Why aren’t we talking about the Syrian refugees’ health?

Special guest post by Nicholas J. Diamond

The Hill is abuzz with talk over the Syrian refugee crisis and whether refugees should be allowed to resettle in the U.S. A group of former national security experts from both Republican and Democrat administrations recently urged Congress to allow refugee resettlement in the U.S. In contrast, Texas recently filed a lawsuit against the Federal government in an effort to prevent the arrival of a family of Syrian refugees scheduled to arrive in Dallas.

But the political buzz has been ignoring a significant fact. The refugee crisis is not just a political matter. It also poses serious health risks for the refugees themselves.

Let’s start with physical health. While migration in general introduces various health risks, forced migrations like the Syrian refugee crisis create particularly acute concerns. A forced migration tends to impact large numbers of people—an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011. The rapid movement of this many people causes massive disruptions in all aspects of life, including the availability of food and potable water, basic health services, shelter, and proper sanitation, to name just a few.

Communicable diseases and the risk of epidemics increase in unsanitary and densely populated environments, such as refugee camps. For this very reason, armed conflicts like the Syrian Civil War have already had harmful effects on public health.

Health systems also struggle to manage health services needs during large migrations. According to 2014 figures, developing countries host 86 percent of the world’s refugee population, with 3.6 million refugees receiving asylum in the Least Developed Countries. This trend strains health systems that in many cases struggle to keep up with domestic health care needs, as has been an issue for Jordan recently. Language and cultural barriers also pose special challenges and can hinder the communication needed to provide quality health services.

Mental health also suffers immensely during forced migrations. It is not hard to imagine the high likelihood of depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder for people uprooted from their homes during a war. Although seldom studied, a 2010 study that focused on internally displaced and externally migrated Kurdish women in Turkey found a high incidence of post-traumatic reactions and, in general, significant harm to personal mental health. For countries without robust mental health services, this poses an especially serious concern.

The World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, and other international organizations have been lending a hand, but the sheer number of refugees would strain even the best relief efforts. Amidst the political buzz, let’s not lose sight of what the refugee crisis means for public health—and for the refugees themselves.

Nicholas J. Diamond, JD, MBE, trained in both law and bioethics, frequently speaks and writes on various issues in public health law. He is also a LL.M. candidate in global health law at Georgetown Law.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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