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A Path to Mental and Physical Health Care for Syrian Refugees in the United States?

by Anna Maitland, JD/MA

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asserts that as of the end of 2015, there were 16.1 million registered refugees worldwide, with 4.9 million of those being Syrian. As the largest UNHCR registered refugee population, displaced Syrians face extreme and ongoing physical and mental health insecurity. Countries hosting large Syrian populations living in camps, urban environments, and tent cities[i] such as Lebanon and Jordan report overstretched and already inadequate health infrastructure,[ii] with many people surviving on only the barest minimum of health access. For the average Syrian refugee, it is not uncommon to face a range of poverty and malnutrition-related health issues prior to resettlement. Further, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common, with host countries reporting that over half of Syrian refugees are in need of psychological support while only approximately 5% receive services.[iii]

For the average resettled refugee or asylee, accessing health in the United States involves navigating language barriers, a complex and confusing health care system, different health care customs and beliefs, and/or discrimination. Displaced from insecure health environments, and often chosen for resettlement because of a heightened vulnerability or illness, resettled Syrian refugees or asylees can arrive with experiences of extreme trauma that impact both their physical and mental health. While mental health and depression among this refugee population has reached staggering rates, the difficulty of navigating the US health system only further isolates, marginalizes, and traumatizes people in need of holistic health services. Given these issues, health care providers and social services in the United States have a duty to build better protections for this refugee population, including improving their access to health care through more programs, greater support, empowerment and choice-based accompaniment, and a deeper understanding of their prevailing needs.

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[iii] Brookings Institution, website: Accessed January 7, 2017.

About the Author

Anna Maitland

Anna Maitland is the Schuette Fellow in International Human Rights in the Bluhm Legal Clinic at NU Law School where she supports the global health focused, interdisciplinary experiential learning Access to Health Project. Previously, she co-directed Justice & Empowerment Initiatives, a social and economic rights NGO in Nigeria, and has supported asylum and stateless person advocacy in the United States and abroad.