On Friday 7th April, UNICEF On Campus St Andrews held the opening event of their Annual Symposium, their largest fundraising event of the year. The Symposium, which this year carries the theme of Migration and Health, spans two days and features a panel discussion and a day of talks from speakers with a variety of areas of expertise. The event aims to engage students in thoughtful action and to inspire future humanitarian careers.
The discussion between four panellists was moderated by Dr Natasha Saunders from the School of International Relations and guests had the opportunity to submit questions to be put to the panel. The panelists represented a wide range of responses to the current refugee crisis and more long-term migration issues, particularly with a focus on the physical and mental well-being of refugees. The discussion was largely focused on health and migration within Europe.
Mirella Alexou is the Programme Director of Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), a Greek non-profit organisation at the frontline of refugee aid in Greece. With a core team of just seven people, ERCI has provided assistance to around 46,000 people to date. ERCI provides emergency aid to refugees as they arrive in Greece, as they often arrive by critically dangerous means such as in small rubber boats. With 8,000 people arriving in Greece under these conditions per day, search and rescue operations are vital to saving the lives of refugees who may otherwise die before reaching Greece’s shores.
Rachel Humphris is a lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Birmingham with a background in anthropology. She is a research associate with the Becoming Adult project, which researches the uncertainty of young migrants’ futures in relation to immigration policy, particularly focusing on the experiences of children and young adults entering the UK as asylum seekers.
Bharti Patel is the CEO of ECPAT UK, a children’s charity which fights child trafficking and transnational aspects of child exploitation, overseeing law and policy development in the area of child protection. She emphasised the distinction between smuggling (as a consensual transaction between a migrant and the smuggler, paid to transport the migrant into another country) and trafficking (which is a lucrative business of exploitation of adults and children for labour and sex work).
Tamer Aker, MD manages the Masters Programme in Applied Mental Health in Trauma and Disaster Management at Bilgi University in Turkey. He discussed his role in conducting a recent survey conducted with refugees in Turkey which found that nearly 40% of those surveyed were suffering from major depression and many more from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mental health was a prominent theme throughout the night’s discussion. Mirella Alexou spoke of the crisis in mental healthcare for refugees in Greece, where aid workers are reporting that for the first time in their careers they are receiving requests for psychiatric care from male refugees. However, Tamer Aker’s research has revealed that only 1.5% of the three million refugees in Turkey wanted to receive access to psychiatric care, prompting a very interesting discussion on how the stigmatisation of mental health disorders prevents refugees from seeking support. Furthermore, for the many undocumented urban refugees in Turkey, access to mental healthcare is simply not possible. Much of the conversation centred around the experiences of child refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those who migrate unaccompanied. Rachel Humphris provided an insight into the current strains on the UK child welfare system caused by the refugee crisis and the arrival of unaccompanied children to Britain. At present, England and Wales do not have a guardianship system to facilitate the protection of unaccompanied child migrants (though Scotland does) and responsibility for their care falls to the local council presiding over the area in which children are found. She discussed the difficulties faced by children approaching the age of 18 (an age where they can no longer be protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child), as social service support is reduced or withdrawn and deportation becomes a real threat. She underlined the important point that achieving asylum seeker status for children does not guarantee that they will be given refugee status, creating great uncertainty about their future.
The panel discussed the impact on young migrants of being denied refugee status, or awaiting a decision on such an application highlighting for example that without legal refugee status, young people cannot apply for student finance. Asylum seekers are considered international students within the university registry system and are thus required to pay overseas tuition fees. Bharti Patel added that good legal aid for children is extremely important, as their future becomes much more secure if and when they are granted refugee status.
However, Mirella Alexou did indicate that ERCI’s education projects have begun to provide some stability in the lives of Syrian children in Greece by offering classes within refugee camps. Many Greek schools now offer the opportunity for Syrian children to attend afternoon classes when the Greek primary school day is over, though these classes are only available to refugees in urban areas and teachers are poorly incentivised and equipped to conduct these classes. In addition, children from the age of 15 are excluded from this educational provision and must attempt to find places within the competitive academic and vocational school systems.
A recurring question from audience members was regarding the engagement of refugee professionals in the process of delivering aid and how this can be improved. Tamer Aker spoke of his work to identify refugee health workers who can help to provide psychiatric care to refugees as part of local-level healthcare provisions. Mirella Alexou added that ERCI also tries to identify refugees who have worked as teachers to participate in their education programmes. However, the refugee aid system in its current form does not promote long-term solutions and most aid workers are employed in short-term contracts. Children are the worst affected by this high turnover in refugee camps as they have to suffer the trauma of separation often only a few months after engaging with aid workers.
The panel discussion provided a valuable insight into the often-unseen complexities of the humanitarian aid system and the unfortunate reality of limitations and constraints in the provision of relief within Europe. There were, however, also indicators of hope and progress, and it is encouraging that members of our St Andrews community are enthusiastic about these diverse and difficult issues.
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