Throughout history humans have been on the move, migrating due to famine, war, persecution, and to find a better life. In a new age of “zero tolerance” policies and deeming humans “illegal” it is important to understand that how global policy defines someone matters.
There are many terms for populations that are fleeing disasters and we have to understand globally accepted terms for populations on the move.
- Asylum-seekers are people “whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed”. Every nation has their own asylum system to determine who qualifies for protection and how they request this protection. If the petition for protection does not meet the host country’s criteria the individual may be deported to their home country.
- Internally displaced people have not crossed any borders to seek safety but have moved to another location within their home country seeking safety or shelter.
- Refugees are people who are forced to flee their home country in order to seek safety from conflict or persecution. This group of people are protected under international law and are not to be sent back to the situation where their safety is at risk.
- Migrants are people who choose to move for work, education, family unification, etc. These people can go back to their home country and continue to be protected by their home country government.
- Undocumented migrant is a person who has entered a country without proper documentation, or their immigration status expired while in the host country and they have not renewed their status, or they were denied legal entry/immigration into their host country but have remained in the host country.
- Statelessness is someone who does not have a nationality. Individuals can be born stateless or become stateless due to nationality laws which discriminate against certain genders, ethnicities, or religions, or the emergence or dissolving of countries.
These international definitions are important, because it determines if, how, and when the international community can respond to crisis situations. A large caveat is that due to national sovereignty under international law a nation must request that international organizations like UNHCR provide international assistance to these particular communities. If nations do not request assistance or reject assistance then these populations are left without any sort of protection leaving them vulnerable and isolated, as seen with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The international community has also seen the inhumane treatment of people seeking protection to include isolated detention on islands such as is currently used in Australia.
No matter how the international community defines these populations, they face poor health outcomes due to disease, economic stress, and trauma. Examples include:
- An increase in child brides among Syrian and Rohingya refugee populations. This in turn affects infant and maternal mortality rates as well as the woman’s future economic prospects.
- Malnutrition of both mother and child leading to increased death rates for children under five and stunting of growth in children that survive. This is currently being seen in Yemen.
- Decreased breastfeeding rates due to maternal stress, disease, and separation from familial groups/support systems. An increase in breastmilk substitutes in refugee or displaced persons camps is also an issue that goes against international humanitarian policies.
- During the Mediterranean refugee crisis the international community witnessed large groups of people risking their lives on overfilled boats that often sank, causing large scale loss of life. These refugees then faced xenophobia, closed borders, and detention upon their arrival.
- Currently in the United States there has been an increase in detaining families and child migrants from Latin American countries for an indeterminate amount of time. Organizations like American Academy of Pediatrics have begun to discuss long term effects this type of detention has on child and adolescent health outcomes such as: high risk of psychological stress that may lead to anxiety and depression due to separation and forced detention, suicidal ideations, victims of assault by other children in these detention centers, or sexual assaults from other detainees or employees at these facilities.
- In South America sovereign nations have closed their borders or placed restrictive regulations on Venezuelan migrants seeking food, shelter, and basic medical care for their families amid a massive economic crisis. Not only do these migrants face arduous journeys, but they also face poor health outcomes like malnutrition due to starvation, and the potential for contracting diseases due to poor sanitary conditions, and consuming non-potable water.
- Migrants are a vulnerable population who can succumb to human trafficking and the modern slave trade along their migration routes. Migrants that are caught up in human trafficking often face abuse (mental and physical), serious injury from due to extreme work conditions, and exposure to communicable diseases from overcrowded and unsanitary living environments.
Humans take immense risks to seek safety and new opportunities that they did not have in their home country. As an international public health community, whether we work in crisis situations or not, we must make it a priority to treat all humans in a humane manner. Health is a human right, and should be guaranteed for all.