Malnutrition, Disease and Stress: Five Health Risks for Refugees


SEATTLE — Refugees around the world have been forced from their homes by violence and discrimination, from Myanmar refugees fleeing genocide to South Sudanese escaping years of violence. When refugees escape from their own nation, their struggles only grow. Many refugee camps are overcrowded and lack adequate resources such as food, sanitation and clean water. These conditions create health risks for refugees such as the outbreak of preventable diseases and various social conflicts.

Malnutrition a Pressing Concern

Malnutrition is the single greatest threat to public health around the world, according to the World Health Organization. Refugees who left everything behind often rely entirely on relief organizations to provide food.

In some refugee camps, there are efforts to create a sustainable food source, but the poor infrastructure provided by the camps makes doing so difficult. Refugees in Mauritania have attempted to grow crops, but the desert climate limits crop production. Refugees in Mauritania face severe food insecurity.

In other refugee camps, like those in South Sudan and Bangladesh, malnutrition is one of several serious health risks for refugees. If not treated, malnutrition causes a weakened immune system and leaves refugees more susceptible to infections.

To combat this, organizations are providing food, distributing vouchers and working with farmers to increase crop sustainability. The Norwegian Refugee Council is working with farmers in South Sudan to fight malnutrition by increasing crop yields and has successfully provided food to about 565,625 people through its food security program.

Refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh are teaming up with the Rohingya refugees. About 16,695 of these refugees are children suffering from acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF. UNICEF has treated roughly 10,725 for malnutrition by providing nutritious foods to Rohingya refugees.

Cholera Spreads During Cold Weather

Cholera has spread throughout multiple refugee camps with relative ease compared to the disease’s impact on developed countries. The reasons cholera has become among the many health risks for refugees can be attributed to lack of living space, poor sanitation facilities, malnutrition and a failure to mandate vaccines.

According to Save The Children, decreasing temperatures in the Bangladesh refugee camps, along with inadequate winter clothing, may lead to cholera. The camps also have poor access to clean water, little medical access and poor sanitation systems, which all contribute to the spread of diseases like cholera.

Save The Children distributed winter kits to about 31,000 people in December and surveyed the camp’s population to learn more about its living conditions.

“It is very difficult to sleep because it is very cold at night. We have no option but to sleep on the mattress on the dirt floor. And we have only four blankets, two for girls, two for boys but it is not sufficient for us all,” an 11-year-old girl, Khaleda, told Save The Children. “The roof is always dripping water in the morning from the mist, so it makes everything wet.”

A huge contender in the fight against cholera is Doctors Without Borders. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Doctors Without Borders has installed cholera treatment centers to combat the worst cholera outbreak in 20 years. About 1,190 victims died from cholera in 2017, with more than 55,000 infected. Since the treatment centers opened in January, about 157 patients have been treated.

Diphtheria Outbreaks Threaten Rohingya Refugees

Diphtheria is another of the health risks for refugees that has currently been spreading in the Rohingya refugee camps. The possible cause may be the lack of warm clothing as temperatures drop. According to Doctors Without Borders, diphtheria should not be a concern. However, because of a lack of vaccination programs, the lethal disease is spreading in camps. Diphtheria is an upper respiratory infection that creates toxins ultimately leading to death if not treated.

Thanks to treatment centers run by Doctors Without Borders, refugees are supplied with antibiotics and antitoxins to treat the infection.

Sexual Violence Reported in Numerous Camps

Sexual violence has been reported in various refugee camps, including some located on the Greek islands, according to Human Rights Watch. Recent reports have said that many sexual assaults and rape claims have been made in the overcrowded camps. Some women refuse to shower or even leave their tent to go to the bathroom because of past assaults and the lack of lighting in those areas. The refugees’ homes consist of thin tents that do not allow for any privacy.

The International Rescue Committee has recognized sexual violence as a threat to refugees and, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, offers counseling for the victims. The committee also provides legal assistance to victims if they want to pursue justice.

Psychological Stress a Global Risk to Refugees

Psychological stress has been reported in refugee camps around the world, which is no wonder. Many refugees who fled from violence have witnessed their families or neighbors being killed. Save The Children has worked to help Rohingya children who lost their families by implementing two 24-hour care centers for unaccompanied children. The centers function as a safe space for the children to cope with the psychological stress.

Refugees worldwide face an abundance of dilemmas as they lose everything they have ever known as well as possibly their family members. Consistent and increased humanitarian aid projects are essential for these refugees to survive.

– Austin Stoltzfus

Photo: Flickr


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