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A Tide of Self-Harm and Depression: The EU-Turkey Deal’s devastating impact on child refugees and migrants


The degrading conditions on the Greek islands as a result of the European Union’s agreement with Turkey one year ago have led to an alarming rise in self-harm, increased aggression, anxiety and depression among child refugees and migrants, a new report by Save the Children has revealed.

A Tide of Self-Harm and Depression details the impact of the appalling conditions created by the agreement – which has forced thousands of families and more than 5,000 children to live in detention-like facilities.

The report paints a disturbing picture of how these conditions are undermining the mental health and general well-being of children.

Incidents of self-harm in children as young as nine are growing, with mothers finding self-inflicted scars on their children's hands while bathing them. Some children as young as 12 have even attempted suicide – and in one case claiming to have filmed the event – in response to seeing others do so.

There has also been a spike in drug and alcohol abuse amongst teenagers in the camps who are trying to escape their painful realities, a vulnerability which dealers are exploiting.

Children have been caught up in violent protests, have seen dead bodies in the camps, have spent winter in flimsy tents or even slept in car parks, have been denied an education, and have lost all of their belongings in fires.

“I’ve seen a big change in my son’s behaviour,” said Babak*, a refugee who was caught up with his 12-year-old son in a fire that destroyed part of a camp where they were living on Chios island last year.

“He is very scared. Ever since the time the camp burnt he doesn't sleep well and he has nightmares. I have the same symptoms. No one likes living in these conditions. I hate myself and Europe.”

Some families say they are too scared to let their children play far from the tent because people could abuse or hurt them. Children regularly report that they are terrified of living in the camps where they have little security and are fenced in behind barbed wire.

Save the Children staff members have also reported that some unaccompanied children 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.

“The EU-Turkey deal was meant to end the flow of ‘irregular migrants’ to Greece, but at what cost?,” said Andreas Ring, Humanitarian Representative for Save the Children in Greece.

“Save the Children’s field teams are seeing an alarming deterioration in children’s mental health and fear that a generation of young boys and girls are developing long-term issues such as major depression, separation anxiety, over-anxiety and post-traumatic stress – as well as associated physical conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

“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.

“Research, however, shows that they can still bounce back – and the earlier we start helping, the quicker the children will recover.

“Save the Children’s safe spaces give children and young people something to do and somewhere to be every day. But that can only go so far. Trying to stabilise and decrease the psychosocial issues children are facing is a losing battle as long as children continue to live in unsafe and unstable environments.”

Save the Children is calling on the EU and Greek government to take immediate action to end the unlawful and unjustified detention of child refugees and migrants; decongest the islands and move children and families to safe environments; create more accommodation options for 2,100 particularly vulnerable unaccompanied children and immediately transfer children with metal health issues to places where they can access specialised care and support.

For media enquiries please contact Sacha Myers on +30 693 122 1281 or

Spokespeople are available on the islands of Lesvos and Chios between 16 March and 22 March

Archive photos and case studies from Chios, Leros, Lesvos and Samos:

Notes to editors

Save the Children has been operating in Greece since August 2015 and has programs in northern Greece, Athens, Kos, Leros, Chios and Lesvos. The humanitarian organization supports children and families through child protection, health and nutrition and education programs across the country, so far reaching more than half a million people.