Three recent reports warn of behavioural and emotional problems among refugee children, some of whom turn to drugs, self-harm or even suicide.
They have witnessed deaths, were hurt and sometimes recruited to fight in wars. If they managed to flee, the scars stay with them.
Stranded in unbearable living conditions in refugee camps, with the perpetual uncertainty of finding permanent homes, some of them harm themselves, try to take their own lives or use drugs to escape their misery.
That’s the picture three recent reports by international aid groups have painted of the grim reality faced by refugee children fleeing war and unrest around the world.
“Child refugees are more likely to have higher levels of behavioural or emotional problems, including aggression and other affective disorders,” said a report released by Save the Children last week, titled “A Tide of Self-harm and Depression,” which focused on those stranded on the Greek islands.
“They become more likely to turn to negative coping strategies. These could include harming their own bodies, drug and alcohol abuse. For some this may lead to attempting suicide. It is important to recognize that self-harm is a way of expressing difficult feelings when children and adolescents become numb and desensitized over time due to unbearable situations.”
Based on interviews with staff and refugee families on five Greek islands, home to some 13,200 asylum-seekers hoping to enter Europe, the Save the Children report documented incidents of self-harm in children as young as 9. Mothers reported finding self-inflicted scars on their children’s hands.
Some children as young as 12 have attempted suicide, and in one case filmed the event, the report said.
Unaccompanied children also live in “24-hour survival mode” and sleep in shifts to try to stay safe. Many lone children have also disappeared and left the island with smugglers or by themselves.
“Many of these children have escaped war and conflict only to end up in camps many of them call ‘hell’ and where they say they are made to feel more like animals than humans. If conditions remain unchanged, we could end up with a generation of numb children who think violence is normal.”
A UNICEF report declared 2016 as the worst year for Syria’s children, reporting 652 were killed — almost half in or near their schools. More than 860 were recruited to fight in the war, used as guards and suicide bombers.
It estimated nearly six million Syrian children now depend on humanitarian assistance, with almost half forced to flee their homes. Some children have been displaced up to seven times before reaching safety. More than 2.3 million Syrian children now live as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.
“Coping mechanisms are eroding fast and families are taking extreme measures just to be able to survive,” said the 12-page report released last week by the United Nations children’s agency. “Child labour, early marriage and child recruitment are on the rise.”
Another report released last week, by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), found a “marked deterioration” in people’s mental health and blamed it on the year-old pact between the European Union and Turkey that blocked the flow of asylum-seekers into Europe. The report was not specific to children.
“MSF psychologists saw a 2.5-fold increase in the percentage of patients with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and a threefold increase in the percentage of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder over the year,” said the report.
“Symptoms of psychosis also increased, all of which coincides with our teams seeing more patients with severe trauma, and more cases of self-harm and more suicide attempts.”
Save the Children is calling on the EU to reopen its doors to asylum-seekers and on Greece to end the detention of child refugees and migrants. It also demands that authorities allocate special funding for mental health and psychosocial support programming for refugees.
In additional to an immediate political solution to the conflict, UNICEF said civilian infrastructure such as schools, playgrounds, clinics, hospitals and water facilities should be in place for the children in need.
“Nothing justifies atrocities committed against children in a war that is not of their making,” UNICEF concluded in its report.