Child Refugees in Greece Battle Mental Trauma

Alexia Tsagkari

Depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are among the psychological scars borne by unaccompanied minors seeking a new life in Europe

It was shortly after four in the morning on March 27 when police found the teenager’s body by Gate E3 of Piraeus port near Athens. The wallet and papers in his pocket identified him as a Syrian asylum seeker. According to police, he had committed suicide.

Nobody could say what had led him to take his life. But social workers list psychological trauma among the many challenges facing refugees and migrants looking for a better future in Europe.

At a shelter across town in Athens, I met another teenager who said he’d had enough of life after several nights of sleeping rough. He wished to remain unidentified, so we’ll call him A.

A is from Guinea. He is 16. His journey across Africa and then from Turkey to Greece was defined by danger at every step.

He was 13 when his parents were killed during post-election clashes between government security forces and supporters of a defeated opposition leader. He said his stepmother sold him to a man who forced him into prostitution and sent him to work as a slave in a gold mine.

One day, guards at the mine caught his best friend trying to escape and killed him by setting him on fire, he said. Two years later, after several futile attempts, A managed to flee this hell.

He made his way to Turkey, where he met a group of refugees who took him under their protection. They hid him in a packed dinghy and brought him to the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I was alone, and in the camp in Lesbos it was cold and we didn’t have blankets,” he told me. “I stayed there for some weeks – I don’t remember exactly. Until one day, the camp was set on fire. Other refugees and I managed to escape and hide in an abandoned building.

“Every day, I was watching refugees depart illegally to Athens. So I did the same. One day, I managed to hide in the undercarriage of a freight truck waiting to board the Athens-bound ferry and stayed there for 10-12 hours. I arrived in Athens alone and slept on the streets for several nights. I really don’t remember what happened next. To be honest, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Unaccompanied minors use smart phones at a shelter for refugees in Athens. Photo: Alexia Tsagkari

A, who eventually found refuge in a shelter, is one of hundreds of unaccompanied minors stranded in Greece 15 months after a deal between the European Union and Turkey to try to limit migrants and refugees entering Europe. Under the controversial agreement, Turkey is supposed to stop people crossing the sea to Greece and take back failed asylum seekers.

Rights groups say thousands of minors like A are victims of institutional neglect as they await an uncertain fate, vulnerable to traffickers, abusers and others who would prey on them.

“The minors fleeing war, persecution and unimaginably harsh conditions have been left with no other choice than to stay in the detention centres in the Greek islands and the mainland without any prospect or hope about the future,” said Fotis Parthenidis, a social worker and scientific director for “Medical Intervention”, a non-governmental organisation supporting unaccompanied minors and refugees in Athens.  

“It is already extremely difficult for adults, but can you imagine how this traumatic experience affects children? The absence of adequate spaces for children in the camps and their detention for months due to slow bureaucratic procedures worsens their situation and adds more psychological problems to their already fragile psychology.

“The vast majority suffer from major depression, which needs treatment. During the last years I’ve seen children suffering from PTSD, psychosis and anxiety, as they realise they have lost everything and are stuck in camps all over Greece.”

A is candid about his own state of mind.

“My mother’s face haunts my dreams every night,” he said. “I went to see the shelter’s psychologist and she told me to forget the past and look ahead. My only choice is to go to school and finish my studies but this is impossible in Greece. I don’t speak Greek. I’m desperate.”

According to data from the Hellenic Coast Guard, more than 7,600 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece between January and June, despite Turkey’s deal with the EU to try to stem the flow. Every day, around 160 travel from Greek islands to the mainland, the data also showed.

While the figures are much smaller than before the March 2016 agreement, when the annual number of people making the crossing exceeded a million, the new arrivals add to the pressures affecting psychological wellbeing.

“The lack of adequate infrastructure in the camps and the absence of well trained social workers might be dangerous for the most vulnerable category of refugees, namely unaccompanied minors,” Parthenidis said.

Parthenidis was speaking during preparations for a friendly football match in Athens between two unlikely teams, one made up of local homeless people and the other comprising unaccompanied minors living in refugee shelters in the city.

Homeless young people take on a team of unaccompanied minors in a football match in Athens organised by an NGO supporting refugees and migrants. Photo: Alexia Tsagkari

After a storm lashed down torrential rain, the match kicked off in a stadium under lights as dusk fell over the city. I could see A among the players. He was tall, exceptionally thin, and giving it his best as he fought to put the ball in the back of the net. Laughing, running, doing everything a boy his age would normally do.

At the end of the match, I asked him if he enjoyed the game.

“It was fun for a while, but this won’t change how I feel. For me, everything that matters is to continue my studies and leave this country,” he said, walking past a banner that read “Say no to racism”.

Alexia Tsagkari is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in Athens. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, she is investigating human rights issues affecting refugees and migrants.

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Alexia Tsagkari

Alexia Tsagkari is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in Athens.