UNHCR calls for more to be done for Syrian refugees with cancer

News Stories, 26 May 2014

© UNHCR/L.Addario
Four-year-old Syrian refugee Zacharia lies dying of a brain tumour as his mother gives him water and his siblings look on with love and concern. He had been receiving treatment in Syria, but in Lebanon his health deteriorated dramatically.

LONDON, United Kingdom, May 26 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency's top medical expert warned, in a study just published by a leading British medical journal, that the number of refugees with cancer is overwhelming health systems in Jordan and Syria.

Paul Spiegel, in the latest edition Sunday of The Lancet Oncology, added that this was forcing UNHCR offices and partners to make agonizing decisions over who does and doesn't receive care. He called for urgent new steps to tackle cancer in humanitarian crises.

"We can treat everyone with measles, but we can't treat everyone with cancer," said Spiegel, a doctor, who documented hundreds of refugees in Jordan and Syria denied cancer treatment due to limited funds.

"We have to turn away cancer patients with poor prognoses because caring for them is too expensive. After losing everything at home, cancer patients face even greater suffering abroad often at a huge emotional and financial cost to their families," he noted.

The Lancet Oncology study which looked at refugees in Jordan and Syria from 2009-2012 said the number of documented refugee cancer cases in the region had risen because there were more refugees overall, and because more people were fleeing middle-income countries like Syria.

Cancer is also a growing issue among refugees from low-income countries, where the focus had traditionally been on infectious diseases and malnutrition.

The most common form of cancer among refugees is breast cancer, accounting for almost a quarter of all applications in Jordan to UNHCR's Exceptional Care Committee, or ECC, which decides whether to fund expensive treatments.

In Jordan for example, the ECC could only approve 246 out of 511 (or 48 per cent) refugee applications for cancer treatment between 2010 and 2012. The main reason for denial was poor prognosis, meaning a patient had little chance of recovery, and the committee decided the limited amount of money was better spent on other patients.

In rare cases, the ECC has to reject even patients with good prognoses, because their treatment is too expensive. Adam Musa Khalifa, a UNHCR doctor who sits on the ECC in Syria, tells of an Iraqi mother of two with a rare form of breast cancer. She had to end her treatment in Iraq due to insecurity, but her therapy was too expensive to continue in Syria. The cost of cancer treatment can be as high as US$21,000 in some cases.

"We face a terrible decision over who to help," said Dr. Khalifa, a co-author of the article. "Some patients have a good prognosis, but the cost of treating them is too high. These decisions affect all of us psychologically."

Government health systems in Syria and Jordan have been overwhelmed, and private facilities are proving insufficient. International organizations have helped to expand facilities and pay for personnel and drugs, but it has not been enough, the Lancet Oncology article warns.

Refugees with cancer often have their treatments interrupted due to insecurity in their home country. In Syria, for example, many hospitals have been destroyed or closed, and physicians have fled.

"The Lancet paper leaves no doubt that cancer is an important health problem amongst refugees," said Dr. Spiegel. "We must find better ways, with host countries, to fund prevention and treatment."

New approaches could include mobile and online information campaigns focusing on preventative health, and new financing models such as crowd-funding and potentially health insurance. Any measures will need to include health-care systems in the asylum countries as a whole, to avoid inequality between host communities and refugees.

To read the report, go to http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(14)70067-1/abstract

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

Posted on 20 February 2007

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

The UN refugee agency has launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its work helping hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The new appeal concludes that unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region. The appeal notes that the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR has warned that the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

The US$60 million will cover UNHCR's protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non-Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

Posted on 10 January 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Responding to Syria's Tragedy Play video

Responding to Syria's Tragedy

As Syria's war heads towards a fifth year, the United Nations and partners today launched a major new humanitarian and development appeal, requesting over US$8.4 billion in funds to help nearly 18 million people in Syria and across the region in 2015
Celebrating 10 years of refugee resettlementPlay video

Celebrating 10 years of refugee resettlement

Jordan: Camp Life From a Child's ViewpointPlay video

Jordan: Camp Life From a Child's Viewpoint

A UNHCR photographic project, "Do You See What I See," lets young refugees in Jordan's Za'atari camp share their world and thoughts with others.