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With the Syrian refugee crisis expected to reach 4 million by the end of this year, the Center for Victims of Torture joined other groups urging the Senate to pass a resolution to increase support, including mental health counseling, to Syrian civilians and victims of the conflict, particularly children. Director of International Services Neal Porter writes about his recent trip to Turkey
We traveled in Turkey near the Syrian border to speak with groups working with Syrian refugees and to assess the need for mental health care. At times, the road was so close to the border with Syria that we could see watchtowers, tanks, and soldiers on the other side of the fence.
One medical clinic we visited was run by a group of Syrian medical professionals who fled the violence in Syria, just like thousands of their compatriots. They provide medical care and physical therapy to Syrians who were tortured or injured as a result of the war. You might think they serve mostly men but that isn’t the case. There are many women and children at this clinic.
Among the doctors at this clinic was an overwhelming realization that they needed mental health care for their patients. They told us it was necessary for them to be able to do their work effectively. This is unusual to hear from medical doctors because often we need to educate them about the psychological effects of torture and war trauma. They also asked for mental health counseling for themselves.
The situation in Turkey is unique because the government is running the refugee camps, not UNHCR. They’re doing a great job but at the same time, the need is overwhelming the resources they have. Refugees are considered “guests” so they don’t have certain rights they might otherwise have as a registered refugee, like getting a work permit or access to services and resettlement. From a legal perspective, they are like a tourist as “guests” of the Turkish government.
During our visit, we met with other NGOs, the Turkish government and United Nations representatives. Several NGOs are providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians in several tent cities on the Syrian side of the border. During one such meeting, a project supervisor had to take several phone calls from her colleagues working in these tent cities to discuss the security situation and whether to halt operations in that area due to the potential for an outbreak of fighting. It made the situation very real.
It was very clear during our visit that there is a huge need for mental health care. Refugees are experiencing horrific violence, including torture. Maybe because the incidents are so recent and so raw, but among those we spoke with, there was no resistance to mental health. Everyone understood how refugees are affected by the ongoing violence.