Migration and Health: UNICEF Symposium Provides Message of Hope

Courtney Dane recaps UNICEF’s recent Symposium.

As the sun shone down on the neatly paved path of St Salvator’s Quad, students and members of the wider St Andrews community slowly filtered in the doors, the light blue and white UNICEF banner gently waying in the wind. 

The UNICEF panel discussion and symposium over the weekend focused on migration and its effects on physical and mental health, focusing on issues ranging from female genital mutilation to mental health issues in Syrian refugees. 

Ann-Marie Wilson, the founder of “28 Too Many,” an organisation that seeks to break the cycle of female genital mutilation (FGM), began the day. Her organisation seeks to eradicate FGM at the source as they work in collaboration with a series of African countries. She said that, at its heart, “FGM is a human rights issue” and concluded with a series of helpful action points to stem the practice and emphasised that stopping it is ultimately up to “Africa to fix African problems.”

The focus of the talks moved onto the mental health effects of Syrian refugees in Turkey, given by Dr Tamer Aker. Mental health is not often addressed in the main discourse of refugees. A psychiatrist from Turkey, Tamer observed that, “psycho-social work needs to be different for every population and wave,” since the refugee population is so diverse. He advocated an integrated approach that enlists the help of the community and centred around capacity building, which includes looking for short and long term interventions to help heal the Syrian refugees. After a series of questions, he defended his optimistic attitude that Syrian and Turkish culture could integrate, and the people could happily learn from one another. 

The symposium continued with Bharti Patel, the CEO of ECPAT UK, who told a harrowing story of child trafficking around the world, and more alarmingly in the United Kingdom. She began with a disturbing tale about a young girl named “Anita” who had been sold into domestic servitude by her mother, moved to the Middle East, and then was transported to the United Kingdom. Even after treatment, the girl still suffers from post-traumatic stress and is depressed. Bharti discussed at length the psycho-social impact trafficking has on these children, including physical harm, lack of trust in adults, depression, etc., but she offered many solutions and recommendations to help heal the victims. She concluded, “we must stop the child from being abused in the first instance.”

The day ended with a visual presentation from Mirella Alexou, who spent time with refugees off the coast of Lesvos as a member of the Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI). She briefed the audience about the perilous journey that refugees have had to weather from Syria and other African countries across the Mediterranean and into Europe. She outlined the action plan of the organisation, in which it seeks to make the refugees safe and then provide them, especially youth, with education so that they can make a better start in their new country. Gazing on the audience, she left them with the call to “be less passive and more active” and do something about the problems in the world.

Much of the content of these talks conveyed information about the problems refugees and other types of migrants face, its impact, the solution, and the challenges that lay ahead. While the subject matter is disturbing and quite sad, all the speakers concluded their talks with a message of hope and the ability of a single person to initiate change.