The Hidden Refugee Health Crisis

How Non-Communicable Diseases Harm the Displaced

Migrants during a medical check in Hanau, Germany, September 2015. Kai Pfaffenbach / REUTERS

On a cold January night near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, a family of ten Syrian refugees sat quietly in a one-bedroom apartment. There was no furniture, and the little food the family had lay rotting in a box in a corner. Mohammed, an 18-year-old, rocked back and forth in silence on the floor. His grandmother, Fatimah, told me that he had stopped speaking after the trauma of his voyage from Aleppo: he had been shot at and had witnessed friends die. Fatimah could no longer walk. Her diabetes had robbed her of the use of her legs, she said, and her heart complications strained her breathing. The family could not afford prescription drugs or specialized medical care.

Mohammed and Fatimah are just two of the millions of refugees suffering from chronic non-communicable diseases—maladies such as diabetes, cancer, and mental illness that cannot pass from person to person but can be devastating if left untreated. As host countries have taken in the world’s displaced, they have too often failed to consistently treat these ailments. Governments must change course: non-communicable diseases increase countries’ health care costs in the long term and prevent refugees from building productive, sustainable lives in their new communities. If policymakers do not provide reliable health care to displaced people, chronic diseases could turn the global refugee crisis into an even greater burden.

Checking the ear of an Eritrean refugee at a clinic in Jaffa, Israel, July 2008.
Checking the ear of an Eritrean refugee at a clinic in Jaffa, Israel, July 2008. BAZ RATNER / reuters


Chronic illnesses are not popularly associated with people fleeing war and persecution. Yet many of the countries producing today’s refugees have either long carried a heavy burden of chronic disease or have recently seen that burden increase. Over the past two decades, for instance, non-communicable diseases have affected over 90 percent of Syrians, 5.5 million of whom have fled their country since the start of the civil war in 2011. (A 2015 survey of Syrian families living outside of camps in Jordan found that half of them

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