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World Refugee Day: Mental Health after Fleeing

Each year, on the 20th of June, the world honours everyone who was forced to flee their home country to escape conflict, climate, or persecution. This day is also one to celebrate their strengths and courage.


My name is Lea Schmid. I am the deputy editor and dissemination coordinator at Inspire the Mind. I lived in Germany during the time it hosted and processed 1,404,550 Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers (2015-2017), making it the biggest host country for refugees in Europe.

Living in Munich during that time, made it clear that the world was shifting, and people needed help. In 2015, I decided to get involved in the little ways I knew how. I started collecting sanitary items and cleaning supplies, and would go to temporary refugee centres to deliver these mere essentials.


I was so dismayed by their living situation, and yet in such awe of their courage, that at 17 I wrote my final International Baccalaureate Extended Essay, an independent, self-directed piece of research, finishing with a 4,000-word paper, on the hardships they faced and the injustices of the system.


Today, almost 8 years later, over half of them have found a job, and public support for immigration remains high. Still, as highlighted by Seku Keita and Helen Dempster, integration challenges continue to remain. Refugees typically work in lower-paid and more hazardous roles, which led them to be hit even harder by the COVID-19 pandemic. Germany, like many other host countries, still needs to introduce and enforce policies that target specific barriers to full labor and market integration such as staff training, certification of existing skills and diplomas.


Photo by Eduardo Soteras Jalil for UNHCR

However, it is important to also consider that low-and-middle income countries, which have commendably hosted large numbers of refugees in the past years, still need a lot more assistance to provide sustainable, long-term homes.



The World Bank has taken, and continuously will take, steps to provide more financial support and document the numbers in detail, but for some host countries, where policies, practices and regulations differ, it can be especially hard for the public to welcome immense numbers of asylum-seekers.


Public Opinion and its Influence


In Germany, I made connections, started to understand their struggles, and had the chance to gain some insight into their ways of living, before they inevitably had to leave their countries behind. I made friends with two individuals and the more I got to know them, the more I realised how truly difficult of a situation it is. Having to learn an entirely new language, having to fully immerse themselves into a different culture and secure opportunities for their future, lead to immense challenges and highlighted the true mental struggle of such a huge step into a hopeful future.


When looking specifically at German public opinion, Germany has maintained high levels of support towards refugees. Initially, in 2015 a Polibarometer poll found that 66% felt that allowing large numbers of people to flow into the country was the right thing to do.


This same survey consistently found that Germans felt they could cope with these flows (see graph below). Some 5 years later, in 2020, following the Moria refugee-camp fire in Greece and during the height of the pandemic, there was still widespread support for a more welcoming refugee policy, with only 9% being fully opposed to welcoming more asylum seekers.


Mental Health after Fleeing


According to the Mental Health Foundation , asylum seekers and refugees are more likely to experience poor mental health compared to the local population, including higher rates of depression, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders. The increased vulnerability to mental health problems is often linked to pre-migration experiences such as war trauma, and post-migration conditions, such as separation from family, difficulties with asylum procedures and poor housing.


All displaced people experience the loss, in some form, of their social structures, cultural values and community rituals. However, it is important to remember that displaced people have varying countries of origin, cultures, levels of education, knowledge of English and levels of support available to them. Among these are also children (especially unaccompanied minors and those under 5), women (especially those pregnant and breastfeeding), elderly, disabled and LGBTQ+ people, who are at particular risk of developing mental illness.


Research suggests that asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population, and more than 61% will experience severe mental distress. However, data shows that they are less likely to receive support than the general population.


I found this to be especially striking during my visits. Often parents and children were separated and there was a clear divide between who would be offered the most help. People with less severe mental health conditions were prioritised. They were supported, counselled and given more opportunities than others, making integration into society even harder for those with poorer mental health.


Future Challenges


Despite the progress, I believe we still have a long way to go. It’s a tale of two trends. For millions of refugees and displaced people around this world, some things are continuously improving – such as laws enabling them to work, move and access services. But some things are getting worse – such as their opportunities for resettlement and asylum.

Overall, refugee experiences and their stories allow us to not only shape and enhance our understanding of their hardships, but also allow us to analyse other socio-economic factors such as migration, displacement, and racism, to incentivise global decision makers to improve the lives of the millions of displaced people across our globe.


Today, on June 20th, the world honours everyone who has had to flee and celebrates their strengths and courage.

Support


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/supporting-refugees-uk

European Refugee Support: https://www.refugeesupporteu.com/



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