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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Lecona

Impacts of Trauma in Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Photo: A drawing by a young Afghan girl at Moria Refugee Camp, illustrating her and her older sister’s journey overseas in a foundering boat from Turkey to Lesvos, Greece.  

Refugee Projects is undertaking a study on the impacts of trauma in refugees and asylum seekers, an area of research which has been largely under-funded and under-examined. Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, crime, or natural disaster. Refugees and asylum seekers are considered a group at high risk for PTSD and depression as a result of the myriad traumas they face pre-migration, during migration, in holding centers, and, if relocated, post-relocation. Refugees and asylum seekers must prove as a matter of law that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. Further, most refugees undertake harrowing journeys as they flee, journeys which exacerbate that trauma. In their countries of transit they often experience even more trauma, in the form of harassment, discrimination, lack of basic needs such as food and shelter, inability to earn money and are often targeted by human traffickers and other organized criminals who would exploit their vulnerability.

Even with this clear need for assistance, the refugee population has been historically neglected by mental health care providers. For example, despite desperately needing treatment, only 3% of refugees and asylum seekers in the US get a referral for mental health care after any initial basic health screening they might receive. Refugees who receive mental health and social support before or upon resettlement are more likely to acculturate, more quickly learn the local language, and have fewer symptoms of PTSD and depression after as little as one year.

With fewer than 1% of the world’s refugees ever being resettled, it is evident that the number of refugees receiving mental health assistance is infinitesimal relative to the total number of refugees and displaced persons in the world. In the next few months, look for information here on simple ways that people with few resources and little access to mental health supports – like refugees, asylum seekers and similar vulnerable groups – can learn simple tools to self-regulate when other supports are unavailable.

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