Ensuring Refugee Health and Wellbeing

Buffalo String Works performance at the Annual WNY Refugee Health Summit.

Buffalo String Works performance at the Annual WNY Refugee Health Summit

Though people have migrated for centuries, current local and global crises have triggered forced movement on a scale not witnessed since World War II (Lemke, 2017). The influx of refugees to host nations has generated nationalist supremacy discourses and polarized cultural debates that both “welcome” and “reject” newcomers, including within the United States. This demands that researchers and practitioners concerned with increasing equity for refugees and other displaced persons, to push disciplinary boundaries, as well as existent policy and practices in ways that responsibly challenge those conditions that permit forced movement to continue. To do so, the Refugee Health and Well-Being Big Ideas Team cultivates co-constructed research-policy-practice partnerships at local, national, and international levels with the aim of supporting and growing equitable resettlement processes for displaced children, adults, and families.

Refugee Health and Well-being: Cultivating Co-Constructed and Equity-based Research, Policy, and Practice Partnerships

By Melinda Lemke and Kafuli Agbemenu

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2021), in 2020 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide due to conflict and war, human rights violations, persecution, violence and/or events such as climate change that disturb the public order. This number more than doubled from ten years ago, and includes 48 million internally displaced persons (IDP), 26.4 million refugees, and 4.1 million asylum seekers. Importantly, 35 million displaced persons are children and one million children were born as refugees. Finally, almost three-quarters of all displaced persons originate from five countries – Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, and Venezuela, and 39% are hosted by Columbia, Germany, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uganda.

These numbers are staggering, and are tied to the structural legacy of colonialism and the social, economic, and political conditions of a neoliberal present. When considering the human experience of forcible movement, pre-movement experiences and resettlement processes are fraught with challenges for adults, and the increased likelihood of exploitation, abuse, and rights violations for children and youth. In the United States, refugees who transition to existent systems face a range of social and public health inequities including, but not limited to normatively held biases about refugees and discourses of fear that negatively affect community perspectives about displaced persons, as well as system-based language, cultural, and educational barriers. Furthermore, U.S. systems and practitioners struggle to balance an asset-based stance toward displaced persons, which is mindful of the rich history, traditions, and talents brought to the host nation, with that of the social, emotional, mental, and physical traumas carried by refugees.

Forcible displacement is not a uniform experience and refugees comprise a heterogenous, non-monolithic group. Though spatialized displacement typically is thought of as patterns involving movement from the Global South to the Global North, thereby implicating northern nation-states and private capital in these processes, we also acknowledge that Global South is indicative of additional contexts, including those within the U.S. that lack financial and infrastructural resources, have heightened rates of racialized violence, and endure other spatialized forms of inequality. At a basic human rights level, providing access to food, water, safety, and shelter is critical to the welfare of refugees and other spatially displaced persons. Additionally, it is essential that resettlement processes involving education, healthcare, housing, legal systems, and work placement are grounded in asset-based, culturally and linguistically responsive, and trauma-informed practices that aim to improve overall health, flourishing, and well-being.

To support this vision, the Community for Health in Global Health Equity Big Ideas Team on Refugee Health and Well-being brings together scholarly and practitioner expertise from architecture, education, the humanities, law, medicine, nursing, pediatrics, public health, social work, urban planning and other disciplines. To support the needs of those resettled in Western New York, and the Buffalo community in particular, through public engagement and university events, we are intentional in our aim to join activists, clinicians, community partners, refugees, and scholars who want to engage in the ethical, co-production of knowledge and resources critical to fostering refugee health and well-being.


Lemke, M. (2017). Trafficking and immigration policy: Intersections, inconsistencies, and implications for public education. Educational Policy31(6), 743-763. https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904817719528

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2021). Refugee data finderhttps://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/

Our Working Solutions

Lin Research Group.

Lin Research Group

  • Buffalo
    From 2003 to 2014, Erie County's four resettlement agencies resettled 9,723 refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Burma, Bhutan, and now Syria. Refugees receive resettlement support for three months time but, post-resettlement, face barriers to good health and well-being due to limited english proficiency coupled with a scarcity of interpreters and translators, mental health issues related to trauma and torture, lack of transportation, and a derth of culturally-engaged health professionals, pharmacists, and emergency care providers.
  • International
    Today, continued conflict in South Sudan has forced over 1,291,294 people to seek refuge in neighboring countries, like Uganda, making Uganda the largest refugee settlement in the world.  Despite the Democratic Republic of Congo's slow recovery from a nearly decade long war, many areas are still plagued by violence and displacement. 

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