By Sacha Myers, Save the Children, Greece
One year since the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, more than 13,000 refugees and migrants remain stranded on five Greek islands where they are living in degrading, detention-like conditions. Despite EU promises that the deal, agreed on 18 March 2016, would change the face of the refugee crisis for the better, it is clearly having a devastating impact on thousands of children.
With asylum claims being processed at a snail’s pace, people cannot leave. At the same time, hundreds more are continuing to arrive every month, leading to horrific congestion in the facilities that already have extremely limited infrastructure and capacity.
As tensions rise, children – including many unaccompanied children who are the most vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation – are paying the heaviest price.
Every day children are left languishing in the camps, where they are being caught up in violent protests and being forced to live in unsafe conditions, their mental and even physical health is deteriorating. Save the Children is helping children who have escaped war or conflict and seen friends and relatives killed in front of their eyes, grow more depressed, anxious and, in some cases aggressive, because they have lost all hope.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting outside the Souda refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios. It was so cold that I had to hug myself to keep warm, but Farzin* – a 12-year-old boy from Iran – told me how he had been forced to sleep outside in a car park here for two weeks after a fire destroyed many tents in the camp.
“The night they burned the camp I was very scared and we came and slept in the car-park and it was very cold and I got sick,” Farzin told me. “I was very scared because they burnt the tents that were near to us.”
Farzin says he is still haunted by the fire and now has almost daily nightmares that stop him sleeping.
Fires are a regular occurrence in the camps. But children are also seeing dead bodies and have even watched people try to hang themselves from the fences of detention centres. On top of this they are spending months on end living in flimsy tents and witnessing their parent’s anguish as their asylum claims get rejected. Things are even worse for unaccompanied children who have no one to turn to and in some cases live in 24-hour survival mode, sleeping in shifts to protect themselves.
Children are resilient, but many have already endured traumatic experiences in their homelands: torture, abuse, bombs. They came to Greece seeking safety and a better life, and instead they are faced with more misery. And now they have reached breaking point.
A Save the Children colleague has been working with a 12-year old child from Afghanistan who is so affected by life in the camps that he tried to kill himself just so he could leave the hotspot.
The boy has scars on his neck and hands and keeps showing them to our staff as a sign of his total desperation.
Cases like these are still rare, but they are growing and children as young as nine have started self-harming to try and cope with the dire consequences of camp life that have been created by the EU-Turkey deal.
As our work has shown time and again, this kind of psychological damage is not permanent – and children can bounce back. In order to get better, however, they must be removed from their unsafe and unstable environment and their exposure to extreme stress and negative stimuli must end.
Save the Children provides support and runs Child-Friendly Spaces in the camps but there is only so much we can do.
This is why we are calling on the EU and Greek authorities to take immediate steps to improve the support and protection offered to children stranded and detained on the Greek islands and to end the dangerous deterrence policies and practices in Greece derived from the EU-Turkey deal.
The EU and Greek governments must also take immediate action to end the unlawful and unjustified detention of child refugees and migrants; ease the overcrowding on the islands and move children and families to safe environments; create more accommodation options for 2,100 particularly vulnerable unaccompanied children and immediately transfer children with mental health issues to places where they can access specialised care and support.
If these measures are not taken quickly we risk condemning a generation of young boys and girls to an array of long-term psychological issues like major depression, extreme anxiety and post-traumatic stress. If allowed to fester, mental stress could also develop into associated physical conditions like heart disease and diabetes that could stop children living long and healthy lives, all because of unyielding and inhumane attempts to protect borders not young lives.
Sacha Myers, Communications Manager, Save the Children, Greece
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