Loss of a generation: protecting the mental health of refugee children

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.

Nelson Mandela

Last year, 57,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe fleeing war and persecution, one quarter of them children. They face dangers of human trafficking, sexual assault and mental ill-health. If Europe fails to act now to help them, it will desert a generation of refugee children in desperate need of psychological help.

“Invisible wounds”: scars on the soul

Syria and Afghanistan account for half the refugee children protected by the UN refugee agency. A report by the British charity Save the Children illustrates what nearly a decade of war has done to the mental health of a generation of Syrian children.

  • one of every four children is now at risk of developing a mental health disorder
  • rates of self-harm and suicide attempts have risen
  • 80 percent of adults said children and adolescents have become more aggressive, and 71 percent said that children display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as frequent bedwetting
  • 48 percent of adults have seen children who have lost the ability to speak or who have developed speech impediments since the start of the war
  • 51 percent of adults interviewed said adolescents are turning to drugs to cope with stress

Researchers interviewed 450 Syrian children, adolescents and adults across Syria. “Some kids have been born into war and never known anything else,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children. Ala’a, a Syrian adolescent who was interviewed in the report said: “I would be confused if I didn’t hear or see airstrikes, because they happen so often.”

Mental health crisis in refugee camps

Inhumane conditions in refugee camps like the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos have led to a “severe deterioration of health and mental health,” warned a statement by Doctors Without Borders. Aid workers witness assaults and suicide attempts, even by preadolescent children. Particularly unaccompanied refugee children in migrant camps face horrific dangers of sexual assault by human traffickers. British social workers who assessed children in the Calais camp discovered that most had been sexually abused.

“In all of my years of medical practice, I have never witnessed such overwhelming numbers of people suffering from serious mental health conditions, as I am witnessing now amongst refugees on the island of Lesbos. The vast majority of people I see are presenting with psychotic symptoms, suicidal thoughts – even attempts at suicide,” explained Dr. Alessandro Barberio, from Doctors Without Borders.

The overwhelmed mental health clinic by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reported 30 percent of their patients had attempted suicide, and a total of 60 percent had considered it. “Several times I have attempted suicide. The only reason I am glad I didn’t succeed is because of my children,” said Ahmad, a 35-year-old Iraqi father of four, in an IRC report.

Family reunification crucial

Family separation has severe effects on child refugees, including fear for their families’ safety and serious mental health consequences. Amnesty International UK, the Refugee Council and Save the Children, have issued a report accusing the UK government of “deliberately and destructively” preventing refugee children from being reunited with their families. The UK has the third highest number of unaccompanied child refugees in Europe.

The Home Office stated that it had no plans to change the rules. They believe allowing refugee children to bring close family members to the UK would result in “perverse incentives” that encourage children to take the dangerous journey themselves. But the report “Without My Family” has shown that children are unaware of different family reunion policies in European countries. They flee their countries for one primary reason: they are seeking safety.

Habib, a 17-year-old child refugee who fled Sudan on his own after being imprisoned and tortured, explains: “Family is everything, an absolute magnificent thing. When you say family, it is simple, it is everything. Family is life. They give you inspiration and everything to move forward with this life… I haven’t seen my family for nearly three years now. It is a long time and I miss my mum. I cannot explain what this feels like. A mum is, she gives me life… She is like my beating heart. Being without your family, it is like you have a body without a soul.”

EU: make 2020 the year of refugee protection

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has called on the European Union (EU) to set up a workable asylum system to better integrate refugees in Europe. Their list of recommendations outlines two overarching opportunities to better protect refugees in Europe and abroad: moving ahead with sustainable asylum reform, and providing more support for the countries taking in refugees. 

“As we enter a new decade […] the EU under its presidencies has the chance to make 2020 the year of change for robust refugee protection,” said Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, UNHCR’s Regional Representative. “By supporting large refugee hosting countries outside Europe, the EU can also help refugees thrive and not just survive.”

It is time the EU sticks to its humanitarian principles and shows strong leadership. The future of a generation of refugee children depends on it.

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