There are now more than 82 million refugees and displaced people around the world, the greatest number since World War II (IRC). Most of these refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, and the Central African Republic (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis).
With the number of refugees continually increasing, it is important to ensure that the countries accepting refugees have adequate healthcare resources to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and ensure the overall mental and physical health of the refugees.
But, as we can see in the images below, this is easier said than done. Often, refugees and asylum seekers are packed into camps where living conditions are poor. When refugees are left to live in such close proximity with other travelers, the spread of diseases becomes a common occurrence.
Syrian Refugee Camp in Turkey
Rwandan Refugee Camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
What Diseases Are Faced in Refugee Camps?
Depending on where the refugees come from, the health issues faced can vary. In refugee camps, diseases most commonly (and easily) spread are tuberculosis (airborne), Hepatitis B (spread through blood and bodily fluids), and malaria (transmitted by mosquitoes) (USC).
In addition to these diseases, many refugees, especially children, face malnourishment. In Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh alone, 25% of children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, greatly exceeding the WHO emergency threshold of 15%. Nearly half of the children have anemia, 40% have diarrhea, and up to 60% have acute respiratory infections (UNICEF).
Mental health issues are also significant in refugee camps. Refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq especially suffer from PTSD, severe anxiety and depression, psychosis, and headaches. The UN’S Refugee Agency (UNHCR) notes that Syrian refugees experience extreme psychological disorders due to the violence they’ve witnessed, the stress they’ve endured, the poverty they’ve experienced, and the uncertainty about their futures.
Public Health Issues that Arise from the Influx of Refugees
After the SARS outbreak from 2002-2004, many countries have been more strict about accepting refugees without a comprehensive health check. This often means that refugee camps require quarantine, isolation, or complete exclusion which is time-consuming and costly, and often don’t solve the health problems at risk.
There are several organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, who give medical assistance to refugees. But, there are cross-cultural differences and language barriers that exist that sometimes make it difficult for clinicians to fully understand the patients’ symptoms and differentiate between mental and physical disorders. This means that many refugees are misdiagnosed.
The dietary changes that refugees face in their new environments also poses a public health concern. Many refugees are coming from countries where, for their entire lives, they have eaten a completely different diet from the foods that are available in the U.S. They are more likely to live off of cheap, processed foods that leave migrants at higher than normal risk for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. In order to address this, educational systems need to be put in place that help refugees understand what foods are available to them and what constitutes a healthy diet with those available foods.
Refugee health often remains on the outskirts of global discussion relating to migration and public health. But, in order to protect populations most at risk, it is vital that we educate ourselves on the issues at hand so that we can then educate the communities who need assistance the most.