Migration is a process full of courage and determination where migrants seek to overcome adversity and obtain a better life. According to the United Nations, we must reimagine human mobility since it is our collective responsibility to create a safer and more resilient world for those who migrate.

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) remains firmly committed to the principles set out in the preamble to the Constitution of 1948, and despite the ratification of international human rights norms and conventions aimed at protecting the rights of migrants and refugees — in particular the right to health — the fact remains that migrants and refugees often lack access to health care, including mental services, and are economically unprotected in this regard. 

The United Nations (UN) acknowledges that large displacements of refugees and migrants are being affected and highlights that migration justice is indispensable for the achievement and maintenance of peace and security within and among nations. Social development and social justice cannot be achieved in the absence of peace and security or in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms such as wellbeing.

My goal in this article is to rethink initiatives that seek to promote migration justice which can help us as a society to find new paths forward. This is of utmost importance in order to protect the holistic wellbeing of many migrants and refugees who have been affected around the world.

Policy considerations

In order to improve migration justice, we need to ensure policies that protect the human dignity of migrants and refugees. The World Health Organization in Europe holds that the process of migration can be complex and stressful as it involves leaving one’s home country and adapting to a different environment, culture, and life situation. For this reason, it is important that policymakers take into consideration the holistic health and wellbeing of migrants.

The holistic health of many migrants and refugees is exposed to risks of abuse, violence, exploitation, discrimination, barriers to accessing health and social services, and lack of continuity of care. The UN Refugee Agency argues that some governments usually guarantee basic human rights and physical safety for their populations. But when people become refugees, this safety net disappears.

The key to ensuring the wellbeing of migrants and refugees is for the host country to collaborate along with migrants and refugees. To understand what they went through, what are they feeling, and to have clear strategies on what migrants and refugees need upon arrival. The immigrant’s assimilation into the new country and culture is important but equally important is an integration plan that meets the goal of integrating and not erasing the culture of the migrant or overlaying the culture of the host country. 

The areas and models of intervention to promote holistic health and provide good care for refugee and migrant groups include social integration, facilitating access to care, encouraging engagement in care, and treatment of patients with manifest disorders.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggests that an inclusive human rights-based approach should be created to ensure the availability and accessibility of psychosocial support and mental health care for all migrants (regardless of their status).

The holistic health of migrants matters

Each migrant group is distinct and faces different challenges that can often affect their holistic health and wellbeing. Vulnerability to poor health and disadvantage is also not consistent and should not be generalized across all refugee and migrant groups. According to the WHO Regional Office for Europe, many migrants are often healthier than host populations, especially during the first few years after migration — this is known as the healthy migrant effect. 

Here I list some of the mental disorders that migrants may suffer, regardless of their immigration status. These studies show a certain sector of the country or continent; it is important to take them into account and to remember that each number is a person struggling. And above all, remember that the migrant status is not homogeneous and that each person has different experiences.

A study conducted by several psychologists and in partnership with the Canadian Collaboration for Immigrant and Refugee Health in 2011 reported that refugees in Canada are at higher risk than the general population for a number of specific psychiatric disorders. These are related to their exposure to war, violence, torture, forced migration, and exile, and to the unpredictability of their status in the countries in which they seek asylum. They suffer from up to 10 times higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as elevated rates of depression, chronic pain, and other somatic ailments. 

According to a 2016 study, depression in refugees and migrants in Europe ranges from 5% to 44%, compared with a prevalence of 8–12% in the general population (Hannigan, O’Donnell, O’Keeffe, & MacFarlane). The prevalence of anxiety disorders ranged from 4% to 40% compared with a reported prevalence of 5% in the general population. The main problem is that the health care system is not accessible to all migrants (this may vary depending on their migrant status) and if it is often not available in their native language.

However, PTSD is not the most prevalent health disorder in refugees. Health disorders such as depression are more frequent than PTSD in refugees and migrants. These mental disorders affect long-term refugees and migrants’ ability to socially integrate into new countries and to obtain the lifestyle they want to achieve. Unfortunately, feelings of loneliness, rejection, and trauma do not go away. On the contrary, they often accumulate and can cause serious problems for the person. 

Early psychological intervention can be the key to healing; it is for this reason that associations such as the UN and WHO, among others, are strongly encouraging governments to commit to the wellbeing of migrants and, at the same time, push for the populations of the host countries to understand what is involved in the process of emigration.

How can I engage within the migrant community?

“It is crucial to bring into public awareness the situation of those who lack basic human requirements such as food and shelter, but also those whose freedom of mobility and rights to legal citizenship are denied, if not criminalized.” — Butler

When it comes to helping the migrant community, everything you can do has an impact; the most important thing is to sympathize. Communicate to them that they are not alone, as opening ties of empathy can be fundamental in the process of adaptation of the migrant. The assistance of many NGOs has helped overcome barriers to accessing mental health care.

Human mobility has been an inherent characteristic of human beings throughout our history, and it is important to dignify those who seek a better life; empathy and solidarity can lead us to a more fair society.

It is also important that you take care of your holistic health, remember that you can do your part in this process, but you don’t have to carry out all the responsibility. Try not to blame yourself; if the country where they have arrived in your country of birth, then it is not your direct responsibility how they are treated, and your help can show that you want this to change.

Neither the migrants, nor you, nor I am alone

More people than you think are raising awareness for the treatment of migrants to change. Support groups are growing, and there is increasing pressure on governments to protect the holistic health of migrants.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes for the first time the contribution of migration to sustainable development. And 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include targets and indicators related to migration or mobility. The main goal of the Agenda is to “leave no one behind,” including migrants.

“Collaboration, understanding, and belonging is human nature to use. Let us expand our understanding of belonging beyond the nation-state, and see ourselves as a species capable of abolishing cages and creating compassion — a species that celebrates the cultural richness of our multi-ethnic world, which refuses to homogenize the world under one culture while simultaneously erasing the rest.” Prieto