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Provide mental care for refugees, asylum seekers

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In conjunction with World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Health Equity Initiatives (HEI) has called for greater attention to the mental health needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

Their mental distress continues even after arrival - Photo courtesy of Chin Refugees in Malaysia

There are some 15.2 million refugees worldwide and some 88,900 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia as of end June 2010, the majority of whom are from Burma. Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a legislative or administrative framework for dealing with refugees.

The World Health Organisation recognises refugees as “one of the most vulnerable groups of today’s world” with special mental health needs.

Mental disorders like depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder are high in prevalence among refugees and asylum seekers because of their forced displacement experiences, including extreme levels of trauma, loss, insecurity, abuse, sexual violence, and torture prior to arriving in Malaysia.

Their mental distress continues even after arrival because of their insecure legal status and inability to engage in paid employment legally.

Poor accessibility to health care further compromises the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees in Malaysia experience many difficulties in accessing mental health services and health care in general. Some of the factors that limit accessibility to health care are lack of finance, ongoing security threats of arrest, detention and deportation, lack of recognition of their refugee status, and language barriers.

In line with the World Health Organisation’s position to incorporate the special mental health needs of refugees, and to give due regard for equality and non-discrimination in the development of mental health policy and service provision, Health Equity Initiatives calls on the Malaysian government to:

  • provide universal access to mental health care, including for refugees and asylum seekers.
  • apply to refugees and asylum seekers the same rates for patient care applicable to Malaysians in state-run health facilities, because they require treatment and do not have the resources
  • recognise the status of refugee and allow them to work so that they can finance their health needs and enjoy access to the determinants of health including food, housing, sanitation, and education for their children.
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Associate Professor Dr. Xavier V Pereira, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, is director of Health Equity Initiatives

Health Equity Initiatives (HEI) is a Malaysian NGO committed to advancing the right to health of disenfranchised populations. Its programmes include community-based health interventions with refugees and asylum seekers; mental health services; research and advocacy related to monitoring the right to health; and, internships on health and human rights for students of medicine.

For more information contact, Ms. Vizla Kumaresan, Clinical Psychologist and Coordinator of Mental Health Services, Health Equity Initiatives, 26-1A, Jalan Vivekananda, Brickfields, 50470 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tel: +60-3-22724957; Fax: +60-3-2272 4854. Email: [email protected]

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