Refugee children are self-harming after seeing adults in detention attempt suicide

On the five Greek islands where more than 13,000 migrants and refugees have remained trapped since March 2016, a mental-health crisis is raging. The confinement and conditions in detention camps have a particularly devastating effect on the 5,000-plus children held in this limbo. Recently, aid workers noticed an increase in suicide attempts and self-harm incidents in children as young as nine.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders says suicide attempts have been rising in recent months on the islands of Lesbos and Samos. Sometimes they happen in public, according to the staff of the relief organization Save the Children, and children subsequently end up imitating those behaviors.

“A mother told us that when she was bathing her son, she found his hand full of scars, and it was obvious that he scarred himself. He said everyone was doing it, so why not try it. He’s nine,” the group says in a March report. One staffer recounts that “a 12-year-old child from Afghanistan came to me and showed me his scarred neck and hands. He said he was trying to commit suicide – that he wanted to leave, his family is unhappy, and he wanted to die,” said one staffer.

Save the Children emphasize that many of the youths arrive at the camps happy that they’ve escaped war and concluded harrowing journeys—but months spent locked in on the islands take a terrible toll.

The situation in Greece serves as a potent reminder of just how severe migration-related trauma can be, and how poorly mental health is treated worldwide in facilities where immigrants are held. With increasing global migration in recent years—and subsequent crackdowns or slapdash solutions in destinations such as the US, the EU or even Japan—this problem appears to be getting worse.

Suicide incidents are not uncommon even in the more tightly controlled and monitored detention centers in the United Kingdom or the United States. Last year, the UK government reported that suicide attempts at immigration facilities were at an all-time high in 2015, with nearly 400 cases. And just last week the UK’s prisons inspector announced that self-harming behaviors among detainees at one immigration detention center have tripled since the last inspection in 2013. A Polish man held there reportedly committed suicide in February after he was refused release on bail.

On March 28, a 32-year-old Nicaraguan man held in California died as a result of injuries from a suicide attempt. The man’s death was the fifth in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility this fiscal year, although it’s unclear how many of those were suicides (in February ICE said it has had seven in-custody suicides since 2005).

Deportation, or even the threat of it, has also been connected to suicides. Last month, a Mexican man jumped off a bridge hours after being deported from the United States, and in January, local media reported that a Chilean woman attempted suicide at New York’s JFK airport rather than face being sent back.

The UK prison ombudsman criticized the detention center where suicide attempts have tripled for having no strategy for reducing self-harm, while watchdogs slammed the government for keeping immigrants in prison-like conditions. Human Rights Watch has denounced US authorities for their treatment of detainees with mental-health issues. A review by medical experts showed that at least three people who committed suicide while in detention had not been given appropriate care.

The trauma of migration does not just exhibit itself in suicide and self-harming. On Lesbos, there’s been a 2.5-fold increase in the share of patients with anxiety and depression. Generally, studies show that among refugee children, PTSD rates vary from 19% to 54%, compared to 2% to 9% among the general population.

Sometimes immigration-related stress shows itself in very unexpected ways. At The New Yorker, Sarah Aviv writes about uppgivenhetssyndrom, or “resignation syndrome,” which has affected refugee children in Sweden who face deportation. The country’s doctors have seen hundreds of so-called “apathetic” youths who fall into a sort of comatose state and don’t speak or eat. Forty-two of the country’s psychiatrists wrote an open letter to the government calling its new restrictive asylum policies “systematic public child abuse.”

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