More than 530 migrants have been admitted to Mount Carmel Hospital since 2007, Times of Malta has learnt.

The figure works out at 10 per cent of the UN refugee agency’s estimated 5,300 migrants in Malta.

According to Jesuit Refugee Service’s social worker Kristina Zammit, detention is the main trigger of mental health problems among irregular migrants who, to date, still do not receive immediate psychosocial support when they land.

For the past years, NGOs that oppose detention have urged the Government to provide psychosocial support to all migrants at reception.

When contacted, a spokeswoman for the Home Affairs Ministry said that, at reception stages, people with evident health problems were treated and assessed while those with mental problems were examined later, in detention.

“Those migrants assessed as requiring counselling services are referred to mainstream health services, to services offered through NGOs or, if the situation is critical, to professionals.

“The Government will continue to ensure that the existing mainstream services have the capacity and expertise to see to the needs of this client group, keeping in mind that limitations in terms of financial and human resources will remain,” she said.

But Ms Zammit said counselling services should not be provided just by NGOs because their resources were limited.

Through its psychosocial team – made up of two psychologists, a social worker and a nurse (seconded by the government) – JRS provides individual psychological support to migrants in detention and to those who start integrating within the community. Ms Zammit leads this team, which works to ease the occurrence of mental health problems.

Migrants are taught how to deal with depression and anxiety, how to keep a healthy mind and to overcome the stigma of mental health problems and speak up when they notice recurrent symptoms.

“These people have passed through traumatic experiences – at sea, in the desert and, possibly, during detention in other countries.

“When they finally reach Europe and what they hope is freedom, they find themselves in terrible conditions that can psychologically break down some people.

“The conditions, duration and uncertainty experienced both in detention and also when living within the community, trigger psychological distress and mental health problems,” she explained, adding that the most common was post-traumatic stress disorder.

These people have passed through traumatic experiences

Ms Zammit said that while detention conditions were better in Malta compared with Libya and sub-Saharan countries, the stay in detention made migrants recall their past.

“So if a woman has been gang-raped by a male guard while in detention in Libya, her detention in Malta might trigger thoughts about these past experiences.”

JRS, which turned 20 yesterday, has been working with migrants in detention for the past 12 years.

Although there have been temporary support programmes funded by the EU along the years, the NGO is calling for permanent measures.

In a report issued last year, called Bridging Borders, JRS recommends the setting up of specialised residential facilities and services for vulnerable migrants, including those with mental health problems.

In the report, a case that illustrates the serious consequences of lack of access to services is that of Suleiman Samake.

The Malian man was last year involved in an incident with police officers who were investigating reports of a man living in a cave by Għar Ħasan. Mr Samake allegedly ran towards the police officers wielding a large knife and was shot and injured in the stomach.

Several acquaintances claimed Mr Samake’s “obvious mental health problems” started during his mandatory detention in Malta.

According to the report, Mr Samake had found living conditions at the open centre very difficult. He became increasingly withdrawn and went to the cave where he could be alone. Following the incident he was admitted to Mount Carmel.

According to a scientific paper published last year, the incidence of mental illness in African migrants to Malta is more than 12 times higher than among the Maltese.

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