Content » Vol 49, Issue 5

Special report

Refugee health and rehabilitation: Challenges and response

Fary Khan, Bhasker Amatya
Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Royal Melbourne Hospital, 34-54 Poplar Road, Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria 3052, Australia. E-mail:
DOI: 10.2340/16501977-2223


Background: The current global refugee crisis poses major challenges in providing effective healthcare to refugees, particularly for non-communicable diseases management and disability. This article provides an overview of refugee health and potential challenges from the rehabilitation perspective.
Methods: A literature search (both academic and grey literature) was conducted using medical and health science electronic databases and internet search engines (2001–2016). Both authors independently selected studies. Due to heterogeneity amongst identified articles, a narrative analysis was performed for best-evidence synthesis to outline the current health and rehabilitation status of refugees and existing gaps in care.
Results: Data suggest that infectious diseases requiring treatment in refugees are a minority; whilst non-communicable diseases, musculoskeletal conditions are prevalent. Many refugees arrive with complex health needs. One in 6 refugees have a physical health problem severely affecting their lives and two-thirds experience mental health problems, signifying the important role of rehabilitation. Refugees face continued disadvantage, poverty and dependence due to lack of cohesive support in their new country, which are determinants of both poor physical and mental health. This is compounded by language barriers, impoverishment, and lack of familiarity with the local environment and healthcare system. In Australia, there are concerns about sexual and gender-based violence in off-shore detention camps. Targeted physical and cognitive rehabilitative strategies have much to offer these vulnerable people to allow for improved activity and participation.
Conclusion: Strong leadership and effective action from national and international bodies is urgently needed to develop comprehensive rehabilitation-inclusive medical care for refugees.

Lay Abstract

Many refugees arrive in their new country with complex and longer-term healthcare needs (including non-communicable diseases), which impact their mental and physical health. Majority of these issues are amenable to rehabilitation. Currently, there is limited data on rehabilitative strategies for this group. This article provides an overview of refugee health and potential challenges from the rehabilitation perspective. Quality and accessible healthcare services (including rehabilitation) are an important part of addressing health-related needs of refugees.

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