Substance Abuse Among RefugeesRecent studies show that poverty and substance abuse have a strong correlation. Research from 2021 has found that people who experienced poverty during childhood are more likely to develop drug use disorders later in life. The mental health disorders, low self-esteem, stress, hopelessness and lack of access to healthcare that come with poverty also increase the risk of substance abuse.

Refugees and other immigrants are at higher risk for substance abuse due to the poverty they experience, regardless of the region they come from. More than 100 million people worldwide are displaced and 85% live in developing host countries that already struggle with high poverty rates. This reality puts refugees, especially the young, at a greater risk of developing substance use disorders.

Poverty as a Risk Factor

Poverty is one of the greatest risk factors for substance use and addiction. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), poverty and belonging to a disadvantaged community make young people more vulnerable to substance abuse and mental health issues. 

Researcher and UNODC adviser Maria Melchior confirms that people’s development of substance use issues and mental health disorders usually begins during childhood, and those from less advantaged backgrounds are at a higher risk. These individuals often struggle with substance use issues throughout parenthood, negatively affecting their children and causing them to develop similar habits.

Substance Use Prevalence

Studies have revealed elevated levels of substance abuse rates among refugees, given the high rates of poverty in refugee groups. A 2021 study on refugee youths in Serbia found that among the respondents, over a quarter regularly smoked tobacco, 13% consumed alcohol and many others tried marijuana, LSD, various forms of cocaine and other substances. The study also found that nearly half of the respondents demonstrated significant difficulties in peer relations and about 30% demonstrated emotional distress and issues of conduct. 

High rates of substance use and addiction can be found among refugees in developed countries as well. Due in large part to abuse, trauma and mental health challenges, many refugees cope by turning to alcohol and/or illicit drugs. For example, in the United States, more than one-third of Burmese refugees were found to have consumed alcohol in hazardous amounts, with similarly high rates among Ugandan and Nepalese male refugees as well.

Similar issues persist in Germany, a country that leads all developed countries in the number of refugees hosted. A study on refugees in Germany found that living conditions for refugees generally were dominant in refugees’ substance use habits and the availability of certain drugs. The data conveys the impression that most refugees who misuse substances live in refugee shelters. Along with living conditions, social relations with peers and families were also identified as important factors.

Prevention and Treatment

Experts have hope for potential solutions to substance abuse among refugee communities. A 2018 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggests that community-based, peer-led programs and training healthcare workers in substance use treatment may be effective in low-resource and refugee settings. While more research is needed, similar approaches have proven to be successful in fighting diseases like HIV.

One successful program is Strong Families, which was launched in 2010 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The program aims to support caregivers in becoming better parents and strengthen positive family interactions. It helps families develop communication strategies around the issue of substance abuse to prevent coercive parenting. This approach was initially implemented in four Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and is now being used in 22 countries.

Some of the results from this program have been very promising. For example, a 2020 study found that a Strong Families pilot program implemented in Afghanistan had a 93.1% retention rate and resulted in a 5% increase in the behavioral, emotional and social issues among enrolled children after several weeks. Parents in the program also demonstrated notable improvements in parenting skills.

Looking Ahead

While poverty and substance abuse demonstrate a strong correlation, there is hope for addressing these challenges, particularly among vulnerable populations such as refugees. Research and programs highlight the importance of early intervention and community-based approaches. Initiatives like the Strong Families program provide support to caregivers, empowering them to become better parents and fostering positive family dynamics. These efforts have shown promising results in improving parenting skills and the well-being of enrolled children. By focusing on prevention and treatment, there is potential to break the cycle of poverty and substance abuse, providing a brighter future for individuals and communities worldwide.

– Adam Cvik
Photo: Flickr