Volunteers working for the aid group Solidarité migrants Wilson distribute food in a Parisian suburb, on March 31, 2020. Photo: Imago Images
Volunteers working for the aid group Solidarité migrants Wilson distribute food in a Parisian suburb, on March 31, 2020. Photo: Imago Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has had detrimental effects on the mental health of migrant youths, researchers say. In a new report, they point in particular to their increased isolation as virus restrictions have led to the shutdown of many points of essential human contact.

As if migrant youths – already separated from their homes and families – didn’t feel lonely enough, the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying restrictions have cut them off from society even more. According to the authors of a new report published on The Conversation website on December 22, this isolation, combined with the traumas experienced on the route to exile, have already taken a serious toll on their mental health. 

In their report, Patricia Loncle, professor in sociology at the École des Hautes Etudes en Santé Publique (EHESP), and Alessia Lefébure, sociologist and director of studies at the same institution, said they had noted a strong occurrence of the Ulysses syndrome among migrant youths. The syndrome has been linked to migration and can be described as an atypical set of depressive, anxious, dissociative, and somatoform symptoms that results from being exposed to extreme levels of stress during a longer period of time.

"The symptoms can be very serious: anxiety attacks or hallucinations which result from the pressure linked to the uncertainty [of being a migrant]", Loncle said, underscoring the hardships of lacking social security, housing and professional training.

‘Left fending for themselves’

According to the researchers, the social restrictions linked to the pandemic have been detrimental in that they have upended many of the migrant youths’ daily routines and social interactions. Food distributions, for example, have dwindled in the past year, and thereby increased their isolation even more.

"We brought these people into safety, but now we’ve left them fending for themselves. Many small aid groups have had to suspend their operations, and young migrants, who already suffer from being isolated and having been uprooted from their homes, have become even lonelier,” Lefébure explained.

"There’s no human warmth around them anymore since the human interaction they rely on mostly comes from volunteers. And so their mental health has deteriorated even more," she said.

In France, like in many other European countries, the pandemic has already resulted in two lockdowns, as well as the shuttering of social and cultural activities commonly offered by charities and migrant aid groups. 

Mental health problems six times more common among migrants

The isolation of the pandemic has added yet another stress factor to many migrants’ lives. Many of them lack proper housing, and in combination with poor hygiene, and a lack of both sleep and food, many have developed skin diseases, digestive problems and headaches.

In February, France’s National Academy of Medicine said the current health conditions for migrants in France were "worrying," noting also that mental health problems were "six times more frequent among migrants than in the general population." The academy blamed this on the lack of proper housing, poor sanitary conditions, as well as administrative delays in granting the migrants rights.

In their report, the two researchers also sounded the alarm on the situation in French administrative detention centers (CRA). Although France has not been able to expel migrants to their home countries during the lockdowns, the centers have remained open and continued to keep migrants in detention.

"The government considers these centers to be some sort of an airlock before expelling [irregular migrants] to other countries. But the result is that we no longer deal with the suffering of the people detained. Last year, even the Controller-General of French detention centers strongly denounced the difficulty of accessing care in CRAs, especially psychiatric care,” Lefébure said, adding that the number of people with mental health issues and who are being kept in CRAs is on the rise.


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