Being a refugee comes with health challenges

Being a refugee means not only leaving your home in search of a safer place to live, it also means frequently having to deal with challenging health and safety conditions along the way. According to the UN General Assembly, a refugee is “any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to fear, is unwilling to return to it.”. People flee their homes for reasons such as armed conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations.

A lot of media attention is currently being dedicated to the influx of refugees coming from the Middle East and hoping to relocate in Europe. The prominent stories about refugees such as Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body washed up on a shore in Turkey after drowning while trying to get to Greece, and Osama Abdul Muhsen, the Syrian refugee father who was filmed being tripped and kicked by a Hungarian journalist, show the human side of the Syrian refugee crisis. However, the influx of refugees is reaching levels that surpass the capacity of many countries to effectively aid those entering their county. The scale of the refugee crisis is quite severe when you look at it from a continental level:

Graphic courtesy of The circles represent the number of Syrian refugees. The squares represent the number of total refugees, Syrian and non-Syrian.

Syria accounts for about 4 million of the 19 million worldwide refugees, but their stories have become a representation of the broader refugee crisis. During 2014, around 42,500 persons per day left their homes to seek safety elsewhere. Last year 51% of refugees were under 18 years of age, the highest number in more than a decade. The media focuses a lot on the refugees who are fleeing their country for Europe, but focuses less on internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 2014 there were 38.2 million people who were forcibly uprooted from their lives and homes who had to seek refuge somewhere else within their country.

The journeys of refugees and IDPs is certainly one fraught with danger and uncertainty. Leaving their homes to flee from danger means venturing into the unknown, and the unknown frequently comes with health and safety challenges. Providing healthcare to refugees is challenging due to extreme poverty, limited resources and in refugee camps, the added challenges of overcrowding and remote settings.

Refugee camps provide a challenging setting for healthcare and security of the refugees. Refugees in some camps face high rates of illness and death due to diarrheal diseases, measles, acute respiratory infections, malaria, malnutrition and other infectious diseases. Refugee camps frequently do not have enough food, water, sanitation and housing to go around.  Women also face the near constant threat of sexual assault and rape. The steady inflow and outflow of residents of the camps makes it challenging to establish sustained healthcare of the residents. For example, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) in conjunction with the Jordanian government runs a refugee camp in Jordan, called the Za’atari Refugee Camp. Agencies such as the International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), among others, are providing healthcare at the Za’atari Refugee Camp. There are many refugee camps around the world, with agencies working in these camps doing they best they can to provide healthcare and safety. However, because the camps are frequently underfunded and do not have enough resources for the people living there, many refugees try to make their way into urban areas of other countries.

Making the journey to urban areas as a refugee is expensive and dangerous. The media has reported on the plight of the many refugees who are trying to make their way into Europe. Some die while trying to cross the sea in substandard boats after paying smugglers a large sum of money. About 2,700 people have died so far while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Many refugees are trying to reach the EU via Hungary or Croatia. However, in some instances the refugees are being met with a lot of resistance including police forces and newly erected fences to prevent them from entering. These refugees may be able to access short term healthcare, however they have experienced a substantial interruption in routine healthcare. If you think about all of the routine healthcare that people require, such as childhood immunizations, the refugees have lost access to those vital services by being forced from their homes. Even as organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) work hard to offer medical consultations and services to refugees on the move, it is nearly impossible to provide care to everyone. Furthermore, barriers such as cultural differences and language may prevent many refugees from seeking healthcare once they arrive at their final destination.

It is clear that the refugee crisis is a serious problem. Millions of people have been forced from their homes and into the unknown. While refugees are trying to find a safe path to survival, many agencies are actively involved in trying to provide healthcare to this population. However, healthcare and safety challenges continue to exist for refugees in refugee camps, while they are travelling to find a new place to live, and in urban areas where they are trying to settle. It becomes imperative to remember that the refugee crisis is not one of numbers and abstract concepts, it is above all else a human crisis.

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