As It Happens

Children in Lesbos refugee camp deserve 'right to a dignified life': psychologist

As world leaders gather in Geneva, Switzerland, for the Global Refugee Forum, a Doctors Without Borders psychologist at the Moria camp in Greece says change is desperately needed for refugee children because they are suffering mentally and emotionally.

Angela Modarelli of Doctors Without Borders says children must be evacuated from Moria camp

Children stand next to a metal barrier as newly-arrived refugees and migrants wait to be registered at the Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos, Greece. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

Warning: This story contains descriptions of self-harm and suicide. 

Read Story Transcript

As global leaders and humanitarian groups meet for the first UN Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, a psychologist working in a Greek refugee camp is asking for children living there to be "evacuated as soon as possible." 

The United Nations on Tuesday urged world leaders to "reboot" their response to refugees with a fairer and more streamlined approach to the rising number of people fleeing their homes.

Angela Modarelli is with the group Doctors Without Borders. She's worked with children at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos for the past three months, and says change is desperately needed. 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What signs of distress are you seeing among the children in that camp? 

We are seeing a various amount of symptoms of distress that go from sleeping disturbance... [and] anxiety to get through the most severe symptoms of self-harming and detachment, isolation and withdrawal from life. 

What are the children doing to themselves? 

It depends very much from their past experience.

We go from not being able to focus anymore, not being able to read anymore until actually [they] stop talking, stop having eye contact, or having aggressive behaviour towards themselves, which is a way in which they kind of cope with the frustration, the pain that they feel around them. 

Depending from the age, they do cut themselves. ...They might also abuse medication to end their life. Or, if we go to more younger children from six to 12, they harm themselves.

They harm themselves by hitting themselves, sometimes with objects with their heads. Some other times, they can pull their hairs out or scratch themselves until they bleed. So it depends also how they have coped with what they have lived before. 

Children fill bottles with water next to a pile of garbage at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants next to the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. (Elias Marcou/Reuters)

How old are these children? 

The youngest we are seeing is two years old. 

And there are approximately 7,000 children just in that one Moria camp alone. Is that right? 

Yes. The number increases every day. And to be honest, I cannot keep up anymore because when I arrived three months ago, there were about 8,000 people between adults and children, and now there are 18,000. 

As a psychologist in that camp, what can you do to help those children, given how overcrowded and limited your resources are? 

As a mental health team, I have [three] other psychologists working with me, one educator and one cultural mediator, who translates in Farsi. The majority of the population is from Afghanistan at the moment. 

What we try to do is actually offering them some kind of space where they can be children again, [where] they can own the space themselves to also test their capacity and find a place of safety.

The most important part of our job is to be there to make them feel that there is somewhere, a little place, where they can go back to the childhood that they actually deserve — because in Moria camp, it's quite impossible to be a child. 

A view of a makeshift encampment next to the Moria camp. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

You say most of the ones there now have come from Afghanistan. What have they already gone through that they're still trying to process before they are living in this camp? 

There are more than a 1,000 children there who have no one. And they have travelled all the way alone.

If we only think about this, you can only imagine how vulnerable a young boy can be travelling alone from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other place where there is war or conflict. So they are the most vulnerable ones. 

They might have been through sexual violence. They might be abused. They might have witnessed abuse of others or even just other things that have to do with violence. 

And in their own country, some of them have lost family members. 

Angela Modarelli, a psychologist with with Doctors Without Borders, says there are around 18,000 people living at Moria camp. (Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters)

As we speak, there is a Global Refugee Forum taking place far away in Geneva, Switzerland, where they're trying to find solutions. ... If you could be there, if you could hold that room and tell them what you need in the way of solutions, what would you say? 

I would say that all the people in Moria have the right to a dignified life and future.

They must be evacuated as soon as possible in a place that gives them back this dignity. It doesn't have to happen tomorrow, it doesn't have to happen today — but right now. 

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Written by Samantha Lui. Interview with Angela Modarelli produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.