After war and displacement: researching the mental health of refugees

Brad Blitz Middlesex UniversityHow do the experiences of war and forced migration affect the mental health and well-being of the displaced? This is one of the questions at the heart of a Swiss government-funded research project focusing on the experiences of displaced women in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo involving Professor of International Politics Brad Blitz.

While the war in Bosnia ended more than 20 years ago and the conflict in Kosovo was concluded over 15 years ago, the long-term effects of readjustment in the post-conflict context has attracted relatively little interest. This is in spite of massive investment from the European Union, which seeks to incorporate the former Yugoslavia, by means of formal accession and association agreements and through aid and development ‘road-maps’.

Limited literature

There are multiple explanations for the lack of interest in the long-term effects of displacement. Many monitoring organisations which had gathered data during the immediate post-war period scaled down and have now left the region. Staff who previously worked in UN agencies or at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), often on six to 12-month contracts, have moved on to subsequent conflicts in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, or to regional offices in the Middle East. In addition, Bosnia and Kosovo in particular enjoyed limited capacity for social science research and for the best part of 20 years relied on international experts to design surveys and gather demographic data, until donor fatigue eventually brought such research to an end. Moreover, there is actually very little academic interest in the post-conflict experiences of former refugees. The literature tends to be limited by both geographical interest and temporality; that is we find some studies which focus on particular regions, but there is a shortage of comparative and longitudinal research on the return context, especially decades after the conclusion of wars.

A family mourns during a funeral at the Lion's cemetery in Sarajevo, 1992 - Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev (Mikhail Evstafiev) via Wikimedia Commons

A family mourns during a funeral at the Lion’s cemetery in Sarajevo, 1992 – Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev via Wikimedia Commons

Yet Bosnia and Kosovo are especially interesting to study for social scientists. They are divided societies with cleavages forged not only between ethnic groups but also between political affiliations which reflect interests that emerged during the conflicts. In the case of Bosnia, these interests are structured around those who remained during the war and those who were settled abroad but eventually returned. In highly network-based societies these divisions have frustrated the post-conflict settlement, and both the above states have made slow progress on the road maps set out by European Union institutions.

In response to the lack training and tradition of applied research, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation has been funding a series of activities under the Regional Research Promotion Programme for the Western Balkans (RRPP). Between 2008-15, the RRPP has provided more than £5 million to foster and promote social science research in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Researching the psycho-social effects of displacement

Under the leadership of Dr Selma Porobic, herself a refugee from Bosnia who was settled in Sweden, colleagues from Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo secured funding under the RRPP to devise a multi-country project to examine the psycho-social effects of displacement among women. The research team included 22 researchers and multidisciplinary teams in three countries, and sought to compare the experiences not only among people settled in the three locations but also among different categories of migrant (internally displaced (IDP), returnees and refugees). While refugees, IDPs and returnees may enjoy different levels of protection, there is little comparative analysis of how their treatment in the return context impacts on their eventual integration in the post-conflict state.

There are many psychological sources of stress, not least of which includes high rates of unemployment

What is particularly novel about this project is the way it combines several sub-projects including ethnographic and interview-based research with a large psychometric study aimed at individuals. The psychometric study seeks information about levels of stress, anxiety, quality of life, self-esteem among others. In addition, the project will engage Middlesex University researchers in a forthcoming visual ethnography project.

Quality of life

Further to a workshop held in Belgrade, Serbia from 9 to 11 February 2016, the team of scholars from the region were joined by Dr Rajith Lakhsman and myself to get to grips with the early findings. Initial results from the project suggest that after about 17 years the differences between these three categories of migrant are ironed out and all find some acceptance of their situation, even those who may still be based in collective centres and may have endured multiple displacements. Nonetheless, there are many psychological sources of stress, not least of which includes high rates of unemployment that undermine the reintegration of migrants, and the potential capture of human capital acquired abroad, in the case of former refugees (i.e. returnees).

The research team is about to embark on a large number of qualitative interviews into quality of life and other psycho-social indicators and will carry out more extensive analysis of the data which has been generated by the survey. One interesting finding is the degree to which displacement appears to have created new forms of social capital – clearly by necessity – which in turn has forced returnees to become more resilient. The net result is potentially lower levels of stress and anxiety. This has important implications for the management of refugee reception, in particular housing policy.

Brad Blitz teaches on the master’s degree MA Migration, Society and Policy at Middlesex. 

One response to “After war and displacement: researching the mental health of refugees

  1. Pingback: After war and displacement: researching the mental health of refugees | Evi-Med·

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