The story of the refugee is not new. From the times of the Roman Empire to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, civilians in conflict zones have historically been uprooted and forced to seek refuge. In these stories, the world struggles to make sense of the senseless brutality that people inflict upon one another. We feel outrage, expressing it through sanctions, foreign aid, and even military intervention—not realizing that we neglect a critically important refugee issue in the process.
The increased attention to refugees does bring numerous advantages, a fact that should not be understated. With more media coverage of these atrocities, people see refugee crises as more compelling, increasing pressure on countries to provide assistance. However, in the midst of the media frenzy, the mental health of these refugees is often forgotten. People sign checks and feel satisfied, knowing that they have provided food, water, perhaps shelter for a refugee. However, refugees are often left in a new environment, haunted by past terrors, searching for family, and isolated, reinforcing the need for mental health assistance.
Refugees are streaming into Europe at unprecedented levels to escape war and persecution from home, leading to backlash in many countries. For instance, Poland has seen a rise in Right-wing populist groups that employ anti-immigrant rhetoric have gathered steam, as they fight to keep refugees out of their countries. Supporting refugees is a popular idea when they are far removed from people’s personal lives. However, once they enter the country seeking protection and services, they are shunned.
Given this popular stigma against refugees, it is no wonder that people are concerned that refugees may feel hesitant to come forward. The United Nations High Committee for Refugees notes in a Jordan refugee camp that 21.6 percent of Syrian refugees were diagnosed with anxiety disorders and 8.5 percent of refugees were diagnosed with PTSD. To put this into perspective, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that 12% of Gulf War veterans had PTSD—demonstrating how refugees, like soldiers, face serious mental health issues. Cultural and language barriers between mental health specialists and refugees create serious obstacles to refugees receiving the care they need.
Compounding this problem is the stigma that surrounds mental health in both Western and refugee societies. Many people in countries around the world hold the view that mental disorders can be “worked through.” Indeed, Psychology Today writes about how the biggest contributing factor to mental health illnesses today is the social distancing and isolation that accompanies those labeled as mentally ill. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Mental health warrants attention just like any other need, whether it be shelter, food, or water. The international community and NGOs responsible for refugee aid need to integrate the existence of this need into their philosophies.
Refugee Populations Most Impacted
Children are particularly vulnerable members of the refugee population. In Germany, for example, one out of every five refugee children suffers from PTSD, and yet only four percent of refugees in refugee centers receive mental health support. Moreover, forty percent of the children had witnessed violence, along with twenty-six percent who saw their families attacked. Refugee children are at formative stages in life that can have enormous consequences for their mental futures. Indeed, PTSD is never something that children grow out of, but rather, it is something that requires treatment and nurturing.
Refugee women, too, are especially susceptible during times of war or persecution. The Women Under Siege Project documents the staggering sexual violence that refugee women face in Syria. While the source was able to analyze 226 separate incidents that came from sites like the BBC, the United Nations, and the Human Rights Watch, many of these incidents remain unverified, since it is very difficult to confirm any stories with the victims.
Indeed, rape is a weapon of war that both sides of the Syrian conflict are employing. In times of conflict, it is often used as a tool of “control, intimidation, and humiliation,”leaving survivors devastated. Indeed, rape has been described by the UN guidelines on torture as tantamount to torture for the lasting scars it leaves on a person’s mental state. Moreover, the effects of rape are not limited to simply the victims, but also their family members, friends, and communities, which also have to shoulder the burden of the memory. In many cases, soldiers will tie men and brothers up and force them to watch as their mothers, wives, and sisters are raped to leave them feeling absolutely helpless.
International Framework in Responding to Refugees
The major issue, according to University of Michigan Law School Professor Aleinikoff, is how governments are currently set up in the international system. Our governments follow principles very similarly to the “social contract” that philosopher Rousseau proposed. This means that people give up certain levels of freedom to gain rights and protection from their governments, but in the international community where some governments are corrupt or weak, it leaves refugees in a strange position. These refugees are not a part of any state, and when they try to assimilate into another country, they are often treated as problems that need to be taken care of.
