From the deserts of Syria to the mountains of Central America to the coast of Thailand, the United Nations High Commission estimates that there are more refuges and internally displaced people today than at any time since World War II. Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has described this not as a crisis of migration, but as a crisis of solidarity. On April 29th, hundreds of psychologists, crisis workers and planners from academia, nongovernmental organizations, and transnational organizations from around the globe gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to discuss psychology’s contribution to the migration crisis.
Social justice and human rights were at the heart of this meeting, the latest in an annual series of U.N. Psychology Days. This series has served to highlight the relevance of our field to the world’s most pressing problems, a relevance that was highlighted in opening and closing speeches by the co-hosts, the Ambassadors to the U.N. from El Salvador and Palau, two nations facing very different types of migration-related crises. In a series of panels in between these speakers, the presenters focused on increasing attention to, and awareness of, the impact of forced migration on youth and children, and the importance of cultural context in understanding and ameliorating the impact of the migration crisis.
- The first panel focused on the role of cultural integration in the process of resettlement. Refugees and migrants find themselves in new and often very different cultures from the ones they left, and obstacles to integration may deprive them of opportunities to succeed – while depriving the welcoming nations from the opportunity to gain advantage from the skills, knowledge, and diversity of immigrants. The panelists pointed to various models and approaches for the cultural integration of migrants, ranging from settlement houses to various modes of psychological crisis integration that can help ease the process of cultural integration.
- The experiences, and unique challenges for migrant children and youth were the focus of the second panel, which highlighted the importance of supporting the needs, rights and well-being of minors who have rarely made a choice, themselves, to enter the process of migration. A resilience-focused approach was described by the panel as being paramount to understanding the impact of the process on this survivor population. Other presenters focused on the impacts to mental health of the refugee journey, and highlighted the lack of mental health services available to minors, the obstacles to their accessing the services that do exist, and the role of language, culture, separation, and resilience in these young survivors.
Following the presentations, participants gathered for a less formal reception, where panelists, aid workers, psychologists – and students – could discuss the issues of the day, and form new relationships based on common interest and a dedication to advancing the role of psychology and mental health in addressing one of the world’s most pressing problems.
As a student, and a member of APAGS, UN Psychology Day was an uplifting experience: though the issues we discussed were challenging, seeing the body that represents the world’s nations put psychology at the heart of its discussion of those issues was inspiring, as was the opportunity to meet so many people who are working passionately to address and resolve the migration crisis. Next year, the UN will host its tenth annual psychology day – I hope to see you there!
Samira Paul is completing her second year as a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy, Washington DC. She is the Diversity Chair for the District of Columbia’s Psychological Association, and the Advocacy Chair for the Maryland Psychological Association Graduate Students.