The MA thesis of cohort 7 graduate Albina Sharshenova brought her to research the complexities of the "mental asylum" concept and the mental health challenges of unaccompanied children living in Moria refugee camp, in Greece. She had previous experience working with refugee children and always wanted to continue researching in this field. The module "The Psychosocial and Health Consequences of Forced Migration" that she completed during her mobility semester at the University of Witswatersrand enhanced her academic knowledge in the field of psychology and contributed to the development of her research project. The below interview collects Albina's thoughts and critical thinking towards the risk factors to which children are exposed.
Why did you choose to write about this specific topic?
During my second semester at the University of Stavanger, I joined SAIH, the solidarity organisation of students and academics in Norway. In May 2018, together with other Norwegian student organizations, we undertook a study trip to Lesvos, Greece, where we witnessed the consequences of the so-called “migration crisis”. We visited several refugee camps, and we met with politicians, organizations, scholars, activists, and volunteers who drew a comprehensive picture of the dire situation of the people living there. We were informed that the European Union, intending to control the flows of asylum seekers, had signed an agreement with Turkey, which left thousands of people unable to leave Lesvos and transformed the island into an “open-air prison”.
One of the camps, which drew our attention and which the island became famous for, is Moria. It is home to 9,000 asylum seekers living in a centre constructed to shelter one-third of that number. Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) (2018) calls it a giant open-air “mental asylum” due to the substandard living conditions resulted from congestion and bad sanitary conditions. I learned later on, that as a consequence, MSF witness unprecedented health and mental health adversity among the camp residents, especially children, who encompass 30% of all the asylum seekers.
"Children in the camp encounter a set of stressful events that comprise a risk to their well-being, but what was surprising for me is that most of them display resilience despite of all the adversities they are going through. That's why I decided to investigate what protective factors help those children to stay resilient and to cope with the challenges of the Moria camp."
The relevance of this research topic was evident for me: it was important to identify the sources of resilience because this will foster effective planning and implementation of preventive interventions. Such interventions are aimed at enhancing personal and environmental characteristics that are key to the development of resilience in children.
What methods did you choose to conduct the research?
In order to find an answer to my research questions, I wanted to analyze the perspectives of the support service providers who are involved with the unaccompanied children in the camp and who are related to programs and projects providing assistance and support to them. Therefore, I conducted in-depth interviews with representatives of NGO/INGOs such as the International Organization for Migration and Doctors Without Borders. They familiarized me with the different services available to unaccompanied children, the challenges, and issues they often experience, as well as the various aspects related to the legal, emotional and representative position of the unaccompanied children in the camp.
What's are the main points of your thesis conclusions?
To have a holistic understanding of the situation in the camp, it was necessary to reveal the characteristic of all the risk factors children are exposed to. Initially, Moria was not intended to be the place for a permanent residence. Built-in a former military camp, in the media it is often called "hell on earth", like "Guantanamo Bay" and "prison" (Pappas, 2017). Therefore, in Moria Camp, children often have to manage several risk factors at once: camp conditions, including anti sanitary conditions, overcrowdedness, and violence. On the individual level, along with the waiting hood, uncertainty, and boredom, children often experience deep feelings of loss, grief, and anxiety.
“They can not plan, they are stuck, and they cannot go outside of the island, and this creates frustration. People escape from Syria, from Afghanistan, so their expectation is to find a safe place, you can see the consequences if it doesn't happen.” (Fabrizio, MSF)
What helps these children to overcome those challenges?
It was found out, that in the context of the camp resilience is associated with a triad of protective factors, which includes individual characteristics, such as social competences, connections/community belonging and social support. The development of resilience and recovery from the traumatic events is not only an individual ability but a function of the environment, thus a supportive environment plays a huge role in helping children to develop necessary skills. Various organizations operating in the camp provide a basis for further assistance to children so that they can tap into their positive social capital and use it as a mechanism for survival, building strength and a resource for recovery.
“All of us here try to empower them and provide them with a regular program of different kind of activities (music, sports, or computer classes, or school). We also make sure they get outside the camp for some time.”
Along with the necessary psychological assistance, support service providers offer activities that develop social competence, which includes the knowledge and ability to organize children's social activities and interactions. They develop the social network, through which children can strengthen a sense of self-sufficiency and self-esteem, provide with the structure and coherence in daily life, and help children to cope with life in the camp.
What's the main message you would like to deliver through your research?
While there is evidence that support services leverage the risk factors to some extent, there are huge institutional gaps that pose some challenges not only for support service providers in their efforts to provide help but in general, impose constraints to the improvement of the overall situation in the camp and on the island. As one of my respondents said: “What we do here - is not enough”.
All support service providers stated that to address the problem of the dramatic failure to protect a significant number of children, much broader coordinated cooperation is required. It would be a major step forward in addressing the challenges if the international community, including the EU member states, would fulfill its obligations to relocate eligible asylum seekers, children in particular, into the mainland. It is important to mention that the earlier we start helping the children, the better the outcomes. National and international actors should come together to provide the necessary resources to support the adequate measures for tackling the ongoing issue, as well as to provide effective legal ways to ensure the protection of thousands of asylum seekers residing in Moria, and other camps on the island.