As the Syrian refugee crisis swells across Middle Eastern and European countries, the healthcare crisis worsens, leaving millions of refugees without access to proper healthcare. The situation seems forbidding, but there are, in fact, many ways to help the international medical community respond to the need. But first, a little background about who is suffering and why.
The Syrian conflict has been going on for over four years, and the world faces a refugee crisis of unprecedented numbers. A report from the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees places the amount of internally displaced people worldwide at 60 million. This is the highest number of refugees in history –having recently surpassed record WWII figures. More than 9.5 million of these refugees are Syrian, and a total of 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes (including those internally displaced). This number amounts to roughly half the Syrian population.
The Conflict –A Short Summary
In 2011, during the Arab Spring, Syrian citizens, along with several other Middle Eastern countries began protesting their governments. Some countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen successfully forced their rulers from power. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, responded with brutal force to his people’s demonstrations. During the past four years, the situation in Syria has escalated into a bloody civil war with the Syrian people caught between the violent Assad regime and Islamic State militants that have begun taking territory in Syria. The death toll has now reached 220,000. To escape the violence, Syrians have fled their country in large numbers to settle in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Lebanon alone has hosted over a million Syrian refugees. Four years after the start of the conflict, these host countries’ systems have been overtaxed with the economic burden of providing for so large a refugee population. As healthcare and food rations are cut, Syrian refugees have begun leaving their initial host countries to seek better living conditions in Western Europe and beyond.
A Shortfall in Funding
The shortfall of funding for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is one of the primary causes of the current refugee healthcare crisis. The UNHCR has raised only 43% of its funding for Syrian aid.  Because the World Health Organization (the United Nations public health arm) is only 27% funded, it had to close down 184 clinics in Iraq, leaving three million people without healthcare. A similar lack of funding has forced the United Nations World Food Programme to cut the food rations of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon to $13 a month.
Most of the UN’s humanitarian work is funded through voluntary donations and doesn’t receive any predetermined slice of the UN’s budgetary pie. Dr. Michelle Gayer, the Director for Emergency Risk Management at WHO told the Guardian, “We are never 100% funded so we are always having to prioritise, but it breaks your heart when you end services for 3 million people. There will be no access for trauma like shrapnel wounds, no access for children’s health or reproductive health. There will be no surveillance of things like cholera. A generation of children will be unvaccinated.”
A Vulnerable Population
Healthcare within Syria has been used a weapon of war, leaving Syrian refugees vulnerable to illness and injury before they even begin their journeys. Within Syria, healthcare workers have been deliberate targets of attack. Snipers outside of hospitals shoot the wounded trying to enter, people caught with medical supplies are apprehended, hospitals are bombed, and doctors are tortured and shot for providing medical treatment to patients. According to a report by Physicians for Human Rights, as of March, 610 medical personnel within Syria had been killed. The report posits that 97% of the killings have been committed by the Syrian government.
The Healthcare Crisis
Because of the danger inherent in practicing or receiving healthcare in Syria, diseases that were once eradicated in the country have resurfaced. Syrians are now at risk for measles, and polio and preventable amputations.  For refugees fleeing Syria–the dangers and hardships of travel (especially overseas passages) pose considerable healthcare risks. The heart-breaking photo of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on the Turkish beach is representative of thousands more refugees who have died at sea each year. Refugee women are also giving birth on their way to Europe without any access to medical help.  Refugees in host countries such as Lebanon have also lost access to life-saving healthcare like dialysis, chemotherapy and pre-mature infant care.
As garbage accumulates in camps, unsanitary living conditions threaten to give rise to infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid epidemics and vector-borne diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and rodents. Experts worry that water polluted from sewage also has the potential to spread jaundice, dysentery and diarrhea.
Refugees are also in need of a considerable amount of mental healthcare. In a recent study, Germany’s chamber of psychotherapists found that half of the Syrian refugees in Germany are experiencing mental illness and psychological distress caused by trauma. The findings show that 70% of refugees have witnessed violence and 50% have experienced violence. Many are experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, depression, nightmares, and flashbacks.
What is Being Done to Help?
The international community has called upon Western Europe and the U.S. to absorb more Syrian refugees. France and England have each agreed to take at least 20,000 Syrians. In an astounding demonstration of welcome, Germany has agreed to accept 800,000 refugees this year and half a million a year in subsequent years. This year, the U.S. has taken 1,500 Syrian refugees out of the 70,000 refugees it accepts annually. Some humanitarian aid organizations have called on the U.S. to accept up to 65,000 refugees. However, President Obama has currently agreed to accept 10,000 more Syrian refugees within the next fiscal year. The U.S. has a rigorous refugee acceptance process that can take 18-24 months to complete. It includes coordination between four major entities: the U.S. State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office of the United Nations of High Commissioner for Refugees. Each refugee v is given an in-person interview, undergoes medical examination, security checks and a cultural orientation.
What We Can Do To Help
Given the lack of funds that international humanitarian organizations are facing, donating to a reputable organization is perhaps one of the best things you can do to help the international healthcare crisis. Click on the links below to learn more about donating to each of these organizations.
- World Health Organization
- Doctors Without Borders
- United Nations High Commission for Refugees
An increased awareness of this international crisis will help people and governments respond appropriately. Read more about the issue and share what you’ve learned with those around you.
The U.N. has ways for you to volunteer by donating your time and skills online. Visit their volunteer page for more information.
The International Rescue Committee Red Cross has volunteer opportunities to help with the refugee crisis.
Volunteer medical skills in the field with Doctors Without Borders, or donate time working in their New York City Office location.