As fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and other areas in the north of the country forces more people to flee their homes, Ethiopian refugees in the camps in south-east Sudan face increasingly dire living conditions, a situation that ultimately greatly impacts their mental health.
Daniel is an Ethiopian refugee who fled violence and is now living in the Um Rakouba refugee camp in Sudan. “It's difficult for most youth here, they are addicted to drugs and alcohol. It's bad for them. They are stressed and at times they became suicidal. I'm just pushing on by playing football and traditional music instruments in order for my mind to be free.”
World Mental Health Day, which is observed on 10 October, is a moment to remember the high mental health needs in Africa. The continent has 1.4 mental health workers per 100,000 people, compared with a global average of 9.0 per 100,000. While the global annual rate of visits to mental health outpatient facilities is about 1,000 per 100,000 people, in Africa the rate is 14 per 100,000 (according to WHO). Stigma surrounding mental health issues, along with the lack of specialized facilities and personnel, are among reasons preventing people from seeking and receiving help.
Milena Osorio, the program coordinator for the ICRC’s MHPSS programme, said that: “The situation in Africa is very concerning because there’s a huge gap in between the needs that we see from people affected by conflict and violence and the services available for them. There are very few mental health professionals so it’s difficult to access this service.”
For Ethiopian refugees in Sudan, food, clean water, shelter and sanitation are desperately insufficient, and an increasing number of people suffer from malnutrition and diseases like malaria and hepatitis E. The onset of the rainy season worsened the situation and some refugees are choosing to undertake dangerous migration routes or move to other areas of the country.
Besides the harsh living conditions, thousands of refugees are unable to contact their family members with telecommunication networks in many areas of the Tigray region down. Many people suffer trauma and emotional distress, following months of not knowing if they will be reunited with their spouses and children.
Brhan Geberzgiher, one of the refugees, said: “When the conflict started it was a big and we were all affected. I’ve been trying to communicate with my family back home, but I am afraid about them. I don’t think they are alive.”
In most situations of ongoing conflict and violence, people are exposed to extremely traumatic events, and struggle on a day-to-day basis to survive. In these situations, personal, social and economic devastation is immediate, widespread and hard-hitting. This creates or exacerbates significant immediate and long-term mental health and psychosocial needs.
Osorio said that mental health treatment is a live-saving intervention in conflict situations, noting that “you can provide all the food but ultimately there is not one that is more important than the other. They should go hand in hand and building the emotional strength and resilience of individuals and communities is as important as assisting them.”
The ICRC supports the Sudan Red Crescent Society (SRCS) in Gedaref and Kassala to help refugees maintain contact with their families. The SRCS works in Um Rakouba and Tunaydba Ethiopian refugee camps, in Shargrab camp for Ertirean refugees, as well as in two transit sites.
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