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LONDON: Many Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban for France are in desperate need of mental health support, Human Rights Watch has warned.

The French government evacuated 2,630 Afghans between August 15 and 26 last year as the Taliban took control of Kabul, resettling them across the country. Many had suffered trauma, with some having been forced to leave loved ones behind.

They arrived in Europe in various states, with some showing signs of “shock…anxiety, depression, insomnia, nightmares and at times severe psychological distress, including post-traumatic stress,” HRW said, adding that if Paris great pains were taken to prioritize and assist Afghan refugees, their asylum applications and their well-being, there is still much to be done.

Refugees received different levels of service depending on where they were relocated to in France, with those in more remote areas receiving less effective aid, HRW said.

He added that asylum seekers in France did not have full medical coverage for the first three months of their stay, hampering much-needed mental health intervention.

“Afghans evacuated to France have faced traumatic events and many continue to struggle with their mental health,” said HRW researcher Jonas Bull.

“People fleeing conflict should not face the added burden of having to wait weeks to be eligible for mental health support and then find there are no appropriate services in their area,” he added.

“Afghans in France still need more support, and as European countries begin to take in refugees from the Russian-Ukrainian war, the lessons of the evacuation from Afghanistan to France underscore the importance of putting the mental health at the top of the agenda.”

A refugee woman interviewed by HRW said: “I love my country; I love my people. But I have a hole in my heart, I can’t do anything from here. I was in shock mode, and now I’m still in shock mode. I forget things, I even forget my name.

In addition to refugees, HRW also interviewed “psychologists, doctors, humanitarian experts, NGO representatives, mental health center staff, Afghan community leaders, interpreters and government officials”.

During his interviews, he said he established that even well-equipped mental health resources in French urban centers had been “overwhelmed” by demand even before refugees were relocated from Afghanistan, and that many lacked trained and trauma-sensitive interpreters.

HRW added that with millions of people currently fleeing Ukraine, France will have to learn lessons from how it has taken care of Afghan refugees.

France “should immediately make mental health support services available to evacuees and others seeking protection,” she said.

“Whenever a need for mental health support is expressed or identified, including in the context of the asylum procedure, the French authorities should refer people to psychosocial support services, ideally to specialized centers with a expertise in conflict trauma, trained interpreters and staff with relevant cultural and language skills,” he added.

“People seeking protection need to be informed about the availability of support services and be able to choose the type of support best suited to their needs. They should have the right to withdraw from psychosocial support services at any time”.

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