There are currently 26.6 million people worldwide who have been forced to flee and are seeking safety, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Various reasons might cause someone to do so, such as religious violence, ethnic persecution and active war. Being forced to flee your home country and seek refuge in a new place is a challenging and disruptive experience. The process of forced migration greatly impacts oneself by exposing you to certain physical, mental and emotional stressors that most people do not have to face in their lifetimes.
As a refugee, I witnessed first-hand how exposure to violence, persecution, global displacement, lack of education opportunities, and fear of the future caused extreme damage to my overall health. Despite the tremendous efforts of organizations like UNHCR, the transition period from an individuals' home country to their host country can be long-lasting – for some, an uphill battle for many years.
As a refugee, I witnessed first-hand how exposure to violence, persecution, global displacement, lack of education opportunities, and fear of the future caused extreme damage to my overall health
Many think of the refugee experience as three different stages: pre-migration, migration, and post-migration. While this is an apt generalization, the journeys of refugees are much more complicated than most people realize.
Premigration is a difficult phase to generalize because of the variety of different circumstances and experiences it may entail. For my family, the process of migrating was the most directly traumatizing part of being a refugee. Apart from all the physical health risks that one faces, exposure to violence and panic during the migration journey often leads to the development or worsening of mental health disorders. The barriers to accessing healthcare and lack of resources and support for mental health during migration may also cause irreparable damage.
The barriers to accessing healthcare and lack of resources and support for mental health during migration may also cause irreparable damage
One of the biggest challenges that refugees face is the lack of clear communication regarding their rights and available health services during their journey to asylum. It is common for migrants and refugees to be unaware of what is available to them in terms of legal, administrative, and health services. However, this issue could be solved by making small changes in communication practices, and in delivering information at the local level, which is culturally and religiously sensitive.
The migration stage itself is a long process that is often highly traumatizing due to the uncertainty and high stakes that the refugees face. And while many believe that reaching a host country is the end of a traumatic journey for a refugee, that could not be further from the truth. Immediately upon arrival, there is often little to no time one has in recovering from the trauma of migrating. Building a whole new life from scratch without a solid support system paired with potential unaddressed mental and physical health issues is no easy task. It requires people to continue living in survival mode while they navigate a completely new culture and society.
Building a whole new life from scratch without a solid support system paired with potential unaddressed mental and physical health issues is no easy task
Since every refugee’s experience differs based on home country, socioeconomic status, and migration journey, it can be difficult or impossible to find other people who have gone through the same experience. Furthermore, there is an intense pressure to integrate quickly and be successful to prove oneself worthy of residency. The stakes are high and the pressure continues to build up, adding to potential chronic health conditions from the ongoing stress. Becoming a citizen is a multi-step process that often takes many years, even a lifetime of pursuing. My family and I were fortunate enough to have a great support system of multiple Canadian families who helped us navigate this process. However, many people have no choice but to go through it alone.
While obstacles on how to provide proper access to care among refugees may require rigorous planning and infrastructure, that should not deter us from actively analyzing, critiquing, and improving the system to take care of the unmet needs of this vulnerable population. Extensive research is required to identify ongoing challenges that refugees face daily to access a standard level of healthcare during and after their migration. Future efforts are needed to identify low-cost, practical, and easily implementable strategies that can help remove these barriers.
Extensive research is required to identify ongoing challenges that refugees face daily to access a standard level of healthcare during and after their migration
The full richness of a multicultural society can only be harnessed if people-centered care is provided to all residents, especially the newcomers. The future is unpredictable; anyone could be forced to flee their home country and seek refuge from a crisis. They are no less deserving of a standard level of care. There is no time better than now to view equitable access to physical and mental healthcare services for refugees as a global issue that affects us all and that requires collective effort to solve.