Communities are best served by people from within their communities. It makes sense that someone who has experienced the same or similar issue would be better equipped to help than someone with no or limited or knowledge. However, one diverse population that struggles with gaining representation within the organizations that serve them is refugees. Yet refugee-led organizations are the best problem solvers for their respective communities.
While talking about refugee-led organizations, it important to remember that refugee populations are not a monolith. Refugee populations come from hundreds of different backgrounds and cultures and it is important for those working with refugees to understand the unique circumstances refugees from various communities face. Many refugees report feeling discriminated against, facing language barriers, having unique health needs that are often not understood by local health professionals, and not having access to people that understand the impact and traumatic nature of their past. Given refugee’s specific health needs, the healthcare field is one area where refugee community leaders can play an important role.
Due to lack of access to healthcare while migrating and often unstable community conditions prior to fleeing their homes, refugee populations often have high rates of infection diseases such as tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, Hepatitis, and malaria. Many countries accepting refugees are not adequately equipped to treat refugees with these infectious diseases which are often considerably different than the chronic conditions that dominate the healthcare setting in high resource settings. By allowing refugees themselves to step into the role of treating other refugees, it can build trust within the communities and between refugees and the healthcare system as a whole.
This also goes beyond physical health. With approximately one in three refuges within the United States suffering from a mental health disorder, it is critical that refugees play an active role in ensuring the health concerns of their communities are adequately addressed. Refugees are better equipped to have trauma-informed dialogs with other refugees about sensitive topics, such as mental health, women’s health, and sexual and reproductive health, particularly when there are often specific stigmas within many cultures associated with such topics.
In instances where refugee-led organizations cannot take the lead, healthcare professionals must work to ensure that refugees are key stakeholders in the development and implementation of programs and interventions. Policies should be implemented to ensure refugees are engaged, are listened to, have a platform to advocate for their communities, and most importantly, have power to change policies and provide feedback. While the healthcare field is working to identify, provide capacity to, and fund refugee-led organizations, refugees should be trained as skilled community health workers and should be seen as respected members of the healthcare team. Healthcare professionals should also work to recruit skilled healthcare professionals that already exist within the refugee communities they are serving.
Studies have shown that when given adequate funding, refugee-led organizations often outperform other organizations at providing necessary assistance to both refugees and the local surrounding communities. With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, there is no better time to ensure that refugee-lead organizations are recruited and stay at the forefront of decision-making processes and vital public health interventions.
UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women
Gautret P, Cramer JP, Field V, Caumes E, Jensenius M, Gkrania-Klotsas E, et al. Infectious diseases among travellers and migrants in Europe, EuroTravNet 2010. Euro Surveill. 2012;17:20205.
Nile Sisters Development Initiative
Betts, Alexander et al. “Localising Public Health: Refugee-led organisations as first and last responders in COVID-19.” World development vol. 139 (2021): 105311. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105311