This was a necessary idea, when governments were still establishing structures that would ensure order and political stability. In the modern era, this idea seems outmoded, given how technology and transportation has brought people from different countries together. Moreover, while it is important to have cultural and national pride, if it is at the cost of stigmatizing people fleeing war-torn regions of the world, it is a pride that ought to be tempered with empathy.
It appears like a hopeless situation, but there are options that countries can take moving forward. One option proposed by The Atlantic was provocatively titled “Let Syrian Refugees In—All of Them.” Though it runs counter to our traditional sense of how governments should operate, the arguments are persuasive both on moral and practical fronts. Morally speaking, if we believe that people deserve rights based on the fact that they are humans, and if these rights ought to be indiscriminate, governments morally ought to not turn away refugees if they want to uphold their legitimacy. Practically speaking, governments value their security. They want to be able to protect themselves and their ways of life. When crises around the world are occurring, governments usually do not intervene from a purely altruistic standpoint, but rather, they are trying to maintain some sort of economic or political stability. Thus, when civil war breaks out or terrorists wreak havoc on civilians, international governments intervene because they are afraid of this violence spilling over.
A powerful moral and practical option that is superior to military intervention is that countries should simply take in refugees. Though resources are spent in resettlement processes, the costs are far less in comparison to military intervention or other forms of prolonged foreign investment. Not only would such an action reduce mental health issues, lower violence and instability in other regions, and put these people to work, but looser refugee resettlement policies would also reduce radicalization as hopeless refugees do not have to turn to terrorist organizations.
This is a compelling rationale behind this policy, but there are complex political mechanics behind such a change. There are legitimate fears that allowing such an influx of refugees would be too great of a strain on the economy. Due to these fears, it would be virtually impossible to immediately accept all refugees who are fleeing from their home countries. However, it is important that gradual, intentional steps are taken to create more inclusive environments for refugees and to change hearts and minds of citizens.
Helping Refugees Resettle
One of the greatest factors that lead to refugee mental disorders stems from the realities that begin to sink in when refugees reach safe countries. Most of the time, these trips are fraught with danger such as violence, sexual assault, and discrimination. They risk everything to try to come to safe haven, but then they realize—they have no support. Countries view them as nuisances, even though they sent aid and made promises from afar. When these refugees try to find work, they are often discriminated against and cannot find jobs that match their skill levels. In Jordan, more than thirty-three percent of female Palestinian refugees are unemployed, which is more than double the national unemployment rate. In addition to unemployment, families find it difficult to immerse themselves into the communities, which are usually alien and often hostile towards refugees. With all of these factors coming into play, refugees find themselves lost, disenchanted, and hopeless, leading to incredibly high rates of mental health issues.
Refugees need to have more resources at their fingertips when they resettle. Their children need to have better access to education systems that will not allow them to fall between the cracks. The parents need to receive job training, if necessary, and they should create mentorship communities where people of similar cultures can communicate with and work alongside them. They also, very critically, need to have better access to mental services.
The culture surrounding mental health needs to change as a whole. Even outside of the topic of refugees, mental health is still stigmatized and misunderstood by a majority of the people around the world. Organizations such as the United Nations or other well-known international non-governmental organizations should heavily promote the importance of mental health to the countries that they work in. As the society’s views on mental health become better, these views will hopefully trickle down to their treatment of refugees as well.
The work involved in making mental health services is multifaceted. Most of all, it is work that will take time. There are many attitudes involved, from policymakers to the public itself, that need to be changed. Views on mental health, the worth of refugees, and our role in matters concerning each need to shift. All of these changes require time, but most importantly, it will take a hard look at ourselves. What we stand for. If we truly believe in the rights of people, everywhere, regardless of who they are, we will look at the refugee’s story. And we will listen.