Migrants in Detention: Lives on Hold

MSF Report Documents Deplorable Living Conditions for Migrants, Asylum Seekers Detained in Greece

Athens, June 17, 2010 - Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today released a report documenting the impact of detention on the wellbeing and mental health of migrants and asylum seekers in detention centers in Greece. MSF urges Greek authorities to ensure humane living conditions for detained migrants, and to consider alternatives to their detention.

MSF’s report, “Migrants in detention: Lives on hold,” documents the unacceptable living conditions in the three detention centers of Pagani on Lesvos Island, Filakio in Evros and Venna in Rodopi,  where MSF provided psychosocial support to detained migrants from August 2009 to June 2010.

“The report shows that detention can exacerbate existing symptoms and contribute to new traumas and psychological distress,” said Ioanna Kotsioni, deputy head of mission of MSF’s project for migrants in Greece. “Most of the migrants supported by MSF described detention as a painful and inhumane experience. Detention was the single most important reason for distress and anxiety.”

Most of the detainees have fled war-torn or unstable countries, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, seeking security. They endure a long and dangerous journey to reach Europe and upon arrival are arrested and detained in degrading conditions. According to the report, almost one third of MSF patients mentioned that they experienced or witnessed violence in their country of origin or that their life was threatened. MSF psychologists observed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in 9.5 percent of the patients. During individual sessions, 39 percent of patients presented symptoms of anxiety, while 31 percent presented symptoms of depression.

The report also reveals that conditions in the detention centers are below national and international standards. Inappropriate facilities are often used and overcrowding is a persistent problem in some detention centers. Sanitary conditions are usually very poor. Detained migrants are not allowed to go out of their cells on a regular basis and family members are separated.  No provisions are in place for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, minors, and people with disabilities. Migrants and asylum seekers receive inadequate information about their legal status and the detention system and there are no interpreters present.

Moreover, migrants systematically complained to MSF teams that they were receiving insufficient medical care and had difficulties in communicating with the doctors. Migrants and asylum seekers detained in all three detention centers often said they were being treated “like animals”. As one detained migrant told MSF: “How can I live here? This place is for animals. I am looking at everyone's faces and I see only death”.

During its interventions in the three detention centers, MSF witnessed the negative impact of detention on the wellbeing and mental health of migrants and asylum seekers and raised its concerns with the authorities, urging them to improve living conditions and seek alternatives to detention.

MSF urges Greek authorities to carefully measure the impact of detention on the well being of migrants and asylum seekers and to consider alternatives, especially for vulnerable groups. The Greek government’s plan to establish reception/screening centers for new arrivals is a positive first step and should be implemented. The government should ensure that conditions and services in these centers are in accordance with international standards and pay particular attention to providing appropriate medical and mental health care. Detained migrants and asylum seekers should be treated in a humane and dignified manner and those who wish to do so should be given the possibility to seek asylum.     
MSF has been providing psychosocial support to migrants and asylum seekers in three detention centers, Pagani on Lesvos Island, Filakio in Evros and Venna in Rodopi, since August 2009. MSF teams comprised of psychologists, social workers and interpreters and regularly visited the detention centers. Psychosocial support was offered through individual and group counselling sessions. MSF psychologists saw 305 patients in 381 first and follow-up individual consultations. In addition, 79 group sessions and 258 play therapy sessions were held. MSF ceased its activities in the detention centers at the end of May 2010.