Trauma, Empowerment and the Right to Health in an Era of Forced Displacement

Globally, we are facing unprecedented levels of forced displacement. According to UNHCR statistics, 110 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced at the end of June 2023, leaving their homes due to persecution, war, violent conflict, climate emergency, famine, human rights violations or other events that seriously affect the livelihood of communities. This is an increase of over 40 million people in the last five years.

Simultaneously, we are witnessing an increasing militarisation of borders and an increase in violence at the borders to the Global North and beyond. The journey to safety itself has become an ever more traumatic experience, leaving refugees in a state of extreme vulnerability. Upon “arrival” poor living conditions, restrictive laws, racism and other social factors have a negative impact on the health of refugees and perpetuate the effects of violence. Academic scholars have introduced the term “triple trauma paradigm” to reflect the complexity of traumatic experiences of refugees today.

So far it seems that global and public health institutions, humanitarian and development agencies have recognized the need and responded with - often only brief - Mental Health and Psychosocial Support programmes and interventions (MHPSS) targeted to help displaced persons. While these responses may alleviate the acute suffering, health professionals are also usually confronted with the dilemma of seeking to stabilise affected populations without addressing root causes of violence. Psychosocial treatment centres regularly emphasise the importance of positive post-migration experiences. These influence when and how much people will suffer from post-traumatic experiences or whether they develop traumatic stress symptoms at all.

More than ever, we need to understand the experience of trauma—and of resilience—among displaced persons and refugees from a cultural, social and political perspective. Trauma reactions are “normal” human reactions to abnormal experiences of severe violence and injustice. Trauma, conceptualized as a diagnosable mental disorder of an individual, has been put into question for medicalising socio-political problems and ignoring the role of culture and context. Utilising existing cultural and contextual knowledge to inform the design of programmes aimed at addressing the mental health of refugee populations remains an important challenge. We need to connect trauma work and political context, acknowledging the importance of individual psychosocial support and the focus on (changing) societal power relations - a collective struggle for equality, empowerment and justice, especially in the aftermath of violence.

In this respect, it is paramount to create spaces of dialogue in which survivors of violence can articulate experiences on their own terms and explore their needs. Access to mental health services and therapy are one aspect here. However, holistic and community-based forms of dealing with the experience of trauma and loss - more predominant in Non-Western collective cultures and contexts - can be equally important. Dealing with traumatic experiences through artistic expression, story-telling activities, memory projects, human rights advocacy or legal actions against perpetrators - often people-centred and intersectional by design - have proven powerful ways of coming to terms with these experiences and (publicly) addressing the injustice, violence and impunity inherent in them.

This year’s Global Health Summer School will therefore focus on trauma, empowerment and the right to health in the context of forced displacement and flight. Throughout our programme we encourage an intersectional and emancipatory perspective. We will gain insights into global health architecture and its interplay with migration politics. Academic debates on trauma, resilience and healing that consider the role of culture, society and politics will be discussed. We will ask how human rights based and decolonial approaches to trauma and psychosocial work change the way we think about violence and health. To do this we will juxtapose the lived experiences of migrant people and refugees with critiques of border regimes and asylum systems of the Global North. The concept of “necropower” may help us to better understand the processes exacerbating the potential for death and the racialised targeting of “immigrant bodies”. We will attempt to put our reflections to use as health professionals, researchers and/or activists fighting for human rights and health equity.

Based on a process-oriented and trauma-sensitive approach in itself, the summer school aims to create a space for global learning in which everybody feels safe, acknowledged and in control of their learning experience. We will follow the methodology of trauma-sensitive classrooms and provide significant space for individual reflection, interpersonal exchange, bodily exercises, breaks and nurturing activities.

In the Global Health Summer students and practitioners from various countries participate in dialogue with professionals and activists from diverse backgrounds in order to examine problems and discuss potential solutions. We focus on how we, as health professionals and political activists, can have a positive impact in attaining health for all.


Health and Globalisation Health and Globalisation Health and Globalisation

Health and Globalisation