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Refugees, Migrants Face Health Challenges When Returning Home

Migrants fleeing Libya unrest arrive on the island of Lampedusa, Italy on May 8, 2011.
Migrants fleeing Libya unrest arrive on the island of Lampedusa, Italy on May 8, 2011.

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When migrants return home, they bring with them an accumulation of health issues from their travels and from living in what are often substandard conditions.

A key problem, according to a report prepared by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is that migrants often can't get proper health care where they are working, so they have to deal with lingering medical problems when they rejoin their families.

"So when they return back home, they've got an occupational health issue that wasn't addressed in the country where they were working," says IOM co-author Haley West. "And now, the diagnosis has probably been delayed. So that delay in diagnosis oftentimes leads to worse health issues that could have potentially been preventable if they had been given the access in the country in which they had been working."

Not all migrants travel for economic reasons. Many are forced from home by natural disaster, war or civil unrest. People who have lived through that kind of situation often have psychological scars.

"There's been some very interesting studies done on people who have been granted refugee status and the sorts of mental health challenges they face years down the road," IOM co-author Rosilyne Borland says. "So someone returning from mass displacement, even though I'm sure are thrilled to be going home, they bring with them all sorts of challenges upon their return."

And, Borland points out, whether the mass migration was forced by a civil war or a tsunami, conditions will not be the same when the returning migrants return home.

"If the community was destroyed by the natural disaster or the war, then the health system has also been damaged, and the ability of that community to continue to keep people healthy is also challenged when they get back."

Borland and West recommend that policies be developed at all levels to consider the needs of returning migrants, and ensure they have access to health assessments so they can get the care they need when they come home.

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