Migrants lay exhausted on the floor after being rescued from a shipwreck: Photo : Reuters file picture
Migrants lay exhausted on the floor after being rescued from a shipwreck: Photo : Reuters file picture

The fact that the Afghan suspect behind the deadly knife attack in Lyon suffered from mental health problems has highlighted France’s overall challenge of providing migrants with psychological traumas the appropriate care. While some migrants remain unaware of the benefits of seeking help from a psychologist, others suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or are simply impossible to follow-up on because they are continuously on the move.

The August 31 knife attack in Lyon’s Villeurbanne suburb left one person dead, and eight others injured. According to the regional French prosecutor, the 30-something Afghan murder suspect was in a “psychotic state” when he embarked on the rampage and suffered from “paranoid delusions”.

Valérie Abjean, the head of the mental health service at the Forum réfugié where the suspect had stayed in 2017, said she was “unfortunately not surprised” by the turn of events.

‘An accumulation of factors’

“These are people who have lived through very traumatic events. There’s an accumulation of factors; from the uncertainty of their final destination and the overall lack of stability, to the very traumatic experiences they’ve already lived through,” Abjean said, whose center helps refugees who suffer from psychological problems as well as victims of violence in their former homelands.

The Lyon suspect was supposed to have been taken in by the center prior to the knife attack after being referred there by social workers, but according to officials he refused any treatment.

In an interview with Infomigrants in 2017, Psychologist Sophie Mothiron underscored the problem of unawareness among migrants about the benefits of seeking psychological help. “In some countries, the psychologist profession doesn’t even exist, or is not well known,” she explained. “In other cases, it might be taboo or even shameful for someone to see a psychologist.”

Another problem in providing migrants with the appropriate help is the difficulty in monitoring or following-up on them. One of the main reasons for this is that migrants are often on the move as most French accommodation centers only offer temporary housing solutions. This means that most migrants only stay long enough for one single session. Even if, Mothiron said, “the traumas are so huge that one session is hardly enough.”

This also seems to have been the case for the Lyon suspect: In 2009, he entered France as a minor. In 2014, he was registered in Italy, in 2015 in Germany and in 2016 in Norway, before finally returning to France in June, 2016.


Aside from the traumatic experiences already suffered in their country of origin or on their journeys, many migrants also find themselves isolated once they reach Europe. Some then develop depression and become suicidal. “For many of them, France is the home of human rights. But they quickly realize that there isn’t a real welcome here. On the contrary, we put them in a situation where they are just waiting,” says Jean-Pierre Martin, a psychiatric consultant at Doctors Without Borders.

Martin said that the waiting, and the uncertainty of their wait, weighs heavily on the migrants and can lead to prior traumas resurfacing for them, also known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). To treat PTSD properly, however, the psychologist needs time with the patient. “Without taking the time, we can’t do any real psychiatric or psychological work, we can just listen to them,” Martin said.

France also lacks sufficient resources to provide such consultations more appropriately - the centers that already exist say they are reaching saturation point. Martin, who receives four or five migrants every Thursday, said that more structured solutions need to be put into place, ie centers where migrants can receive psychological aid on a continuous and more long-term basis.  “Even those who don’t display any immediate problems – which is rare – need continued monitoring,” Mothiron said.


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