EU-Turkey taking massive mental health toll on refugees and migrants, MSF says

A migrant who was arrested after crossing illegally from Turkey to Greece, stands behind a fence at a detention center in the northern Greek village of Fylakio, at the Greek-Turkish border. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

The one-year-old deal between the European Union and Turkey to prevent migrants and refugees from reaching Greece is having a “devastating human consequence,” according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

The deal promised to relieve pressure from the migrant crisis, but it has forced people to take more dangerous routes to cross the Mediterranean, and migrants are stuck in crowded camps in the Balkans and Greece – more than 62,000 alone in Greece – with little support as they await entrance to Europe, according to the new report.

MSF has seen an increase in mental health problems as people struggle with the conditions in the camps and the indefinite wait. Cases of anxiety and depression more than doubled and people with post-traumatic stress disorder tripled since the Balkans route shut down, according to MSF officials. As a result, more cases of self-harm and suicide attempts were recorded in recent months.

“Through the EU-Turkey deal, European member states have denied people the protection they need, resulting in people having to take greater risks and in the deterioration of their health,” the report concluded. “The deal simply cannot be seen as a model for further ‘externalization agreements’ with other countries. The deal has been not a success story, but a horror story, with terrible consequences for people’s lives and health.”

Greek island camps do not have the capacity to support the more than 14,000 people waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. The slow evaluation process exacerbates the lack of space and people feel trapped in limbo. MSF officials said that maintaining the deal is taking precedence over the protection of asylum seekers.

One man told MSF that he fled Syria with his son. His house was bombed during the civil war, killing his daughter and critically injuring his son. They traveled to Turkey in the hopes of reaching Europe. His son eventually died and the man continued on to Greece and is staying at the Moria camp.

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“I finished with my two interviews on the 16th of May 2016 and since then I’m in Moria with no clear information and with no answers from the asylum service,” he told MSF, according to the report. “Everything is delayed, they don’t feel the pain that we live and we face every day.”

The wait took its toll. The man was admitted in December to an MSF-supported clinic after having self-mutilated. Psychologists report people turning to things like alcohol as a way to cope with life in the camps and hotspots. In February, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) noted in its weekly report an increase in cases of self-harm, suicide attempts and panic attacks on Samos island. It, too, cited overcrowding and poor conditions.

“The deal is having a direct impact on the health of our patients, and many are becoming more vulnerable,” Jayne Grimes, a MSF psychologist in Samos, said in a statement. “These people have fled extreme violence, torture and war and survived extremely dangerous journeys. Today, their anxiety and depression is aggravated by the lack of information on their legal status and their poor living conditions. They are losing any hope that they will find a safer, better future than the one they fled.”

Europe and Turkey signed the deal on March 18, 2016, to stop migrants and refugees from reaching Greece. It deterred travel by denying people arriving in Greece passage to Europe without proper registration. People were to be detained and returned to Turkey. In exchange, European countries agreed to accept one Syrian refugee for every Syrian sent to Turkey. It came with a pledge of 3 billion euros in aid to Turkey, looser visa restrictions on Turkish citizens traveling to Europe and negotiations to bring Turkey into the European Union.

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Leaders sold the deal as a solution to the increasing pressure of people arriving in Greece and passing through neighboring countries to reach western Europe. Some governments were taking steps to slow down or cut off the flow of people, creating a bottleneck with tens of thousands stuck in Greece. Recognizing the need for a solution, the European Union made the deal arguing that it would stop the unsafe practice of smuggling people by water.

“If the EU-Turkey agreement is implemented in full, it will demonstrate that it is possible to control borders and at the same time respect the U.N. Refugee Convention, combining compassion and empathy with control and security concerns,” according to a Europe Stability Initiative statement in January.

The deal met immediate resistance from humanitarian organizations. A week after the deal was signed, the UNHCR and MSF withdrew operations in Greece. The groups said shifting their work from supporting to detaining people arriving in the country went against their core missions. MSF went further by ceasing funding from the EU and European governments due to the deal.

“Deterrence policies sold to the public as humanitarian solutions have only exacerbated the suffering of people in need. There is nothing remotely humanitarian about these policies. It cannot become the norm and must be challenged,” MSF International Secretary-General Jerome Oberreit said at the time.

The facts on the ground say otherwise, MSF officials said. The rise in mental health problems and overall poor conditions of the camp are the result of the deal, not its implementation.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.