Caitlin Katsiaficas, George Washington University, USA
Many of us have been spending much more time at home, separated from friends and family members, to help curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Movement restrictions and social isolation, along with fear and uncertainty about the future – perhaps coupled with financial stress – can all have important consequences for our mental health. This has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to call for an injection of funding for mental health services as part of the global COVID-19 response and recovery, while among the general public, the topic of mental health and wellbeing has received more attention. But although the pandemic has cast light on these challenges, they are nothing new for many migrants.
Meanwhile, pandemic-related border closures and other mobility restrictions have led increasing numbers of asylum seekers to be stuck in transit and in waiting, perpetuating their state of limbo. While the more visible examples in Europe include the hotspots on the Greek islands, reception centres across the continent introduced restrictions, including the pausing of entry to and exit from facilities and the suspension of other components of asylum procedures. Prior to COVID-19, many asylum seekers were already facing longer journeys in their quest to access protection, including longer waits for a decision on their claim, due in part to the rising numbers of asylum seekers in recent years and government efforts to manage these flows.
This waiting, often in difficult material conditions and with great uncertainty, can have important ramifications for the mental health and wellbeing of a population that has often already faced a host of other migration-related stress or trauma in their country of origin or while en route. In this context, access to appropriate mental health and psychosocial services can help promote individual wellbeing. Moreover, supporting migrant mental health may bring other benefits: it could potentially improve the ability of asylum seekers to effectively make their case for protection, and in doing so help to boost both the efficiency and integrity of asylum systems – and it may also help foster positive integration outcomes for those who are able to stay in receiving societies.
As waiting periods increase, the need for appropriate mental health and psychosocial support for those waiting to submit their claim for international protection or to receive a decision becomes ever more important. But as growing numbers of asylum seekers live in a state of limbo, the question of how to provide these services during a pandemic becomes not only increasingly urgent – it is also more challenging given the need for physical distancing or other health-protection measures. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the WHO identified a particular need for more research on effective mental health interventions for migrants in transit. Meanwhile, a recent United Nations policy brief called out the lack of pre-pandemic investment in mental health care more generally.
The pandemic has become a main focus of migration policymakers, practitioners and researchers across the globe, propelling the issue of health front and centre in a way that was not previously the case. While COVID-19 undoubtedly constitutes a challenge to both migration governance and migrants themselves (and indeed to communities more broadly), it also presents an important opportunity to acknowledge the importance of health issues more broadly – including mental health – and to scale up related services during and beyond the pandemic. This effort should include identifying ways to provide appropriate mental health and psychosocial supports for those in waiting to help fill the gap in both research and practice.
With COVID-19 upending the lives of people around the world, the pandemic has illustrated the toll that uncertainty, social isolation and other stress can take on our mental health and wellbeing, and has underscored the critical need to ramp up mental health services. As asylum seekers’ journeys become prolonged, it is increasingly important to offer such services to mitigate the impacts of migration-related trauma and stress, and support mental health and wellbeing.
Caitlin Katsiaficas is a non-resident visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and also serves as a policy advisor at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development.
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