Self-harming behaviours of asylum seekers and refugees in Europe: A systematic review

Anna Gargiulo, Francesca Tessitore, Fabiana Le Grottaglie, Giorgia Margherita

International Journal of Psychology, Volume 56, Issue 2 (2021), Pages 189-198


This article provides a systematic review of 12 studies published between 2008 and 2018 on self-harming behavior among refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe. Self-harming behavior is defined as the deliberate and self-inflicted damage of body tissue (such as cutting, burning, scratching the skin or hitting) without suicidal intent and for purposes not socially or culturally sanctioned.

Most of the articles included in the review investigated refugees’ mental health broadly, including some self-harm episodes. The lack of specific research on self-harming behavior among refugees and asylum-seekers might be due to difficulties accessing this population, or because the scientific community is reluctant to recognize self-harm as an independent clinical condition, and tend to associate it with other syndromes.

Main findings:

  • Several articles document the high prevalence of self-harm practices in detention sites, which emerged as a particularly “at risk” setting. Several factors, connected to the application for asylum (e.g., uncertainty regarding the outcome, slowness of the procedures etc.) and to social isolation, can increase distress, anxiety and depression, which can be trigger factors for self-harm in these contexts.
  • Unaccompanied minors emerged as a particularly vulnerable group for self-harming behaviors.
  • Several articles document higher prevalence of self-harming behavior among asylum seekers relative to the native population.

The author advocates for increased research on self-harm in asylum seekers and refugees to investigate its prevalence, characteristics, and typologies, and considering it an independent clinical condition. In particular, the author calls for more qualitative or mixed-methods research into the dynamics of self-harm across cultures, integrating western scientific and clinical paradigms with those of other cultures.


Health | Mental Health