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LuxOR Operational Research Highlights 2018/2019

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Migrants

A reception center in Pozzallo, Italy, where MSF responds to the medical and humanitarian needs of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. © Alessandro Penso/MAPS

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Migrants

    The arduous journey, long-term displacement, and inadequate living conditions in camps or asylum centers at European borders or in destination countries have severe consequences for the mental health of migrants and refugees. A series of operational research studies documents the related health risks and looks at the challenges of providing appropriate care for migrants and refugees.


    In Greece, a study conducted on Lesvos Island found that refugees living in crowded camps suffer continuous traumatic stress and institutional abuse, including the destruction of self-esteem, the lack of safe living conditions, humiliation, and the deprivation of information needed to make decisions. Furthermore, refugees and migrants lack crucial access to adequate mental health services. The severe overcrowding in camps and continuous institutional abuse needs to be eliminated in order to improve the mental health of migrants transiting through Greece.

    Many migrants and refugees reaching Europe have faced violence, torture, and persecution in their countries of origin and during their journeys. Providing torture survivors with medical and psychological care, as well as legal and social support, is therefore essential to prevent severe chronic mental and physical conditions. In Italy, LuxOR supported a qualitative research study to explore how staff in reception centers identified and managed survivors of torture. The study results show a lack of training and knowledge on procedures for correct identification of torture survivors, and call for more dedicated resources and multidisciplinary services.


    In Sweden, MSF provided counseling, psychological first aid,  and other psychosocial services in asylum centers and housing projects. Here, a study found that symptoms of depression and unresolved trauma are common in newly arrived asylum seekers, as well as those who have undergoing the asylum process for long periods of time. In Belgium, a similar study documents how post-migratory reception conditions risk undermining personal autonomy, limit well-being, and hinder integration into the broader community.

    The results and recommendations of all studies are continuously used to strengthen MSF projects at European borders and in destination countries, and to advocate for improved reception and asylum procedures. 

    Emilie Venables

    LuxOR Qualitative Research Focal Point

    MSF is conducting an increasing number of qualitative research studies with migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Europe to learn more about the populations we provide support to. One ongoing study in Athens is exploring perceptions and experiences of rehabilitation for survivors of torture from the DRC, including understanding the potential role of local communities in the rehabilitation process.


    On the island of Nauru off the Australian coast, MSF began providing mental healthcare to refugees, asylum seekers, and nationals in 2017. After being forced by the Nauruan government to leave the island, MSF released a report on the extreme mental health suffering on the island in October 2018, where asylum-seekers and refugees are contained involuntarily due to the Australian policy of indefinite offshore processing. LuxOR supported the scientific analysis of the medical data, showing high rates of suicidal thoughts and attempted suicides, and continuously deteriorating mental health conditions among patients due to the situation and living conditions on Nauru. Read more here.