For World Refugee Day 2022, we spoke with Afona Chernet, a post-doctoral research fellow at Swiss TPH, about his experience in researching migrant and refugee health in Switzerland.
Hi Afona, thanks for joining us today! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a post-doctoral research fellow from Eritrea. I attained my degree in Neuroscience from Hokkaido University in Japan and did my PhD in Epidemiology at Swiss TPH. Since then, I am working at Swiss TPH in the area of migrant and refugee health. We are studying the spectrum of infectious diseases and mental health in Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees in Switzerland.
What is the importance of researching migrant and refugee health?
Global mobility is likely to increase substantially in the near future. Refugees, displaced people and migrant populations are a particularly vulnerable population group. They face major obstacles in accessing healthcare services, despite frequently suffering of physical and mental health problems. Getting timely treatment is often complicated by issues relating to stigma, language, financial and legal difficulties. These obstacles affect all stages in the migration process – at origin, in transit, at the destination or on eventual return to their home country.
"We should not forget, however, that migrant populations have the same right to accessible healthcare as anyone else."
In other words: Access to healthcare is a huge additional challenge for people forced to flee their homes. We should not forget, however, that migrant populations have the same right to accessible healthcare as anyone else. Through my work, I can contribute to the health and safety of people, particularly Eritrean asylum seekers and refugees, in Switzerland.
Tell us about your work on refugee health in Switzerland.
I am working in a project called NIIDS (Novel integrated infectious diseases diagnosis and surveillance system), where we focus on the health of Eritrean and Somalian refugees and the healthcare access and challenges in Switzerland. The study encompasses different areas of health; we screen for infectious diseases, assess non-communicable diseases, including mental health risk factors, and address sexual and reproductive health.
For example, our research showed that almost half of the refugees suffer from schistosomiasis. The parasitic worm infection is transmitted by snail larvae in freshwaters – water that the refugees come into contact with in their home country or on their journey – and can cause a range of symptoms from abdominal pain to poor cognitive development. However, many refugees do not realize that they are infected. Early detection allows for faster treatment and better disease control.
What is like working with refugees in Switzerland?
The prime challenge in migration health or working with migrants is the question of how to reach them. Forced migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, manipulated or influenced by their direct and indirect experiences, are a very vulnerable part of the population. Hence, building trust, a key factor to convince them about the importance of early testing, screening, and diagnosing, is crucial for the success of migration health projects. For this, maintaining a close relationship and extending network is a means to reach out and approach this vulnerable population.
"Building trust, a key factor to convince them about the importance of early testing, screening, and diagnosing, is crucial for the success of migration health projects."
Working with refugees is also very inspiring. I am moved by their daunting migration journeys. When dealing with their stories and its impact on their health, particularly their mental health, the strength and resilience of each person becomes evident.
What sparked your interest in refugee health?
I myself am one among the tens of thousands of Eritrean migrants and refugees hosted and living in Switzerland. As Switzerland is one of the most attractive destinations for migrants and refugees, it hosts a great diversity of immigrants from around the globe. Due to my personal story and attachment to my compatriots, I focus on the health of refugees from Eritrea.
Overall, we want to improve health care for refugees in Switzerland. One way to do that is by improving health screening of migrant populations upon their arrival. We also aim to facilitate the work of family doctors as they frequently come into contact with refugees in Switzerland. Moreover, migrant and refugee health is a topic increasingly important for healthcare professionals of all levels not only in Switzerland, but around the world. Thus, I am eager to share my knowledge with people in the field of migration in the upcoming Swiss TPH course ‘Migration and Health for People on the Move’.