the relative media silence on the issue and highlights the need for a more nuanced discourse on the plight of refugees in the media and at a policy level.

The report draws upon findings from Medecines Sans Frontieres as well as extensive interviews of asylum seekers on Greek islands and deconstructs the causes of psychological trauma in the refugee experience in Europe. Four central concerns are highlighted: uncertainty over individuals’ futures, poor conditions of refugee camps, the stress of official asylum processes, and inhumane legislative actions by Greek and EU authorities.

Uncertainty over asylum seekers’ circumstances on Greek islands is caused by the constant possibility of deportation back to Turkey (through which many have already travelled to reach Greece) with little notice. The conditions of refugee camps in Greece (otherwise known as ‘hotspots,’ EU-sponsored processing centres that have evolved into overcrowded permanent residences) are usually poor to the extent that they ‘not only exacerbate existing mental health conditions, but also create new psychological distress.’ Those who have experienced violence, torture or containment are unsettled by the presence of ‘barbed wire, police, and violent clashes’ in camps, while the limitations of essential resources and a lack of hygiene and privacy diminish the dignity of refugees.

Navigating the official asylum process is a further source of stress as the dearth of resources and legal aid in camps often results in sudden and unexplained postponements of appointments and rejections of valid applications, trapping individuals in a cycle of uncertainty and legal obscurity. These problems are aggravated by governmental policy, such as the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016. The agreement violates the 1951 UN Refugee Convention by allowing arbitrary deportation based on nationality and allows refugees to be returned to unsafe countries, which clearly adds greater anxiety to the refugee experience. Indeed, HRW has reported a spike in mental illnesses among refugees in Europe since the agreement was made, demonstrating the acute stresses that policy has on refugees. Such international deals, in conjunction with ever-tightening Greek legislation, have been described by John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe director, as ‘dancing on the grave of refugee protection.’

HRW’s report exposes Europe’s response to this influx of refugees as mechanical: a camp does not make an individual secure when they are a danger to themselves. Indeed it is certainly in the interest of policymakers to offer adequate mental health services to refugees. If these individuals are to integrate and contribute to society, psychological stability is key. Entering a new continent, country, and culture is a challenge in itself, so if victims of war and persecution are to be given the best chance of leading happy lives in their new European homes they must have access to psychological support when needed. This begins in refugee camps.

It is easy to see how mental illness can slip down the international agenda amidst the largest migrant crisis since the Second World War, and many argue that the priority is to process the migrants as quickly as possible and provide them with the resources to survive. However, it must now be recognized that human security and mental health are inexorably linked. If refugees do not have hope, dignity, stability, and sufficient living conditions, the psychological implications are as threatening as the conflict they fled, as the attempted suicide rates in camps demonstrate. Human security requires more than food and shelter, and HRW’s findings must serve to broaden refugee discourse.