World Humanitarian Day: recognizing our shared humanity and ensuring health for the Region’s most vulnerable

WHO/ Malin Bring

Children playing at migrant centre in Sweden.

A record 130 million people around the world are dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive. Many have been forced to flee their homes and countries due to conflict and war, and have sought to build a new life elsewhere. More than 1 million refugees and migrants arrived in the WHO European Region in 2015 alone, and over 265 000 new arrivals have come by sea as of mid-August this year.

World Humanitarian Day provides an annual reminder of the need to act on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our societies and across the globe. It also offers an opportunity to recognize and honour the humanitarian aid workers and volunteers who often risk their own lives to help those in need.

Humanitarian workers in the Region – many of whom are health workers – often carry out their critical work in the heart of a conflict or on the dangerous periphery. Other efforts take place farther from a crisis epicentre, but play a critical role in supporting the people who have been most severely impacted as they strive to rebuild their lives.
Earlier this year, the first World Humanitarian Summit was held in Istanbul, Turkey. It focused on 5 core responsibilities for humanitarian efforts, one of which is to ensure that no one is left behind. This is also a central tenet of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. At the Summit, members of the WHO delegation underlined the importance of providing effective responses to disease outbreaks and protecting health workers and health infrastructure in conflict and disaster zones.

Strategy and action plan for refugee and migrant health

In the first of a series of features on different aspects of WHO’s humanitarian work, we look at the new Strategy and action plan for refugee and migrant health in the WHO European Region, and a specific example of humanitarian work in this area. WHO/Europe has developed the Strategy and action plan at the request of Member States. It is designed to respond to the health needs associated with the migration process and to ensure the availability, accessibility and quality of essential health services. It will be submitted for approval to the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2016.

As the proposed text states, “solidarity and humanity are the key principles underpinning the Strategy and action plan.” This is echoed in the theme of this year’s World Humanitarian Day: “One Humanity”. The actions of humanitarian workers throughout the Region clearly demonstrate their belief in our shared humanity. To mark this day, we share the perspectives of a humanitarian working with refugees in Sweden.

Katarina Carlzén, Skåne, Sweden

Katarina Carlzén leads a research-based support platform, involving more than 50 partners, aimed at providing refugees, migrants and other marginalized groups in Sweden with culturally sensitive civic and health information. The ultimate goal is to improve the system of reception and integration of new arrivals to Sweden through a holistic approach and with a focus on the individual’s needs.

Nada Khalil, a Palestinian refugee who came to Sweden in 2015 after fleeing her home in Libya, sees the platform as an important tool for helping people like her to acclimatize to their new home: “They teach people how to live in another culture and give them the first step for living a good life in a new country. … In my opinion, this is very important to avoid culture shock and depression.”

The work of Carlzén and her colleagues aligns closely with the Strategy and action plan, which states: “Health systems should aim to offer culturally sensitive health care. … Systems should ensure support to refugees and migrants in navigating through the system, and should respond to the needs of all persons, without discrimination, and with dignity and respect.”

What does it mean to you to be a humanitarian?

Carlzén: To be a humanitarian is to be able to recognize and understand the needs of people who are in a disadvantaged position and to act accordingly in a responsible and brave way. It means being able to put your own feelings and personal interest aside in order to be of use to others.

Why is it important to view humanitarian work as a longer-term, ongoing proposition, rather than something limited to a direct crisis?

Carlzén: Humanitarian work as a longer-term proposition is crucial in order to promote real change, and this should be the focus of stakeholders and policy-makers. It is a matter of not only health and equity, but actually of global peace and balance. Our future is at stake and a much broader, holistic and long-term approach is needed, which should be set apart from current political interests.

What are some key elements of providing effective support to people affected by humanitarian crises?
Carlzén: To provide, as absolutely soon as possible after the immediate life-threatening crisis, tools and avenues for people to control their own adaptation to their surroundings, making sure they don´t become dependent on long-term institutionalized support.