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The Invisible Scars of a Humanitarian Crisis

The world today is facing the highest level of displacement on record, with between 68.5-70 million people being forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violation. As per the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are defined as people who have been forced out of their homes because of conflict or crisis. Refugees face a tremendous fear of persecution for various reasons, including religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and are therefore unable to return home. This has profound Mental Health implications. It has been estimated that 20% of the population affected by a humanitarian crisis need psychological care, but only 2% of them get access.

When something traumatic happens in your life it rocks you to the core and to a point when the world is no longer a safe place. Although the Mental Health impacts of humanitarian emergencies have long been recognized, formalized efforts to systematically address and mitigate these impacts only began in the early 2000s, when the United Nations and its humanitarian partners began developing and advancing guidelines concerning the protection and promotion of human well-being as well as the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. Yet today, when it comes to providing Mental Health and Psychological support in emergencies, it is only a drop in the ocean of overall humanitarian response. It is also worth noting that although 20% of emergency health care needs in crisis contexts involve mental or psychosocial health, less than 1% of all humanitarian funding is estimated to go toward meeting these needs. This article will look at some of the Mental Health challenges faced by those affected by humanitarian crises and the research around it.

Millions of people around the world have been forced to leave their homes and they face several challenges when settling into a new host country. This not only involves adapting to challenges around bureaucracy, different culture, poverty, and racism, but also having to live in overcrowded housing facilities that have in many countries practically turned into long term detention centers with poor health and safety conditions.

According to research, individuals who flee their countries are already at greater risk of developing mental-health problems than the general population. Migration itself is known to be a factor in developing Mental Health conditions but many refugees also experience violent and life-threatening events which worsens their ordeal. The global refugee crisis is a Mental Health catastrophe. To this date, Mental Health professionals in countries receiving refugees are struggling to deal with the issues related to refugees. When looking at the Mental Health challenges faced by refugees, there is a wide variety of issues they face. Many people assume that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most prevalent condition among refugees, but it is certainly not the only mental health issue they face. Refugees are also affected by loneliness, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), traumatic grief, behavioural and attachment challenges, and depression owing to the due to the circumstances that they faced during their migration, which might affect the quality of their life. In recent times the scope into refugee Mental Health has widened in scope and there is a resurgence of interest in the construct of prolonged or complicated grief, given the importance of this reaction to refugees, the majority of whom have experienced multiple losses and separations in the context of gross human rights violations. The initial Mental Health challenges of refugees are usually associated with loss, the loss of a loved one, a home, a job, social standing or social circle and these individuals then see no hope for the future. As time goes by, the proportion of people with severe mental health conditions such as schizophrenia or manic depression is also on the rise owing to their displacement.

The upsurge in the number of refugees over recent years is unprecedented in the modern world. It is estimated that if current trends continue, every one person in a hundred persons will be a refugee in the near future. At present, responsibility for mental health support to refugees is shared by a network of agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Health Organization (WHO), government and non‐for profit organizations, mainstream mental health and specialist refugee services and voluntary organizations. Yet, the ineluctable reality is that most refugees with mental health problems will never receive appropriate services. The primary reason for this is the scarcity of resources, barriers to accessing care and the persisting stigma associated with being both a refugee and mentally ill.

We need to understand that access to psychosocial support and mental health services is a basic human right and if you’re wondering what the human costs would be if this is not enforced? - it would be an increase in unnecessary human suffering.


Written by: Vedica Podar

December, 2021


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